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September 2022

Field Notes: LE 18, Documenta 15

Jamila Moroder

Text and title of LE 18 proposal designed by Montasser Drissi at entrance of the indoor space. Carpet made out of propylene bags by artist Imane Zoubai for her performance “Is our bread ready yet.” Courtesy of LE 18.

LE 18, “A Door to the Sky or a Plea for Rain,” WH22, Kassel, June 18–September 25, 2022. Photo: Jamila Moroder.

LE 18 indoor space where people are invited to sit, relax, lay down, take time to read a book from Moroccan independent publishers, or watch a movie from a selection of a decolonial cinema from North Africa. Courtesy of LE 18.

Audience taking part in the “Undoing Documenta” talks by LE 18 for the opening week at the LE 18 outdoor space. Courtesy of LE 18.

A poetic video by Soumeya Ait Ahmad and Nadir Bouhmouch presenting a moment of transformation at LE 18 where the building was renovated. Courtesy of LE 18.

Set up at the indoor space, a few minutes before the beginning of a public talk. Courtesy of LE 18.

“Thinking Through Infrastructure: Water, Hydraulics, and French Colonialism in Morocco” by Sara Frikech in the frame of the Qanat Collective proposal. Courtesy of LE 18.

LE 18, “A Door to the Sky or a Plea for Rain,” WH22, Kassel, June 18–September 25, 2022. Photo: Jamila Moroder.

LE 18, “A Door to the Sky or a Plea for Rain,” WH22, Kassel, June 18–September 25, 2022. Photo: Jamila Moroder.

Chergui, yearly thematic publication by LE 18. The last release, “Food Issues,” was produced in the frame of Documenta 15. Courtesy of LE 18.

“What is the practice of continuing to be on this de-colonial mindset or not giving into the artworld pressure while translating our environment and practices within a stage like documenta?,” asks Andrés Villalobos in a poster of “harvests” at the entrance to Documenta 15’s Werner-Hilpert Strasse 22 (WH22) venue. [1]1
Andrés Villalobos is a member of the Arts Collaboratory School hosting team and a “harvester” at Documenta 15. In the Documenta 15 glossary, “harvests” are “artistic recordings of discussions and meetings.” See .
Villalobos’s way of posing this question reflects lumbung members’ concerns about the loss of meaning in “translation” and a clear distrust of Documenta as a state- and corporate-sponsored German institution. [2]2
See .
Does the translation of non-institutionalized practices from the so-called Global South into an institutional space of the Global North amount to an act of betrayal? What can even be translated from specific contexts in the Global South into an exhibition with a forty-two-million-euro budget that is “almost a state affair” in Germany, to quote ruangrupa members Reza Afisina and Farid Rakun? [3]3
See .

How can the animators of a cultural project space like LE 18, which responded to the need to create a structure for young artists, researchers, and students to come together and dialogue in Marrakech, relocate its collective learning platform to Kassel? The rooms of the riad at 18, Derb el Ferrane, a side street in the Marrakech medina that LE 18 calls home, are organized around a courtyard that is open to the sky, an architectonic metaphor for the openness that LE 18 aspires to. There, different collectives engage their work with themes ranging from communal gardening and the politics and poetics of water to Moroccan cinema and the valorization of oral traditions. Addressing LE 18’s horizontal and collaborative approach to research, creation, and encounter, Laila Hida, its founding director, considers an operative principle the question of how to articulate a place so that things can emerge. [4]4
Laila Hida, conversation with the author, August 2022.

LE 18 tribe: team members, guests, and friends posing with the restitution set up of “Wasteland” workshop at the outdoor space of LE 18. Courtesy of LE 18.

Due to the exhausting negotiations with Documenta’s rigid bureaucratic apparatus, the precarious conditions of cultural work, and the difficulty of collectively agreeing on proposals, LE 18, which is not a collective itself, ultimately chose not to provide finished artworks for the opening of the exhibition in Kassel. In line with the nongkrong spirit of this year’s edition, which privileges “hanging out” over the individual consumption of curated presentations, LE 18 converted a somber basement-like space at WH22 into a “relief center” consisting of a living room with furniture gathered from around Kassel, numerous books and art journals displayed on desks, and a selection of Moroccan films from the 1970s to 1990s that are shown in a small viewing room. LE 18’s institutional exhaustion is palpable in its making public “leftovers”—material traces from past cultural productions connected to the space and documentation related to preparations for the quinquennial—that are intended to lay bare the process that led to this moment of rupture and LE 18’s desire to “undo” Documenta. [5]5
The term “leftover” is from LE 18’s curatorial statement: “The exhibition presents a set of traces produced in our space over the years, imagined as ‘leftover’ artworks which, while opening a door to the sky, make up for the harvest failures caused by our lack of rain.” LE 18, curatorial statement, “A Door to the Sky—or a Plea for Rain and Visas,” WH22, Kassel, June 18–September 25, 2022.
The presentation is less a refusal or a non-exhibition than an expression of the need to question the prevailing definitions of exhibition spaces and practices, which are no longer sustainable. The range of various public programs initiated by LE 18—performances, conversations, cooking sessions—puts the emphasis on interpersonal exchanges outside the conventional social and physical spaces of exhibiting.

