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PARTNERSHIPS: Dhaka to documenta14 - A Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum Research Trip (part 3)


by Salma Jamal Moushum, Gidree Bawlee

Learning from Athens , Kassel and Münster

It was on the afternoon of July 4, when our group of four reached Athens on the first leg of our research trip to documenta14 and Skulptur Projekte Münster. Organised by the Samdani Art Foundation with the support of the Goethe Institute, the mission of our trip was to learn (or perhaps unlearn) from documenta14 and Münster.  Accompanied by three other members of the Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum, our first lesson was sadly nothing art related, and was a harsh reminder that you should always be vigilant with your possessions. Having all my money stolen on the first day on the way to the hotel from the airport was the last thing I expected to ‘experience’ during my trip, but nevertheless, our packed schedule and the overwhelming dose of art we were about to experience over just seven days (excluding travel), left little space for me to brood over the traumatic experience.


It was in 2014 that documenta14’s Artistic Director, Adam Szymczyk, announced the working title Learning from Athens and that this edition would be split across two locations, Athens and Kassel, for the first time in Documenta’s history. From the start, Szymczyk’s decision was met with large amounts of criticism and concerns from artists, critics and activists: something we experienced a glimpse of during a meeting with iLiana Fokianaki, the founder and director of contemporary art space, State of Concept (Greece’s first non-profit gallery), and one of Athens’s main voices against the German-funded enterprise’s arrival in the city. During our meeting at State of Concept, Fokianaki raised many concerns: from the number of Greek artists in the exhibition, to the financial implications of a German funded institution coming to Greece at a time when the country’s economy is troubled and the country is receiving an influx of refugees. We also met with Marina Fokidis, documenta14’s Athens based Curatorial Advisor, who shed new light on some of the positive impacts of hosting documenta14 in Athens. Fokidis pointed out how Documenta’s arrival in Athens has revived the contemporary art scene in the city, which, as all other sectors in the country, was struggling under the bad economy. Also, documenta14’s Kassel offer hosted collections from the National Museum of Contemporary Art of Athens (EMST) in Fridericianum - one of the oldest public museums in Europe and considered to be Documenta’s home venue: a very welcome initiative as the collections have not yet been shown in Greece, as under the struggling economy, the Museum was never opened. These two meetings, given their contrasting views, were very insightful for understanding the dynamics of this edition of Documenta.

Sitting under the canopy of Rasheed Araeen’s Shamiyaana–Food for Thought: Thought for Change, inspired by Shamiana – a traditional sub-continent wedding tent - the artist invited people to share a meal together under the canopies, two times a day, for the entire duration of the event. The meals were freshly cooked and served by volunteers from a Greek NGO, Organisation Earth. The project itself seemed to resonate what Fokidi implied, that by being a guest in Athens, Documenta might help to develop a dialogue towards mutual understanding. 

As we explored Documenta’s many exhibitions, I found the exhibition’s lack of wall texts very disconcerting. As a result, I wandered through venue after venue baffled by the lack of context (apart from works I had read about before such as the much talked about Parthenon of Books), which made it very challenging to understand the artworks. We were informed that this was a curatorial decision, to encourage the audience to ‘feel’ the works and to enable them to create their own individual understanding.  For me, by taking notes of the artworks I found interesting, I could then look up information at night when in the hotel, but this gave me an urge to revisit certain artworks with this new insight in my mind, seldom possible due to our tight schedule, which was often frustrating. A good example of this was the aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey’s 2 x 10 metre monumental painting MURRILAND! (2017) at the Neue Neue Galerie in Kassel, which depicted the history of his homeland, Queensland, juxtaposed against non-indigenous narratives and indigenous oral history:  a symbolic composition of cultural violence and oppression. This work reminded me of 101 Works (1973–74) by artist Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, a series of vivid paintings telling the Congo’s history through visual snapshots of colonial oppression to the struggle of power in the independent state, which we saw the day previously in Athen’s Benaki Museum.  I felt a certain connection between Tshibumba’s 101 works and Hookey’s MURRILAND!, although the first one was very much straight-forward history, while the latter’s work, despite sharing the same theme in a separate context, was a non-linear mural. It was not until later that night that I discovered what the connection was. On documenta14’s website, on both Hookey and Tshibumba’s artists pages, I found a link to a conversation about history painting, language, and colonialism between Gordon Hookey, Hendrik Folkerts, and Vivian Ziherl in which Hookey explained that his work MURRILAND! was directly inspired by Tshibumba’s 101 works. This discovery took me back to Neue Neue Galerie the next day, to look at the work once again, with fresh eyes, but this did mean that I missed some of Documenta’s exhibitions. Still, thanks to the trips organisers, we had a number of guided tours through several venues, which helped a lot. I am also particularly thankful to Diana Campbell Betancourt, who accompanied us to many of the venues, and never tired of pointing out interesting facts and providing background information about the artists.

Overall, characteristically, I found that many artworks in documenta14 seem to explore deeply political and social themes, while the works in the Skulptur Projekte Münster, were more publicly-oriented and site-specific. Occurring once every ten years, the Skulptur Projekte Münster is a one of a kind festival, offering a unique perspective towards on the possibilites of how sculptures can interact with public spaces. Personally, I liked my experience in Münster better because the curatorial process and the sheer concentration on site-responsiveness provided great insights for Gidree Bawlee’s future endeavours, and because I had less difficulty finding information about the artworks thanks to the wonderful app developed for this edition of Skulptur Projekte (thanks again to Diana Campbell Betancourt for telling us about it). Art, community, collaboration and the environment are at the heart of Gidree Bawlee’s vision, which is undoubtedly why I found an instant connection with most of the work in Münster.   

After returning to Bangladesh - and having had some time to review everything I experienced during our whirlwind journey through these two mega exhibitions - I had a lot of bitter-sweet memories of what was an overwhelming first experience of the world’s most highly regarded, and biggest, contemporary art exhibitions. Despite this, I had discovered many contemporary artists with whose work I had been previously unfamiliar with, but lastly and most importantly, from the conversations with staff from both platforms, I had developed innovative plans and ideas which will impact greatly on how we instigate Gidree Bawlee’s future programmes.