MAKE FRIENDS NOT ART

Documenta, despite an array of contentious issues, is an impressive convergence of perspectives. The 15th iteration of this global art showcase provided numerous possibilities and brought together a deliberate arrangement of strong viewpoints, and an amalgamation of myriad voices. This was not an event focused on ticking off boxes on a list. Instead, it was a gathering of historical records, a sharing of approaches, and a celebration of new trials and endeavors. My experience with documenta 15 involved a complex blend of feelings, encompassing various roles. As an artist and an informal educator at Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) Tamale, a space for art projects, exhibitions, research, and also a cultural repository and artists’ residency in Tamale, the capital city of the Northern Region of Ghana, I was fortunate to be among the 30 individuals selected for the residency, CAMP: Notes on Arts Educators. The Arts Educators in Residence at documenta 15 was a tuition-free, experimental fellowship program that invited practitioners, teachers, cultural mediators, art educators, cultural workers, community builders, as well as facilitators, artists, and students with a practical experience in arts education and mediation to engage in creating learning sites, both outside and inside the conventional institutional settings. The participants of the Arts Educators in Residence program arrived from all over the globe and had a very diverse background in civic work, neighborhood/youth learning spaces, self-organized initiatives, environmental/social/community-based and/or multidimensional projects employing artistic techniques, communal or convivial forms of production, as well as transdisciplinary approaches.⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠

Make friends not art

One evening during my first week at documenta 15, a member of Another Roadmap African Cluster invited my cohort for dinner at Gudkitchen, a communal kitchen that was never empty. In this place, even if you did not know how to cook, you would always find someone to help you or you could go through the recipe book (written by people who used the kitchen) and prepare some food. This space carried a lot of resource-building and equitable distribution in the spirit of generosity, independence, transparency, sufficiency, and regeneration. I felt it had a positive vibe and decided to visit again. Two days later, I returned to GudKitchen during the day and saw a kettle sitting on a table with a powerful message, “Make friends not art”. This particular phrase caught my attention and gave meaning to my 30-day experience in Kassel. The quote resonated with me in a way that it hadn’t before. Initially, my goal for joining the residency was to create art and share ideas about our informal educational model at SCCA Tamale. However, this quote made me realize that I also needed to pay more attention to the people I was living with in the residency and those I met outside of it. My interactions did not have to be solely focused on making art together. Instead, I could also focus on building relationships that could be the foundation of creating meaningful art.

Kettle at Gudkitchen. Photo: Rosemary Esinam Damalie

#eha 

The 30 participants of the residency were divided into three cohorts, each containing 10 people. Every cohort spent a total of 30 days during the 100-day of documenta 15. I was part of the second residency cohort called #eha, a name we gave ourselves from the Ghanaian Ewe word “eha” (broom) as it is used in a popular Ewe proverb which translates as “It’s easy to break a single broomstick but difficult or impossible to break a bunch of broomsticks.” #eha was made up of artists,  an urban planner,  researchers, and educators from Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica (studying and working in Canada), Somalia-Madagascar (resident in East London), Lesotho, Zambia, Germany (with American heritage), Ecuador, Brazil (resident in Berlin), the Philippines, and Turkey (also a resident of Berlin). Our shared interest in education led us to explore unique and unconventional teaching methods, as a community.

Eha and staff members from left to right: Katharina Hilgert (staff), Pia Wagner (staff), Asheda K. Dwyer, Hannah Abdullahi, Lennyn Santacruz, Sello Majara, Raphael Daibert, R. Stein Wexler, Lotte Hofert (staff), Brenda JK Chitembure, Rosemary Esinam Damalie, and Ange Arthur Koua. Photo: Esther Poppe
Inside Das fliegende Künstlerzimmer (The flying artists’ room). Photo: Rosemary Esinam Damalie

Officially, our 30-days program started and ended in Das fliegende Künstlerzimmer (The flying artist’s room), a courtesy of the Crespo Foundation. It is an approximately 80 square meter mobile studio, designed by architects Prof. Nikolaus Hirsch and Prof. Dr. Michel Müller. Normally, it is set up in the schoolyard of a rural school, where it provides accommodation for an artist, who usually lives and works there for one or two years. This way, the students come into direct contact with creative processes. However, at documenta, the studio became a space for the 10 of us to engage, converse, and work together or with the visitors who came to see us. Generally, I thought the movable studio space on school compounds was a great way to help artists to work with children and to encourage children to partake in art. It is a great way to create art and maintain communities within schools just like the lumbung values that defined the structure of documenta. 1 These include generosity, humour, local anchoring, independence, regeneration, transparency, and sufficiency.

