When I received an invitation from the editors of Mezosfera to write a text about an artwork from this year’s Kassel documenta, I took it as an opportunity to, together with other writers of the magazine, actively and productively disagree with the policy of overshadowing and suppressing the content of the exhibition with alleged political affairs that literally blew away the “Third World” from the exhibition stage and put Europe back in the center.
The choice of the curators, the concept and the project, made five years ago by the Advisory Board of this important international exhibition, signaled the intersection of documenta with the current trends of decolonization of the Western art epistemology, as well as the academic currents of postcolonial theory. The curatorial approach to the exhibition was exactly one characteristic and peculiar narrativization of the implied programmatic expectations. The concept of lumbung assumed a structural intervention in the Western ocular-centric discourse, the demand that knowledge should be visible and comprehensible, in a certain way perceptible and graspable.
However, criticisms of the exhibition for alleged anti-Semitism were carried out precisely on the ground of a perverted ocularcentrism, of an “evil gaze” that produces meanings from decontextualized visual symbols – the view that equates criticism of the militarism and violence of the Jewish state with anti-Semitism of WWII and shifs the conversation to European and German political ground. What else is this sensationalist propaganda in the midst of the post-colonial turn of contemporary art if not the narcissistic return of Europe to the main stage previously reserved for the artistic performance of the Global South.
I managed to set aside only three days for visiting Kassel’s documenta. The last year was stormy and productive, with a lot of work, like every other freelance year. Such a visit can be self-ironically titled as “curatorial X-Ray of an exhibition” – the term that international curators use as a joke – but which, regardless of the informed (self-) criticism over the hasty consumption of an experience, also shows a kind of special respect for the medium of the exhibition. Certainly, numerous interpretations and a great amount of information can be reached with a quick click, without physical involvement. It means to spend some time in the exhibition or with the exhibition, to be, even for a short period of time, a witness and participant of its atmosphere and spatial visualization. Each exhibition requires a certain amount of time if one wants to look at it in detail, from the beginning to the end. Viewing an exhibition is always an experience that implies a pre-text.
Now, the question of “viewing an exhibition”? How, if documenta 15, under the direction of Runagrupa, brings a presentation format that does not fall under the standard procedure of viewing exhibited artworks, if the exhibits cannot be captured by sight and perceptive mechanisms of knowledge production. How shall we watch an exhibition that is not to be taken in by the sensorial action of to see, but requires one to be with.
Visiting the exhibition, if its main concept is lumbung, means agreeing in advance to the impossibility of viewing and observing. Whoever does not participate in lumbung, in essence, cannot experience and fully understand d15. I went to Kassel making a kind of protest statement of seeing what cannot be seen precisely because so little was heard about the exhibition and the artworks. The exhibition was suppressed, marred by spectacles and scandals, darkened, silenced. I thought about how the insight or comprehensive view is not necessary to establish some neuralgic points of connection. And my encounter with the exhibition resulted in what I named a long-lasting fragmentary association. I was guided by the logic that it is instructive to search for spots of connection with d15, while agreeing to a certain opacity, and more generally to the right to opacity, as explained by Eduard Glissant1 in his critique of the hegemonic modes of knowing and understanding.
