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August 2022

Field Notes: MADEYOULOOK, Documenta 15

Sindi-Leigh McBride

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo, 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo, 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Hotel Hessenland, Kassel. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo, 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Selected by the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, fourteen collectives comprised Documenta 15’s initial list of lumbung members. [1]1
After Okwui Enwezor, curator of Documenta 11 in 2002, ruangrupa is only the second non-European director in Documenta’s seventy-year history.
These collectives in turn invited seventy-two more individual and collective artists to participate, a clear demonstration of ruangrupa’s organizing principle of communal sharing. The success of this model is irrefutable. The exhibition offers an abundance of imaginative artworks, activities, and archives, replete with insights into different forms and practices of producing, building, and maintaining community. That said, it is a lot. Nobody knows exactly how many artworks are spread across more than thirty venues. Some projects are not exhibited but experienced as roving performances or food-sharing. Some venues feature dozens of artists, and some artists show at more than one venue. A kind of sensory overload characterizes Documenta 15, but one presentation offers a reprieve: the quietly brilliant Mafolofolo: place of recovery by the South African collective MADEYOULOOK.

Though photographs of the installation feature in quite a few reviews of Documenta 15, there has been little writing on Mafolofolo: place of recovery or MADEYOULOOK itself. [2]2
See ; ; .
This is not due to the work or the collective behind it but rather to the sheer scale of the exhibition, and reviews have tended toward general impressions informed by ruangrupa’s lumbung model. MADEYOULOOK is a Johannesburg-based interdisciplinary collaboration between artists Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho. Moiloa and Mokgotho began working together in 2009 while studying fine arts at Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg, having bonded over a commitment to relational aesthetics that continues to permeate their practice. Their works are concerned with everyday Black practices that have either been historically overlooked or deemed inconsequential and encourage “a re-observation of, and de-familiarization with, the everyday of urban South African life that is significantly directed towards a practice of socialities and relationalities outside of the gallery space.” [3]3
See .
This means that their intertextual installations, discursive programs, publishing, and exhibitions are often grounded in long-term engagement with research partners. Previous projects have engaged with subjects such as models of historical memorialization and oral traditions, Black love and urban public space, forms and hierarchies of knowledge creation and dissemination, and the socialities of land and relationships with plant life. Their work at Documenta 15 expands on these concerns.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

Mafolofolo: place of recovery is the only work shown at Hotel Hessenland, designed in the 1950s by Paul Bode, brother of Documenta’s founder Arnold Bode. Built on a bombed-out lot during Kassel’s post-World War II reconstruction, the hotel was vacant for about a year before Documenta 15 brought it back to life as a guesthouse for artists. The facade is unassuming, forgettable even, but it conceals an excellently persevered mid-century modern interior featuring a spiral staircase in an elegant lobby. MADEYOULOOK’s installation is in the hotel’s large ballroom, unused since the 1990s. A large wall text rests on a beveled silver frame, a relic from the hotel’s former glory, and the sole architectural detail of the installation in keeping with the venue’s gaudy glamour. A black curtain surrounds Mafolofolo: place of recovery and passing through it from the ballroom is like stepping into a precolonial map turned futuristic through an acute awareness of environment, spiritual security, and solidarity.

The names mapped onto the floor are from the South African province of Mpumalanga, specifically from a region where, kilometer after kilometer, sections of stone walls traverse the natural topography in linked, mystifying mazes. These are the ancient Bokoni ruins, a remarkable archaeological and historical phenomenon that effectively memorializes the communities that lived in Bokoni along the Mpumalanga Escarpment and that left behind the most prominent footprint on the landscape of any precolonial society in South Africa. [4]4
Peter Delius, Tim Maggs, and Maria Schoeman, “Bokoni: Old Structures, New Paradigms? Rethinking Pre-colonial Society from the Perspective of the Stone-Walled Sites in Mpumalanga,” Journal of Southern African Studies 38, no. 2 (June 2012): 399.
Approximating, in miniature, the sensation of looking at the Bokoni structures from above, MADEYOULOOK’s installation revives the memory of the Bokoni people and, in emphasizing spatiality—how we manage space, and how space manages us—makes palpable the long durée of land dispossession in South Africa. But the marvel of the installation is its expansive focus not only on disconnection and displacement during colonialism and apartheid but also on ideas of return and repair through working the land. The Bokoni people were repeatedly and traumatically removed from their land but found ways of returning and reclaiming it through labor, whether in revitalizing depleted soil or contending with the contemporary politics of land reform. MADEYOULOOK invites rethinking about conventional imaginaries of land, not just as a speculative undertaking by mystical precolonial peoples but as living history. The collective’s labor is concerned with real places of real significance and centered around the experiences of real people. One of sites included in the research that informed Mafolofolo: place of recovery, for instance, is Boomplaats Farm, one of the first South African farms to be expropriated from white settlers and returned to the original Black owners.