As part of the residency, The CAMP organizers planned a workshop between the #eha and the La Esquelas. La Esquelas is an artist-run platform for radical learning and collective making; they collaborate with different institutions and communities to create projects in public spaces. The team behind the platform consists of Latin American artists and educators who seek to bring education closer to reality.

To kick start and understand the overall objective of the workshop, we had a meeting between the two collectives where La Esquela proposed a workshop, called Pedagogy in Public, as an attempt to create a joint event and conduct research in public spaces. However, this proposal was not accepted by all the members of #eha, partly because the event was designed without our involvement. The workshop would have required #eha members to perform in public, which was not something every team member was willing to do. The idea caused some racial conflicts,2 and the role of #eha, whether we were supposed to be collaborators or participants, was unclear. As a group, we thought it was important to look at and address how the workshop proposal was developed because a lot of institutions or organizations put together programs or events for artists in the name of “collaboration” but instead they make the artists the participants of their own projects.

Rejecting the proposal was an attempt by #eha to critique such institutional practices. It looked like a rebellion to the organizers of the program but we saw it as “flipping the script,” an expression used by ruangrupa in the documenta handbook to refer to situations when one is given a space or project to work on and is told you have the freedom to use the space and resource the way you deem fit but there is also a script to guide you. It is only later that one realizes the script does not give you the said freedom or does not align with your practice. There is a need to amend or totally get rid of that script and make one that everyone on the project can work with and feel safe with. As a result of the above, the organizers eventually understood our concerns and supported us. In Ruangrupa’s handbook for documenta, they also say that “in Europe, there tend to be very centrist ideas about knowledge, history, and art, ideas that we would like to decentralize or decompress within the ruruHaus” and I felt that our group had arrived exactly at that point. Having turned down the workshop proposal, we had to develop a new one. We had to go to the negotiating table and everything from this point is vividly illustrated by Daniella F. Praptono, in the same handbook. Daniella was one of the artists who created the Harvest Drawings that describe the experiences and thought processes of the curatorial team.

Harvest Drawing by Abdul Dube, page 19 documenta handbook
Daniella F Praptono’s Harvest Drawing on pages 14 and 15.

At the negotiating table, #eha became a loose community. We started with conversations on finding connections and ways to grow together, greeting old and new friends, sprouting, and seedling forming. There were questions from the group members who wanted to make art, such as, “where is art?”. This question came from the artists within the group, they came to this residency specifically to make art and to collaborate to make art. And so it was a valid question. As a team, we had to deal with and resolve issues of speculation, building trust, understanding, solidarity, experimentation, engagement, activation, negotiation, friendship, knowing each other’s plans, and collaborating on different levels. We organized sub-team programs which were kicked off by individual presentations of our work in our home countries. We also conducted several workshops, such as a stitching workshop held by Ange Arthur Koua, which was open to the public and attended by 20+ people or the Capcut video editing workshop facilitated by Sello Majara. 

Stitching Workshop “Together” which was open to the public and facilitated by Ange Arthur (a member of #eha)

Furthermore, we received an invitation from Pakghor, the social kitchen, set up by Britto Arts Trusts at the documenta Halle. It was based on an organic palan–a Bengali kitchen garden–which feeds the pakghor–the family kitchen-cum-living room. At Pakghor, we cooked Gob3 (a Ghanaian dish made with black eye peas in palm oil and garri–grated and roasted cassava flakes with fried plantain) and Adobo (a Filipino sauce made of pork and chicken). We had approximately 100-150 people coming to eat and learn about the dishes.

On our last day in Kassel, inspired by our communal cooking at our apartment and working space in the Flying Artist’s room, we ended our collective activities as #eha with a cooking session at Gudkitchen. It took us a week to plan the event, we called it “Cook and Call,” and we made Peanut butter soup with boiled rice, Okro & Garden eggs with a chicken option for those who eat meat, sourdough bread, Ginger beer, and hibiscus tea.

Gob3 (a Ghanaian dish made with black eye peas in palm oil, garri: grated and roasted cassava flakes with fried plantain) and Adobo (a Filipino sauce made with pork and chicken with rice).

