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August 2022

Field Notes: Asia Art Archive, The Black Archives, and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, Documenta 15

Zach Ngin

Asia Art Archive and The Black Archives. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

The Black Archives, “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity,” 2022. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Works by Jyoti Bhatt. Installation view, Asia Art Archive, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Toys designed by K. G. Subramanyan for the Fine Arts Fair, ca.1960–80. Installation view, Asia Art Archive, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

The Black Archives, “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity,” 2022. Detail view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

The Black Archives, “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity,” 2022. Detail view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Is a reading room in a ticketed exhibition a genuine invitation to read or more a spectacle of information? With so much to see in any given show—art and, increasingly, reams of archival materials—why pick up Staying with the Trouble or The Wretched of the Earth? Documenta 15 abounds with books and documents but mostly, thankfully, sidesteps the problem of texts for texts’ sake. There’s little of the usual mishmash of exhibition catalogs and trendy theory, which, for those interested, remains available in the ruruHaus bookshop. Instead, emerging from geographically diverse contexts, archival practice takes many forms within the show: there’s a digital archive of Cold War-era publications from the Arab world, a diasporic Vietnamese seed library, an archive of popular painting from the Congolese city of Lubumbashi, a collection of photographs gathered along with inhabitants of a Palestinian refugee camp, and so on. [1]1
I refer here to the presentations of Fehras Publishing Practices at Hafenstraße 76, Nhà Sàn Collective at WH22, Centre d'art Waza at the Fridericianum, and yasmine eid-sabbagh at Hafenstraße 76.
The exhibition discourages general pronouncements about the ontology of “the archive” or capital-H history. Rather, it invites careful consideration of how and why groups of people come together to collect things and make them available to others.

The densest concentration of archival practice is a room shared by three collectives on the first floor of the Fridericianum. Asia Art Archive (AAA), based in Hong Kong, presents three historical displays drawn primarily from its holdings, showing how collective practice has shaped the recent art history of continent. The first presents a network of performance art festivals through ephemera and video documentation by historian Ray Langenbach and artist Lee Wen. Langenbach also shows footage of protestors in the streets of Bangkok and voters celebrating the Indonesian legislative election of 1999, suggesting a continuity between the collective aims of performance artists and the movement of everyday people to shape the political history of the 1990s. The second consists of artists connected to the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts who studied and taught vernacular art practices in postindependence India; here, AAA presents a lively selection of Jyoti Bhatt’s floor paintings, Nilima Sheikh’s hand-cut stencils, and K.G. Subramanyan’s toys and children’s books. Finally, there is Womanifesto, a feminist collective that hosted workshops and residencies at a farm in rural Thailand in the 2000s. Along with printed material, the artworks on view index the collaborative spirit of the workshop: On-Anong Glinsiri shows sedge mats that incorporate printed portraits of fellow workshop participants, and Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s fabric sculpture records the memories of students who visited the farm. Across these three displays, collectivity is not only a historical fact but also a mode of attention that cuts against the monographic bias of art history.

On-Anong Glinsiri, Togetherness & The Way We Were: Phaptawan, 2008. Installation view, Asia Art Archive, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

The Black Archives presents histories of Black experience and resistance in the Netherlands and beyond. For Documenta, it has excerpted and augmented a few recent exhibitions from its home in Amsterdam. Vitrines present publications and documents related to the overlooked Black revolutionaries Hermina and Otto Huiswoud, who helped found the Communist Party USA and later led Vereniging Ons Suriname (VOS), the oldest Surinamese association in the Netherlands. The Black Archives is now housed within VOS and discovered the couple’s story after moving its headquarters. Another display traces the life of Anton de Kom and his anticolonial text We Slaves of Suriname (1934): two highlights are a German translation from the 1930s banned by the Nazis and a pirated copy produced by Surinamese student activists in 1970s. “Facing Blackness,” another project by The Black Archives, addresses racist representations of Black people in Dutch commercial products and Christmas traditions. Within these displays, the most degrading images and slurs are obscured with slips of paper, reflecting an intention to address these representations without reinscribing their violence. The collective has also replicated a portion of its library, which is adorned with cardboard protest signs.

