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PARTNERSHIPS: Dhaka to documenta14 - A Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum Research Trip


A report by BACK Art's Jewel A. Rob

Monday 3 July 2017:  Athens International Airport, Greece

After a long flight, we have arrived in the city of Athens - finally - but it will take another 40 minutes by metro to reach our hotel and begin to explore what documenta14 has to offer. Since being founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, every five years, Documenta provides a unique space for contemplation, discussion, reinterpretation and transcendence of modern and contemporary art, and the way we look at it. However, under the curatorial direction of Artistic Director, Adam Szymczyk, this fourteenth edition of the festival is a little different, its exhibition offer being both in Kassel, Germany (its traditional home), and for the first time, in Athens, Greece. 

Under the title, Learning from Athens, documenta14 shares the stage for its first half with the Greek capital, exhibiting the work of over 160 international artists, most of who have made site-specific work which fills, and spills out of, local institutions, public squares, cinemas, university buildings and libraries. Having been selected, along with three other members of organisations involved in the Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum, the beautiful city of Athens, surrounded by its history and many artefacts, is where our journey begins—a journey which will take us onto Kassel and finish in the Skulptur Projekte Münster.  


Tuesday 4 July 2017:  Exploring Athens, documenta14 Press and Information Centre

After a night’s rest, our first documenta14 day starts on the streets of Athens. A white city of marble and love, its quiet open roads infused with a cool wind, helped me forget the tiredness of flying 6,416 km, while the clean blue sky reminded me of the history and mythology of Greek heroes such as Theseus and Achilles.  Collecting a map and some leaflets to help guide me, I strolled to The Athens Conservatoire (Odeion) with the other group members. Crammed inside are works by 47 international artists, including:  Ganesh Haloi, Susan Hiller, Edi Hila, Hiwa K, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Pélagie Gbaguidi, Beatriz González, Emeka Ogboh, Ulrich Wüst and Nevin Aladağ’s. Having taken our time to explore the Conservatoire, we headed to the gardens of the Byzantine and Christian Museum which stretch out toward the banks of the ancient Llissos River—now dry and underground—to get some fresh air.  There, we experienced the work of Benjamin Patterson, titled, When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer (2016–17):  a sonic graffiti, sixteen-channel sound installation. 

After experiencing such a small part of documenta14’s offer, I began to realise the vast scale of the festival and how difficult it must have been to manage it across two countries. As part of our trip, to help all of us attending with our professional development, meetings with various members of documenta14’s team had been arranged for us.  The first was with Marina Fokidis, Head of the Artistic Office in Athens, an opportunity to find out more about how documenta14 was developed and the ideas and logistics behind sharing this mega exhibition between two cities in two different countries and the process and criteria of selecting the participating artists. Sitting inside Rasheed Araeen’s, Shamiyaana–Food for Thought: Thought for Change (2017), Marina explains Araeen’s concept behind the work, involving inviting people from the local neighbourhood, and those stranded in refugee camps, to sit together and enjoy a meal based on recipes from around the Mediterranean, cooked in collaboration with Organisation Earth. Shamiyaana reminds me of traditional Bangladeshi wedding tents and a quick flash back to the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Dhaka – one of the largest settlements housing thousands of stranded Biharis in Bangladesh. Later I also met with Adam Przywara, Assistant to the Exhibition Department, about how documenta14 had selected its performance artist and managed the logistics of integrating performance works into the programme offer.   

Wednesday 5 July:  The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST)

Our days in Athens were lively and busy, like we were surfing on an ocean of art work, taking us to The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the largest of documenta14’s exhibition venues in Athens, hosting works by 77 participants. Guided by a member of documenta14’s ‘Chorus’, we were taken through the ocean of artwork and carefully talked through the curators reasoning behind the inclusion of particular works.  Although I was inspired by the documenta14 team’s selection of venues and the way they had mapped them all together for visitors to navigate, I found the exhibition design process was mostly same here as it is back in Bangladesh in the context of contemporary art, although I do feel that curatorial practice is more fortunate in Europe then Bangladesh. 

Later that afternoon, we had a group meeting with iLiana Fokianaki, Curator, Extra City Kunsthal in Antwerp, and the Founder and Director of State of Concept, during which we discussed the people of Athens’s view about documenta14. Exploring the topic of neoliberal privatisation, while ignoring the local art scene, our discussion also covered neo-colonial cultural aggression and the so called ‘gift to Athens’. Debating how and why a rigid institution could be transformed by a curatorial team living and operating in its city, the question of ‘why Athens’ was thrown into the discussion.  Although documenta14’s dual city offer was presented as a mutually beneficial idea for both guests and hosts, it is possible that this opportunity has been more beneficial for the Athenian hosts.