I immediately noticed Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie – the large, wall-sized images of women in protest that embraced the installation of the archive, creating the atmosphere of contemplative enclosure but also of openness and connection to the vast project space of the exhibition. It reminded me to my own preoccupations – one always sees first the images that are already in her head. I travelled from Kassel to Ljubljana to the installation of the exhibition-research On Collectivizing: Narratives About Yugoslav Avantgarde Art Collectives and Examples of Feminist Interventions 2, presented in Moderna Galerija. The project was built on similar visual premises and affects and consisted of several self-initiated archives. 3
The Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie was instigated amidst the Algerian popular uprising of 1919 (the hirak) and was built over time by a collective of women archivists, anthropologists, documentary photographers and feminist activists: Saadia Gacem, Awel Haouati and Lydia Saïdi. As an independent archive of Algerian feminist collectives and associations, the project contains material traces necessary for an analysis and critique of women’s mobilizations for emancipation throughout the history of contemporary Algeria, from the moment of gaining independence in 1962 until today. Such mass-scale activism, characteristic for the time of the archive, was closed off in 1992. Algeria’s military staged a coup that triggered the Algerian Black Decade. The feminist movements were forced back underground, where they would remain for decades, partly in response to the violence against women by the Islamist far-right. The authors-archivists-activists emphasize that their “aim is to introduce a history that has long been marginalized and to make available little-known and inaccessible resources”.4
Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie arises on the wave of artistic and academic interests, which were often silenced in the official historical archives modeled on the colonial view and European white (male) supremacy. Such archives look like sanitized spaces – one has to go in wearing gloves, everything is kept in boxes, and nothing can be brought inside or taken away. The radio podcast Making Feminist History Visible,5 facilitated by Bec Wonders and hosting the initiators of the Archives des lutes, discusses different methods and strategies of feminist archiving with regards to huge diversity of women’s lived experiences and realities. Wonders locates an uptake of feminist archival intervention in the 1990s, claiming that it was essential in the process of knowledge production and understanding the present situation of women longitudinally: “We are allowed to become contemporaries and collaborators with the women who struggled before us and to create intergenerational bridges and coalitions with our histories.”6
Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie is a type of intervention that immediately reminded me of the Archive of Antifascist Front of Women, which was gathered and exhibited by the organization Crvena (Red) in Sarajevo.7 Both archives contain material on women’s struggles that were often part of broader political movements, but had an autonomous political practice and action. The Archive of Antifascist Front of Women (AFŽ) shows us the blind spots of Yugoslav socialism and the suppression of women’s struggles within the promised egalitarian society. Although AFŽ contributed immeasurably to the development of Yugoslav socialism, specifically in the field of women’s and children’s rights, as well as social politics, the organization was self-abolished in 1953, claiming that its goals had been achieved within the framework of socialism and that further care should be transferred to the state and the party. The need to organize the Comrade Women conference (Drug-ca Žena, Belgrade, 1978) and to raise the “women’s question” again (after the abolition of the women’s organization of AFŽ) confirmed that the legal means of the state cannot regulate the centuries-old violence of patriarchy.8
The associations with and thinking about the feminist archives created in the situations of protest and combat struggles in different parts of the world was my intimate lumbung with the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. I was interested in how many similar or parallel narratives I could find in the archive of such a name, which emerged in front of me in the space of Fridericianum with its monumental, yet fragile images of rebellious women on the streets of Algiers. The installation consisted of videos, photographs, filmed interviews and a table where visitors could sit and consult reproductions of various documents and images. The two enlarged images – the photographs of demonstrations organized by women’s associations on March 8, 1990 in Algiers – were printed on transparent textile, marking “the walls” of the open space of the archive.The video, projected to the floor, was showing women’s hands unpacking and repacking archival material on a colorful kilim rug as a symbol of textile-texture-text-narrative, but also home.
The rug and the purposeful hands of the archivist were clear signs or assertions that the archive is not the final repository, the “Arbiter or truth,” but is narrated from an embodied point of view; it is collected, framed and put together by somebody, and made through the process, as a living thing. “The reproduction of the documents allow visitors to peruse them, to flip through them. Everyone is free to pick them up, to investigate them, to reappropriate them.”9
And I appropriated them as a thought that traveled with me and to which I returned several times. I selected the work from documenta 15 for the article in Mezosfera after my participation at the panels of March Meeting, Sharjah Art Biennial, namely after listening to the panel The Archive and Art History.10
“Engaging with the archive is not simply a desire to delve into history and memory in order to look backwards but rather to use the remnants of whatever we find of the past knowledge as a tool to rein to reinterpret our current reality and reimagine an alternative future.” (Jihan El-Tahri)
The scattered archives help us to construct alternative narratives.