MADEYOULOOK’s floor installation is painted black and comprised of two parts: plywood structures that resemble the contour lines of a topographic map and an actual map of the ruins, painted onto the floor. The structures encourage both rest and reflection, and watching visitors enter the space, I noticed that everyone immediately sat down in silence. The installation’s dim lighting forces bodies to bend down to the floor to pore over the etchings on the surface of the plywood structures. The compelling combination of text and drawings etched onto the structure recalls the rock engravings found around the Bokoni ruins, which often depict circular homesteads linked by interconnecting roads. The circularity of the Bokoni ruins is echoed in MADEYOULOOK’s interest in the entanglements between time, space, and placemaking. In the ongoing work, Ejaradini, MADEYOULOOK grapples with South Africa’s history of colonial gardening—particularly how gardening has been reimagined by Black South Africans—to model onto the cultural inheritance of South African museums. The ongoing project is concerned with questions about how to live in the postcolony, how to dedicate oneself to decolonial processes, and how to learn from existing practices and models from ordinary Black life.

MADEYOULOOK, Mafolofolo (detail), 2022. Installation view, Documenta 15, Hotel Hessenland, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Sindi-Leigh McBride.

Complementing the floor installation’s textuality and visuality, Mafolofolo’s accompanying sound installation blends aesthetics with affect. The sound work is a twenty-minute compilation of popular African resistance songs, particularly regarding the liberation of the land, and is seamlessly layered with recordings from conversations between Moiloa and Joseph Mothupi, a guide in the Bokoni region and a research interlocutor with whom the collective has worked for over seven years. The recordings weren’t made for the installation, but Moiloa and Mokgotho explained that it was important to situate themselves in the installation, to account for their position as artists engaging in research that aims to be politically responsible to both the communities and environments that they work in and with. The songs, however, were recorded in South Africa and edited and arranged on site at the Hotel Hessenland, a sign of MADEYOULOOK’s extended collaboration in Kassel, which included Ato Moiloa, Joao Orecchia, Modise Sekgothe, Nozuko Mapoma, Robyn Cook, and Vallery Groenewald in the production of the soundscape and floor installation.

Woven into this soundscape is audio of cicadas, human imitations of birdsong, and the sound of walking. Again, watching visitors, I noticed some were moved to tears and seemingly confused as to why. As an acoustic space, Mafolofolo: place of recovery, resonates with historical violence deeply entrenched in the land but also offers a multisensory response to that past, one that propagates visions of care and repair. It does not shy away from the enduring, existential misery of settler-colonial-apartheid in South Africa, and in grappling with how this violent history is coded into the land, Mafolofolo: place of recovery extends a universal invitation to think relationally about the historical and enduring value of land and landedness. MADEYOULOOK have terraformed time and space in the work, opening a sanctuary from the charged politics surrounding Documenta 15 and the spiritually heavy labor of place-making.

Sindi-Leigh McBride is a writer from Johannesburg and a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel. Her research looks at the politics and poetics of climate change in South Africa and Nigeria. She is currently working with the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa’s statutory research agency, to produce a virtual museum that investigates structural barriers to livelihood generation for young people in Africa. Previously, she participated in a fellowship at the School of Commons, Zurich University of Arts and has contributed research articles, arts writing, and short stories to peer-reviewed journals and art magazines.

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