Preparing to leave Athens, my impression of documenta14 so far was of a mostly text and process based mega exhibition.  Although some of the works were thoughtful, conceptual, experimental and progressive, I felt others were nothing but over reactive art.  Some of my must-see recommendations from Athens included, Ross Birrell’s video work A Beautiful Living Thing (2015), dedicated to the recent destruction by fire of the Glasgow School of Art’s famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed library, the other, Banu Cennetoğlu's Gurbet’s Diary (27.07.1995–08.10.1997) (2016–17), was monumental, consisting of 82,661 words in mirror image, 107 days, and 145 press-ready lithographic limestone slabs. Dedicated to journalist Gurbetelli Ersöz, the only female Editor of a pro-Kurdish newspaper, she was arrested and tortured.  After being released, she joined a guerrilla group and kept a journal from 1995 until 1997, when she was killed. The lithographic slabs contain the pages of this diary, ready to be printed again.

Thursday 6 July 2017:  Immigration, Frankfurt Airport, 60547, Germany

Arriving at immigration, the officer asked me, “for what purpose are you visiting Germany”, I answered, “to visit documenta14”, and he welcomed me with a wide smile.   For the next few hours I travelled by train to Kassel.  My first impressions of this small but well-planned city was that it was much cooler than Athens, but I was also impressed by the traffic system, and began comparing between Dhaka, Athens and Kassel. A city’s infrastructure and traffic system really does play vital role in the art scenario, or even its society. 

Friday 7 July 2017:  Exploring Kassel

Our first full day in Kassel started with an informative curatorial introduction by Hendrik Folkerts, part of dcoumenta14’s curatorial team, at Neue Neue Galerie to help guide us through the second part of this mega exhibition, although many of participating artists whose work we had seen in Athens, could also be found in Kassel.  Before we could see what was on offer, we attended a meeting with documenta14’s Henriette Gallus, Head of Communications, and Christoph Platz, Head of the Exhibition Department. Discussing documenta14’s design, publishing and other logistics relevant to our situation in Bangladesh, our group was also interested to learn about the city of Kassel’s view on documenta14 given that they are sharing the offer with Athens: the answer, coming from the Head of Communications, was diplomatic and logical. I was particularly interested to know about how documenta14 was funded and what types of financial support they have in place.  It was explained that the city of Kassel and the Deutschland government both make huge contributions to the overall cost but that the exhibition is also supported by a lot of international organisations and many multinational companies.

With so little time to take everything, we visited the multiple venues:  Friedrichsplatz, Fridericianum, Ottoneum, and the Documenta-Halle seeing more newly commissioned works by many of the artist we had experienced in Athens:  Guillermo Galindo, Sámi Artist Group (Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Britta Marakatt-Labba, Synnøve Persen) and Aboubakar Fofana.  It feels impossible to fully explain everything, but my must-see highlights in Kassel included Ibrahim Mahama's Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030. 2016–2017 (2016–17), Nevin Aladağ’s glazed ceramic work Jal (2017), which I loved, and Marta Minujín's much discussed, The Parthenon of Books (2017), constructed using forbidden books which will later be distributed to the public.

9 July 2017. Münster, Germany

With time passing by so quickly, it was soon time to travel onto the German city of Münster.  Founded in 1977, The Münster Sculpture Project takes place every ten years, exhibiting artworks for free in different places all over the town, confronting art with public places. Orgnised by the Museum für Kunst und Kultur in collaboration with the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (the Westphalia-Lippe Regional Authority) and the City of Münster, it has today become a much-celebrated event in the rather small college town. 

As we had reached the city ahead of the launch, we had the afternoon to explore. A town filled with sculpture and student, it was immediately evident that this was a bicycle-friendly city, the tinkling sound of bicycle-bells as people passed almost like the city’s sound track.  As we explored the city artworks appeared in unexpected places:  hidden in the back of a former Asian supermarket, amongst inflatable pineapples, tinsel and rubber ducks, Argentinian artist Mika Rottenberg’s Cosmic Generator (2017); Hito Steyerl's HellYeahFuckWeDie (2016), Pierre Huyghe’s After Alife Ahead (2017), Ayşe Erkmen’s On Water’, Daniel Buren’s ‘red stripe gate’, Thomas Schutte’s ‘Nuclear Temple’, Susan Philipsz's ‘The Lost Reflection’, Nairy Baghramian, Privileged Points (was also in Kassel), Gregor Schneider | N. Schmidt's, Pferdegasse 19 work was something very nice. I also would like to mention Martin Boyce's ‘We are still and reflective’, Aram Bartholl's 12v and Celestial Masks by Hervé Youmbi. Later we met with Britta Peters, co-Curator of Skulptur Projekte Muenster and had a discussion about the curatorial and the organizing process.

11 July 2017. Hotel B&B lobby, Munster, Germany,

As I wait for my taxi, it is raining and the weather is very cold with what feel like supersonic winds, but the tinkling of bicycle bells continues in the street’s red lane. I have enjoyed the art friendly environment of Münster and the experience will help and inspire me a lot to improvise and rethink about our initiatives in Bangladesh. I return to Dhaka carrying a lot of stories and experiences to share with my peers.


Jewel A Rob, Visual Artist and Co-Founder of Back ART, Producer and Coordinator, Dhaka Live Art Biennale