/ 4 November 2022

Songs to the mountain: documenta comes to joburg

Madeyoulook Kassel 2022 Foto Frank Sperling
The collective’s Mafolofolo, 2022, which appeared on the documenta fifteen exhibition in Germany in June. Photo: Frank Sperling

1955, Kassel. The first documenta opens to the public — a contemporary art exhibition and a gesture of post-war reconciliation and cultural openness from Germany to the world. documenta continued and is organised every five years, each edition with a different artistic direction. The latest one, documenta fifteen, opened this year, curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa. 

Their vision was centred on the concept of the “lumbung”, an Indonesian communal rice barn “which is rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing and equal allocation”, as the official website reads. 

Ruangrupa invited 14 collectives and a few individual artists, who invited others. The South African collectives Keleketla! Library and MADEYOULOOK exhibited work. 

This month, MADEYOULOOK’s Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho are bringing a part of documenta to Joburg in the form of a public programme titled lumbung.jozi. Local audiences will be welcomed to a series of free events throughout the city: panel discussions; screenings and pre-screenings; garden talks, a publication launch and more.  

Moiloa and Mokgotho met in 2006 as first-year art students at Wits. They formed MADEYOULOOK in their final year. Back then, they organised Sermon on the Train (2009 to 2011) where academics offered lectures on a Metrorail train, pushing the boundaries of what a “public lecture” means and can signify. 

A year after graduating, the duo handed out free “high-art” posters by emerging black artists at Johannesburg’s Noord Taxi Rank in Extra Extra (2010), following the tradition of handing out things like flyers and calendars in public spaces. 

Since then, the collective has been organising non-commercial activations, installations and public programming: Corner Loving (2015 to 2016) and Ejaradini (from 2019 and ongoing), among others.

Their collective work encourages a re-observation of black lived experiences which are often overlooked. MADEYOULOOK continues to unfold new ways of thinking, dreaming and working, on land and other urgent political questions that concern South Africa and elsewhere. 

Conscious: Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho. Photo: Supplied

The garden talks MADEYOULOOK organises are central to their approach. In a recent conversation with the collective, Moiloa emphasised: “The garden talks are not additional to the work, is not like a walkabout or a separate side programme, it is very much integrated into the work that we do. 

“We are very intentional about the kind of environments we set up, the kind of people we invite, speakers we have and the kind of conversations we want to enable.” 

During the exhibition period in Kassel, alliances and working groups were formed. For Mokgotho, this documenta was different: “I think one of the things about this documenta is that it wasn’t about coming in, putting something on the wall and leaving. There was a lot of programming happening but also other collaborations that emerged among the different lumbung artists.” 

MADEYOULOOK connected with collectives Le18 (Morocco), INLAND (Spain), Jatiwangi Art Factory (Indonesia) and the artist Marwa Arsanios (Germany and Lebanon), whose interests overlapped, and formed the land discursive group. 

According to the artists: “There was always the imagination of having a trajectory beyond this one [documenta] moment.”

Earlier this year, documenta was at the centre of a controversy when allegations were made against ruangrupa and some of the featured artists, accusing them of being anti-Semitic. This was followed by the withdrawal of German government officials, attacks on the collective The Question of Funding, removal of one of the works by Taring Padi and censorship attempts on The Tokyo Reels and others. 

These events hijacked the celebration of it being a Global South-centred event and only the second edition curated by a non-European — the first being documenta11 curated by Nigerian Okwui Enwezor in 2002.  In a statement published on e-flux, the lumbung artists wrote: “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united.”

At documenta, MADEYOULOOK exhibited their most recent work Mafolofolo: place of recovery (2022), which speaks to the history of the Bakoni people and their displacement throughout a period of almost two centuries, as a way of reflecting on the question of land in South Africa today. 

The installation echoes ancient sites in Mpumalanga: agricultural terraces, stone walls and circular homesteads — sites that haven’t got national heritage status and which the collective has been visiting for five years as part of their research. 

A sound installation featuring South African struggle songs and an interview with local land worker and tourist guide Joseph Mothupi situate visitors in a specific place and time. 

In our conversation, both Moiloa   and Mokgotho stressed how crucial it was for them to bring their work to South Africa. 

“We have often been commissioned to do work internationally and a lot of our work has been shown abroad. But because we make work that is so specific to our context, and that is speaking to South Africans most of the time, it was very important to be able to bring it home,” explained Moiloa. 

Mokgotho added they also “wanted South Africa to have a lumbung position, to have a conversation with one another — a cross-contextual land solidarity of sorts”. As part of the lumbung.jozi programme, the collective will showcase Mafolofolo in the format of listening sessions. 

MADEYOULOOK has partnered with documenta, the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) from Wits University, Lapa, the Goethe Institut, The Forge, the ungovernable, LIMUSICO and TASK to make this programme possible. The collective will use Lapa as their headquarters to continue their working sessions, where some members of the land discursive group will be present and others will join virtually. 

The opening panel discussion titled The Forgotten Rural, hosted by SWOP with political scientists Dr  Dineo Skosana and Mbuso Nkosi and activists Constance Mogale and Yvonne Phyllis, will set the tone.

Lebanese artist and filmmaker Marwa Arsanios is one of the members of the land discursive group who will be at lumbung.jozi. 

In 2017, at a lecture performance in New York, Arsanios presented the first part of her series of films titled Who’s Afraid of Ideology? The film featured interviews with women-led organisations in Kurdistan: their concerns, stories, governance structures. 

In this choral testament to war, land, feminism and camaraderie to nature, one of the female voices shares: “In my grandparents’ village the way they live and interact with nature is very different — the relationship to the animals that they raise, they sing songs to the mountain not about the mountain.”

MADEYOULOOK and one of their Garden Talks. Photo: Supplied

For lumbung.jozi, Arsanios will present the latest part of her series, Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Part 4 Reverse Shot, which was exhibited at documenta and is set in a stone quarry in Lebanon. The film suggests the possibility of a piece of land “without ownership”, and within that reviews the complexities of the administrative frameworks imposed over that land and its inhabitants since the Ottoman empire. 

Mokgotho expanded on Arsanios’s work: “Marwa Arsanios has been working together with a historian and a legal scholar in Lebanon to turn a piece of land from private ownership to what’s called a mashaa, which is a kind of ownership of land through usership. 

“This means moving away from private ownership and how we understand land as property and thinking of other land commons and ways of potentially ‘owning land’. 

“Apart from the screening, she will be in conversation at Parklane Community Garden with Yvonne Phyllis, who has done a lot of work in labour rights in farms in South Africa, and is arguing for farm workers to have ownership stakes in the farms that they work on.”

The other film featured on lumbung.jozi is a work in progress called The Work Song by AWAL/Le18, which will be presented by Moroccan filmmaker Nadir Bouhmouch. 

Moiloa said: “The pre-screening of the in-progress film is an opportunity for input and ideas. The work deals with apple farming in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and the kinds of monoculture farming practices that are overtaking traditional farming practices. Part of it is thinking about the histories of French colonial imposition around agriculture and forestry in that area.” 

MADEYOULOOK and their collaborators suggest a different relationship to nature and the ruling economical and political systems that legislate it. lumbung.jozi will invite local audiences to challenge prescribed notions of land informed by colonialism and extraction. 

For those who are open, this programme might show there is still time to sing songs to the mountain, instead of about the mountain.

lumbung.jozi will be at The Forge, Lapa and 12 on Parklane Community Garden from 4 to 13 November. For more information go to www.made-you-look.net.