Jelena Vesić is an independent curator, researcher, writer and lecturer. She investigates the connections between art and ideology. Her recent publications include: essay-book, On Neutrality (with V.J. Vlidi and R. O’Reilly), part of Non-Aligned Modernity edition of Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade (2016); Alt-Truths and Insta-Realities: The Psychopolitics of Contemporary Right (Red Thread #5, 2020, with V. J. Vlidi); Stagecraft by Vesna Pavlović, (Vanderbilt University Press, 2021); Feminist Takes: Early Works by Želimir Žilnik (with Antonia Majaca and R. O’Reilly) (Sternberg Press, 2021).
What did you learn at documenta 15? is an open-ended issue edited by Dóra Hegyi, editor of Mezosfera, curator, and project leader of tranzit.hu Budapest and Gyula Muskovics, independent curator and artist based in Budapest. If you would like to contribute, please submit your proposal, including a 200-word abstract and your short bio in English at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Glissant, Édouard (2006): Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing and Ann Arbor. Michigan, Michigan University Press. ↩
- Jelena Vesić, “On Collectivising: Narratives about Yugoslav Avant-Garde Art Collectives and Examples of Feminist Interventions”, Art at Work (curated by: Bojana Piškur, Zdenka Badovinac, Igor Španjol), MG, Ljubljana ↩
- Among other projects of feminist collectivizing I’ve shown the archives of Olja Džuverović and Sanja Iveković.The personal archive of the Yugoslav political worker Olja Dzuverovic – a diplomat and a passionate grassroots activist – documents Yugoslav political relations with Sub-Saharan African countries during the period of decolonisation, in particular focussing on the country’s relations with Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Angola. Whilst the material in this archive may rupture imperialist narratives, it shows how emancipatory political projects of Yugoslav socialism like Non Aligned Movement are nevertheless still inscribed by agents of patriarchy. The very existence of this archive highlights a central, yet invisible role of a female protagonist in this history. Sanja Iveković’s archive, co-established and articulated by art historian Ivana Bago, follows Iveković’s contribution to the numerous feminist activist anti-war initiatives appearing in the midst of violent destruction of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In 1995, she co-founded the Center for Women’s Studies and in 1997 she founded Electra – Women’s Art Center. She designed journals, books and posters for educational programs and public campaigns, made videos that documented public actions, interviewed key protagonists, and produced works that involved participation by women war refugees and victims of domestic violence. ↩
- Podcast Making Feminist History Visible: Women’s Archives and Records facilitated by Bec Wonders, https://www.filia.org.uk/latest-news/2022/2/14/making-feminist-history-visible. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Bec Wonders, Ibid. ↩
- See: https://afzarhiv.org The initiators of the project Andreja Dugandžić and Adela Jušić of CRVENA state: Our task is to preserve and make known historical evidence about the work and activities of the Antifascist Front of Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia, as well as about women’s participation in the People’s Liberation Struggle and in the building of Socialist Yugoslavia. The Archive aims to motivate our new struggles— on fronts that we need to identify, in numerous battles that we need to win. The revolution has taken place. Let’s start another one! ↩
- Comrade Woman was held as part of the SKC Tribune Program in Belgrade in 1978, which followed some of the New Political Movements, born under the auspices of the student, worker, gender and racial uprisings of the 1960s. Comrade Women was the first major international feminist conference that took place outside the Western world after WWII and that opened numerous questions related to the feminist struggle, history and orientation. As expected, there was a conflict between state feminism, party feminism and new feminist movements. See more: Jelena Vesić, The Conference of Comrade Woman – Art Program (On Marxism and Feminism and Their Mutual Political Discontents), Parallel Chronologies, 2015, http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/the-conference-comrade-woman-art-program/. ↩
- Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, Statement / Déclaration, August, 2022, https://archivefemdz.hypotheses.org/811. ↩
- Speakers: Jihan El-Tahri (Director, Big Sister Productions); John Tain (Head of Research, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong); Krista Thompson (Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art History, Northwestern University); and Simon Soon Sien Yong (Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian Art History, Universiti Malaya); Moderator: Elizabeth Harney (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Toronto), https://sharjahart.org/march-meeting-2023/programme/march-meeting-2023-the-archive-and-art-history. ↩