Ruangrupa made history as the first Asians, and only collective, selected to curate the quinquennial exhibition Documenta 15. The Indonesian group tell Tatler why collective thinking is the way to a sustainable future
Ruangrupa like to have a good time. This was one of the reasons why Farid Rakun joined the group as a student back in 2010. “It didn’t hurt that they liked to party,” Rakun says. “It was a place I knew I would have a good time.”
The Jakarta-based collective offers more than just a good time. Loosely translated, ruangrupa, means a “space for art”. It’s hard to define what or who Ruangrupa is at any given moment, but broadly, it is a non-profit group that disseminates artistic ideas through publications, and by holding workshops and staging exhibitions, among other programming. Made up of artists, curators and people with various skill sets, its structure is intentionally fluid, and members adapt it to whatever is best suited for the project they’re working on.
“Each of us has our own interest and strength, so we go out and do our own thing, and come back together,” says member Ajeng Nurul Aini. “That’s how we work together as a collective.” Members have come, gone and come back, but friendships have endured.
As well as Rakun and Aini, the other current core members curating Documenta—the influential German exhibition—are Ade Darmawan, Indra Ameng, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Iswanto Hartono, Mirwan Andan, Julia Sarisetiati, Reza Afisina and Bellina Erby. Tatler spoke to Rakun, Aini and Afisina on a video call.
Ruangrupa is “a very long engagement of friendships”, says Afisina, who, along with Ameng and Praptono, has been with the group since its inception. “We wanted our own space, ground and platforms so we could develop our own way of practising or learning about contemporary art, and about Jakarta as a city and its context.”
The group was founded in 2000 by art students who responded to a lack of cultural infrastructure in Jakarta at the time. Due to their lack of association with any institution, fluid structure and non-profit status, Ruangrupa are often considered an alternative group or space in an international art world context. Rakun clears up this misconception and says in Jakarta, “we’re not considered alternative [nor do we pretend we are]; the institutions are not so strong, so there really isn’t a mainstream,” Rakun says.
As a disillusioned architecture student, Rakun found the group’s out-of-the-box approach to visual art refreshing. “They talked about urban planning differently from how urban designers talked about it, and spoke about new media and video art in ways that are vernacular and not fully engaged with the western art canon.” In doing so, members of the collective were able to apply these methods to an Indonesian context, making it accessible and relevant to the local community.
Their ability to foster a sense of community and to make connections between different networks is why Ruangrupa were selected to curate Documenta 15, the leading five-yearly art exhibition set to take place from June 18-September 25 in Kassel, Germany. Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s director general, says of the decision to select the Ruangrupa team: “It’s their demonstration of a strong ability to appeal to various groups—including groups that go beyond pure art audiences—and to promote local commitment and participation.”
The invitation catapulted Ruangrupa to the number three spot on Art Review magazine’s coveted Power 100 list in 2021, acknowledging their influence. In spite of this global recognition, the group remains true to its roots, recognising the importance of the local projects which are continuing simultaneously as it prepares for Documenta. In particular, the group is working on developing Gudskul, a public learning space in Jakarta set up to expand the understanding of collective thinking and values such as equality, solidarity and friendship.
“Our practice is a shared method, and any platform we engage with is an opportunity for us to share our method,” Afisina says on their involvement with Documenta. As their approach is based on building an international network of local community-based organisations and collectives, the relationship between Ruangrupa and Documenta is mutually beneficial given the potential for network sharing. “Documenta is an important resource for us; we also realise that Gudskul will be an important resource for Documenta.”
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One of the most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions, Documenta has been around since 1955 and was born out of a lack of cultural context—not unlike Ruangrupa. In an attempt to reincorporate Germany back into cultural discourse after the Second World War, Kassel artist and professor Arnold Bode curated the first Documenta featuring artworks the Nazis considered degenerate. This included works by major 20th century artists such as Picasso, Ernst, Matisse and Kandinsky.