As for the other activities outside the residency, out of the 32 venues at documenta, I could only visit 11 during my 30-day stay in Kassel. I visited Friedrichsplatz, documenta Halle, Hafenstate 76, Hallenbad Ost, Hubner Areal, Sandershaus, and Gloria Kino. I encountered some works which asked questions about global social/political issues around the world. Interestingly, I found answers and practical suggestions to some of the questions raised by the works I had encountered at other sites and installations. It was interesting to find that a lot of the questions posed at different documenta sites had answers which were made evident in engaging with spaces, works, and artists outside these sites.

The two places I visited very often were rurukids and *foundationClass. Rurukids is a safe space designed especially for children, with many fun and creative activities that encourage children to explore arts and culture. It is a place for sharing knowledge, meeting new friends, playing, relaxing, and co-creating at Fridericianum. In my opinion, every gallery and museum needs a space like rurukids because the model and alternative ways they had come up with teaching kids and letting kids experience art was brilliant. 50% of the ground floor was dedicated to children, which goes to show how important it was for most of the participants of documenta 15 to engage in dialogue with the youngest generation. The programs and structures were developed to cater for the needs of children of different ages and concentrated on developing their senses and sensibilities to different art forms. I loved that they made a space for babies from zero to three years using Emmi Pikler’s Pedagogy on education, which emphasises the importance of respectful care, self-initiated gross motor development and autonomous play. 

*foundationClass was formed in 2016, at Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin (KHB), as an art educational platform and resistance toolkit, to facilitate access to art academies for people who have immigrated to Germany and are affected by racism. At documenta 15, they were located at Hafenstate 76. It was great how they used their experiences as “immigrants” in Germany to critique art systems while also offering remedies to institutions and artists.

Fun fact, I failed the interview game they created for immigrants who wanted to attend art school in Germany. I bet everyone failed that game LOL.

One of the collective works I was eagerly looking forward to visiting was the work of the Indonesian collective, Taring Padi. This was because of the anti-Semitic allegation that was leveled against them due to their “People’s Justice” mural that had been taken off by the time I visited their venue. However, when I visited their space at Hallenbad Ost, I realized that the media had not done justice to the entire body of work that was exhibited by the collective. The media’s role reminded me of a banner by *foundationClass* that reads, “Yalla take the content and run with it.” The media took the anti-Semitic content and indeed ran with it without asking the necessary questions. The works on display had a strong presence and offered interesting details about political and social issues in Jakarta and beyond. The exhibition stimulated a deeper reflection on issues that needed to be addressed or discussed. I was particularly intrigued by the details that were presented through the print method and transfer.

It is often said that the German sense of guilt runs so deep that open discussions on certain topics seem impossible. For instance, the topic of violent oppression by Jewish settlements is a reality that is consistently avoided, even though it presents an opportunity for an open dialogue around a complex and sensitive issue. This is where art plays an important role, as it can provide a platform for exploring and discussing such questions. It was crucial that these conversations took place within Germany and not elsewhere. These conversations needed to be initiated by collectives that may not necessarily be German but have been deeply impacted by the actions of German colonialists. This includes all the people or countries that were affected in one way or another by the actions of Germany. As *foundationClass puts it, “transformation can come from the persistent practice of doubting and questioning” which was the opportunity ruangrupa gave the Germans.

Being part of documenta 15 was a valuable learning experience for a young African artist like myself. It provided me with an amazing opportunity to learn about global art trends, engage in cross-cultural exchange and explore the role of art in social and political commentary.

Rosemary Esinam Damalie (1993) born in Accra, lives and works in Accra and Tamale. She has a Degree in Painting and Sculpture from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Damalie is currently a Board Member and works as General Manager and Workshop Co-Ordinator at Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, founded by the renowned artist Ibrahim Mahama. Damalie is a member of the blaxTARLINES KUMASI community.

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 office@tranzitinfo.hu.

  1. Lumbung is an Indonesian word that refers to a communal rice-barn, where the surplus harvest is stored for the benefit of the community.
  2. We were asked to use an oil barrel which did not sit well, especially with the African participants of #eha. The oil barrels reminded us of the different African countries that are living under terrible conditions as a result of all the oil mines in their communities. For us, it was an object of oppression and we did not want to engage within that space.

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