The Black Archives, “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity,” 2022. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

The final collective in the room is Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie [Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria], which was founded in 2019 amid the Hirak protest movement. The project collects documents and testimonies of the Algerian women’s movement since 1962. For its display at Documenta, the archive has focused on the period between 1988 and 1993, when Algeria experienced a brief democratic opening. It presents photographs and footage of feminist demonstrations, laminated documents laid out on a table, and interviews with multiple generations of activists. The installation’s most poetic touch is a video projected on the floor, titled Gestes d’archives [Archival Gestures] (2022), in which a set of hands arranges archival materials on a table and takes notes as the back of a woman’s head sometimes moves into view. It’s a beautiful depiction of the vital and delicate labor of locating history in the present. This sentiment echoes in a nearby video interview with Amel Hadjadj, a feminist organizer active in the Hirak, who speaks about how the history of Algerian feminism has informed her own activism. “For me, maybe there was a break somewhere,” she concludes. “But looking at the archives there is continuity.”

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, Gestes d’archives, 2022. Video, 9 minutes 44 seconds, looped, directed by Sofiane Zouggar and Saadia Gacem. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

The projects do not elevate the archival materials to the status of art nor do they fetishize the rare or original document: the presented materials are often reproductions, excerpts or echoes of a life lived elsewhere. Notably, all three collectives emphasize sharing what they have, digitally and materially—an ethic of lumbung that university and state archives could learn from. But at the same time, I sensed an uncertainty about how these practices travel across continents, and Documenta 15’s focus on longstanding collective projects shifts its orientation decidedly away from the temporary visitor in Kassel. Some emphasize how far they are from home: LE 18 describes its library of Moroccan publications, for example, as “a tiny translation of a broader collection of books hosted at LE 18 in Marrakech,” a mere “hint into some of the publishing practices that have emerged from our ecosystem.” For these community-oriented archives, the real and unproblematic site of community is generally elsewhere, and the materializations of their work in Kassel are willfully partial and specific in scope. They resist totalizing narratives of their home countries and struggles. At their best, rather than essentializing their communities, these archives show how “community” itself is a product of both contingent events and willful acts of connection.

The rhetoric of collectivity and resource-sharing should not obscure the divergent material contexts that produced these projects: Asia Art Archive, a nonprofit organization with over three dozen staff members, occupies vastly different terrain from Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, a project that is barely three years old and without a website. But the provocation of Documenta 15, both as an exhibition and as a vehicle for reappropriating funding structures and working methods, is precisely its attempt to reckon with the asymmetries and distances that constitute the postcolonial world. The ultimate success of this attempt—if its acts of redistribution were successful, if the structures were sustainable, if the participants made enduring connections, and so on—won’t be clear until after the critics have departed and the exhibition has closed, if even then. But the archival practices in the show remind us that this is hardly a first attempt: if only we look, there are everywhere attempts to enact collectivity across distances. Documenta 15 offers itself as a means of gathering and amplifying these. It places itself not within the lineage of previous Documentas but rather that of previous attempts to forge—however messily or provisionally—a common postcolonial culture.

For at least two decades, contemporary artists have appropriated, détourned, interrogated, and otherwise engaged archival structures. Too often, art in this genre constructs “the archive” as a monolith, an abstract site of capture and erasure. But as Okwui Enwezor has written, “it is also within the archive that acts of remembering and regeneration occur, where a suture between the past and present is performed, in the indeterminate zone between event and image, document and monument.” [2]2
Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008), 39.
The community-oriented archives on view in Documenta 15 both enact and thematize this labor of remembering. To borrow Hal Foster’s terminology, they understand themselves primarily as construction sites rather than excavation sites. [3]3
Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Autumn 2004): 22.
Their conception of the past does not emphasize the melancholic, traumatic, or unknowable. History is instead a site of companionship for struggles to live and create in the present. In other words, and echoing ruangrupa’s curatorial framework, these collectives ask if the archive might be a place to “Make friends not art!” [4]4
ruangrupa and Artistic Team, Documenta Fifteen Handbook (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2022), 9.

Zach Ngin is an art worker, writer, and student from San Francisco. They have worked at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and MIT Press. They study Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and are currently working on a thesis about the prison paintings of Martin Wong.

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