The unexpected 130,000 visitors to the show ensured the exhibition’s future; it essentially became a survey of contemporary art every five years. From 1972, an international jury was assembled to select an artistic director who had the freedom to invite participating artists and play with the exhibition’s format, allowing for its reinvention every edition. This “reflects the current tendencies and urgencies of the respective time”, Schormann says.
The necessity to adapt and reinvent strikes a particularly resonant chord today, as the established systems which perpetrate racial injustices, drastic economic inequality and climate change are facing a reckoning. The ability to be able to able to start from scratch has been invaluable since the pandemic began. Ruangrupa’s emphasis on community-building, resource-sharing and sustainability seems more pertinent than ever. For Documenta, they proposed considering these values through the rural Indonesian tradition of lumbung.
The unofficial “theme”, a lumbung is a collectively governed rice barn, from which the harvest surplus is shared. Ruangrupa invited other artists and collectives from around the world to participate. “We’re not looking for practices which prove lumbung but which actually practise it,” says Rakun. “We want to learn from practices that are similar to us but that implement it [lumbung] differently—most of them are already practising their own articulations of lumbung.” It’s a way to problem-solve and present society with ideas that are conceived outside the box.
Participation entails an ongoing conversation between artists conducted via a mini majlis, or assembly, in addition to creating artwork to display for the actual exhibition. This weekly discussion prompts the artists to consider a collective model for resource-sharing, where resources also include ideas and knowledge. With this, Ruangrupa are trying to build and sustain relationships, a network and an ecosystem that will operate beyond the 100 days the exhibition is on.
True to their belief in the importance of friendship, the group’s selection process was based on “who they would want to spend and waste time with”. When they announced the artist list, the feedback they received was that most artists and groups on the list were unknown. But while they may not be well known in the broader art world, Rakun notes each has been vital within their own community.
Other participating collectives include The Black Archives from the Netherlands, which has a wealth of information documenting Black emancipation movements in the Netherlands, and the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algerie, a feminist archive which is building digital access to documents relating to Algerian feminist collectives and women’s movement associations in the country. Dhaka-based Britto Arts Trust, a safe space for artists, and Havana-based Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt, a group of activists in Cuba, are also part of the line-up.
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Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive (AAA) will also present a display, helmed by Ozge Ersoy, Samira Bose and Susanna Chung. The only organisation comprehensively documenting Asian art histories, AAA’s participation will “highlight less visible, multiple and abundant histories”, Bose says. “You might think there is no art history from this period or region, but actually a lot is going. It’s about the process of attuning to different knowledges, which is Ruangrupa’s intention with this edition.”
To be displayed in the Fridericianum, the main exhibition venue in Kassel, AAA’s presentation focuses on artists who played a major role in creating, preserving and sharing knowledge about art. Divided into three groups, the artists involved are part of collectives or larger communities: the Faculty of Fine Arts Baroda (India), who were looking to reimagine traditional art forms in the context of modern art history; Womanifesto, an international group of female artists who play in an important role in preserving traditional but disappearing craft forms; and a third group consisting of artists involved in a series of performance art festivals that have emerged in East and Southeast Asia, which other artists would in turn document and preserve. “We’re really interested in how the idea of collectivity exists in contemporary and modern art in this part of the world,” says Ersoy.
“Among all the artists and collectives, we have now have a bank of resources,” says Rakun. Sharing, Afisina adds, “is a natural way for us to live—the spirit of sharing, distributing, being introduced to other; that’s lumbung. We know how sufficient we are, and it’s simply about taking care of our society.”
This strong sense of self-sufficiency is contagious, willing others to be able to do the same, whatever their local context might be. “It’s vernacular, not unique,” says Rakun, describing lumbung. “We’re not trying to be radical, or geniuses who disrupt. It’s simply using what’s already there and then somehow making people realise that they can do it themselves as well.”