New Telegraph

Lessons from Documenta 15

From June to September 2022 humanity seemed to have the time to stand and stare in the city of Kassel, Germany. For a full one hundred inspirational days, artists, activists, writers, publishers, creators, curators, art lovers, students, custodians, collectors and patrons from all over the world converged at Documenta 15, a show renowned for asking critical questions on its own aimed at rethinking Eurocentric Art discourse post-world war two. Holding every five years since 1950, the fifteenth edition of the documenta series turned out again as one of the most important Art events of the contemporary era, building on a reputation for selfgenerated questions.

This time an anti-Semitist controversy cast a dominant shadow over well-meaning curatorial efforts of Indonesian Artist collective Ruangrupa who had appropriately designed the theme: Lumbung meaning rice barn collective. This meant to advocate for and introduce to the Western/European Art society the benefits of collective bargaining models used in socialist/communist agricultural communes and currently practiced in Asian Art/Creative industry as a means of providing greater inclusiveness and fair trade for all.

The entire Covid-19 period had turned out to be a season of intensive collaborative efforts by many who had been previously used to the interpersonal style of physical meetings. The restrictions on movement ensured that people looked for new ways to work as the world came to realize the importance of socializing even for work. On the con-trary, Artists work habits may not have differed much as were already used to some form of isolated work mode preferring to rely on individual effort for most creative outcomes. The Another Roadmap Africa Cluster (ARAC) convened in 2015 by Ugandan Artist, Researcher and Cultural Activist – Emma Wolukau- Wanambwa, now gained found new impetus within this period as many members turned their focus towards the groups unifying aim – Decolonization of Arts Education on the African Continent.

This is is not far-fetched given the pre and post-colonial history of African nations. ARAC through integrated teams from its various working groups in multiple cities like Lagos, Cairo, Kinshasa, Lumumbashi, Maseru, Kampala, Johannesburg, collaborated regularly through online meetings to contemplate alternatives to postcolonial imprints embedded within African Union/UNESCO Cultural Education agenda in Africa which may lack interpretation or involvement from contemporary and critical stakeholders of what might be termed as Art. This model would involve sharing of ideas, themes, spaces, experiences, food, dance, practice, and purpose. Stimulated by successful activities in preceding years, ARAC members considered documenta a worthy platform to showcase its agenda and work to the world having been selected for an invitation by the curatorial team.

Finally, after months of formal and informal planning online, 15 team members physically gathered at the allocated ARAC Space in Museum Friedericianum, Kassel for activations during documenta fifteen. The first of these was a workshop organized on 18th July by Rana Elmenr from the Cairo Working Group and titled Soul to Soul: A Conversation with Objects centering the consciousness of all matter involving objects brought to the ARAC space by members and participants. Drawing on hylozoism, the belief that all matter has a conscience and is, in its own way, alive, Rana led the participants to experience different objects as a record of fragments of our practice, cultures, and stories. On the 20th of July, Olutayo Aje from the Lagos Working Group facilitated a workshop in Visual Literacy titled: The World In Afrobetikal Order.

This practical exercise explored semiotic techniques through ARAC’s previously practiced Letter Writing methodology. Calling up examples through the work of relevant scholars and Artists like Saki Mafundikwa, Moyo Okediji, ‘Jide Aje and Victor Ekpuk, Olutayo led participants to experiment in the reflective space against the undercurrents of cultural heritage, politics of identity, to aim for a new consciousness decolonizing literacy for ordering the world through revisiting the historical Afrikan alphabets, and enriching today’s collective visuavocabulary in the process.

The Lagos Working Group was not yet done as Segun Quadri also presented a workshop on 11th August at the same venue titled: Ifa Geomantic System of Vocabulary and Alphabetical Order, This was an adaptation of scholar Moyo Okediji’s work on Ifa Writing Dimension. Another interesting other open session was facilitated by Johannesburg Working Groups Puleng Plessie titled Making Time which utilized ARAC’s Un/Chrono/Logical Timeline and the Traveling Printing Suitcase methodology, an exercise in “inhabiting” histories and considering history as a “resource.”

This educational methodology emerged from previous practice by the Johannesburg Working Group (JWG) which are indebted to the radical models of arts education in the service of social justice and liberation, as practiced by the Medu Art Ensemble (1977 – 1985). ARAC’s ground-breaking approaches to Art Education increasingly enriched discourse during the 100-day event through a variety of other exciting activations such as the Chris Nyampeta led Ecole Du Soir, an evening school held at the Gloria Cinema, and conceived through screenings and discussion of films exploring learning methods, spaces of intervention, and pedagogical experiments.

A Walk, A Talk and an Act workshop class drawing from a Ugandan saying okutambula kulaba: to walk is to see, to move is to encounter; we learn as we move was led by Kitto Wintergreen from the Kampala Working Group. Documenta 15 closed on the 25th September 2023, with a modest 17% decline in attendance (738,000 unique visitors recorded from 115 countries), down understandably due to COVID restrictions, from the previous edition’s visitor total of 891,500 in Kassel. This great event first got the attention of our local media at the rave documenta XI notably for appointing globally acclaimed Nigerian curator the late Okwui Enwezor, With over 15,000 season tickets sold, a total of 33,000 visitors were children who attended as part of school groups.

One-third of these visitors came from abroad, spanning 86 countries. In all there were many lessons learnt by all who made contact with this great event but notably these three for those of us who represented the Lagos Working Group in Kassel would return to Nigeria with these thoughts: 1. Cultural festivals like documenta provide robust platform to address contemporary issues.

The Germans originally planned to develop and improve their society by opening up to the world in the aftermath of World War 2. 2. We must be intentional to Educate our society through the Arts in order to correctly humanize ourselves. Despite over fifty years of this show, people still need to be reminded of the evils of slavery, colonialism, racism, fascism, racism and all forms of imperial domination of others.

  1. Nigerian cultural sector really needs to catch up by drawing attention to itself and the world through well-organized art events. Interestingly, this writer was serially engaged by many visitors in Kassel about the FESTAC ’77 event in Nigeria. Literature about FESTAC sold like hotcake there but sadly none of these were from Nigerian publishers. Government, Investors, policy makers and culture promoters must understudy such successful organizations in order for our society to reap the immense benefits of the Arts. ARAC Lagos Working Group members are: Ayo Adewunmi, Olusegun Quadri, Olutayo Aje and Prof. Peju Layiwola.

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