The “pleas for rain and visas” articulated in LE 18’s curatorial statement for “A Door to the Sky—or a Plea for Rain” underlines the deep uncertainty among some LE 18 members of even being permitted to travel to Documenta due to lengthy visa application processes that sometimes resulted in rejection. [6]6
Ibid.
While “collectives are often born out of necessity” in response “to a political and social alienation bred from the breakup of communities under the mechanisms of authoritarianism,” as Skye Arundhati Thomas writes, the collectivity of artists from the Global South within the European Union often remains hindered in its realization by the same exploitative neocolonial structures that Documenta 15 seeks to denounce. [7]7
See .
Journalist and film critic Ahmed Boughaba has drawn an insightful parallel between the fall of the Berlin Wall—the reunification of Western and Eastern Europe—and the near-simultaneous establishment of the Schengen visa in 1990, which he perceives as an even higher wall that denies citizens from the Global South their fundamental right to freedom of movement in the European Union. [8]8
Ahmed Boughaba, conversation with the author, August 2022
The circumstances experienced by some members of LE 18, who were invited to Kassel to participate in Documenta 15, begs the questions of who exactly can access the quinquennial and for whom this effort of translation is ultimately intended.

LE 18, “A Door to the Sky or a Plea for Rain,” WH22, Kassel, June 18–September 25, 2022. Photo: Jamila Moroder.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Documenta’s main audience is German, white, and middle class. “Are we now in Kenya?”, “Is this (fill in non-European nation)?” were only some of the comments from visitors to the exhibition that led an exhausted sobat (mediator) to change their approach to communicating Documenta 15. This dangerous conflation of artworks and practices of individual artists and collectives with entire nations denies not only the artists’ status as artists but also their fundamental individualities, obfuscating the particularities of their contexts through an exoticizing gaze. Paradoxically, it is precisely those artists and organizations that occupy marginal and precarious positions and mostly sustain themselves with funding from the Global North due to a lack of nationally funded cultural structures that are regularly mistaken as national representatives and cultural ambassadors once they are outside their home countries, as is the case of LE 18.

LE 18’s decision to present alongside the “leftovers” books on Moroccan history and culture that are not directly linked to the space’s practices except through being Moroccan seems designed to counteract the lack of knowledge among visitors to Kassel of Morocco’s sociocultural context. Indirectly encouraging an anthropological or ethnographic approach to art and cultural work by artists and collectives from the Global South, and especially from the African continent, is ultimately counterproductive to Documenta 15’s decolonial position. As Sidney Littlefield Kasfir writes, “In African art history, the dominant paradigm has derived not from art history itself, but from anthropology […].” [9]9
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, “One Tribe, One Style? Paradigms in the Historiography of African Art,” History in Africa 11 (1984): 163–93.
Making available texts on Morocco’s history and culture written in French so that European visitors might “comprehend” LE 18’s own work suggests the anthropological gaze can indeed turn inward. At the same time, LE 18’s presentation of “leftovers” can be understood as a way of resisting definition by the Other and thus illustrates the tensions between cultural self-affirmation, revalorization, and the constant danger of exoticization.

Due to the apparent difficulty many local visitors and critics from the Global North experienced in making sense of Documenta 15’s curatorial proposals, the most fruitful exchanges have arguably taken place among the participating collectives. Interestingly, this has turned Kassel, a production site and headquarters for German armaments companies, into a site for developing South–South networks. It must also be said that instead of hospitality, many Moroccan artists in Kassel have experienced everyday forms of direct and indirect hostility for speaking too loudly in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), for laughing, for being too physically close. [10]10
See .

Thomas Schütte, Die Fremden (The Strangers), 1992. Ceramic, glazed, various sizes, originally installed at Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, for Documenta 9. Photo: Jamila Moroder.

A violent encounter of another kind was registered by M’barek Bouhchichi, an artist invited to take part in LE 18’s initial exhibition whose work also revolves around the (in)visibility of the Black body [11]11
See .
: that of a stereotypical Mammy-like Black female figure in a submissive position amid Thomas Schütte’s sculptural installation Die Fremden (The Strangers), which was first exhibited at Documenta 9. [12]12
See .
Installed on a portico overlooking Friedrichsplatz—where Taring Padi’s People’s Justice was exhibited and dismantled—its lack of public attention raises questions about the indifference to racist images of Black people in public space (no matter the artist’s original intention) that equally immediately demand critical evaluation and demonstrates the urgent need in Germany not to separate the entangled histories of racism and antisemitism, as Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman has written. [13]13
See .
Documenta as an institution is inextricably linked to German politics, and what this edition has clearly demonstrated is that any dialogue within this framework has failed, relentlessly fortifying the fronts between Documenta’s supervisory board and shareholders and ruangrupa, lumbung members, and contributing artists. [14]14
See .
Seemingly a real transformation of the institution is required to reposition future exhibitions as multidirectional and essential acts of mutual dialogue, care, and hospitality. It is thus worth keeping in mind, as artist and Documenta 14 Bode Prize winner Olu Oguibe has said, that “each one of us is bound to the stranger.” [15]15
See .

Jamila Moroder is a researcher intrigued by the interconnectedness of art, clothing, colors, and politics. Since 2021, she has been part of a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) program between students, researchers, and artists from Morocco and Germany. She holds an MA in art history in a global context with focus on Africa from the Freie Universität Berlin.

 

 

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