What Does Collectivist Art Look Like?
In 2022, collectives from the Global South took over the world’s most prestigious art show, and the backlash was swift.
His mouth is frozen in anguish, an infinite scream. His eyes bulge upward, overcome by horror, hands clutching his head. I cannot look away. His face is too forlorn, his backdrop too wretched.
I inch toward the banner, dated 2005, which spans the full gallery wall. With my phone’s translation app, I make out some Indonesian text: “Iapa yang peduli dengan kejadian damai dan perang” — “who cares about the events of peace and war.” Surrounding these words are a contented crowd of children swinging from trees, farmers working fields, and musicians serenading their community. As I make my way across the drawing, people’s eyes deaden and hands rise to shield their faces. Behind them hangs a poster of George W. Bush with the words “remember weapons of mass destruction” and a string of skulls. Military tanks roll alongside UN vehicles. Bodies litter the ground.
At the banner’s center, stands a crowd of skeletons in business suits. The leaders carry the American, British and Australian flags. Behind them, others bear the flags of Israel, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Below them, the radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and his disciples are chained together. The scene sits above a pile of skulls, guarded by Indonesian security forces.
And below them all is the infinite scream from which I cannot turn away.
The work in front of me, “Besar Perang dari pada Damai” (“Bigger the War than the Peace”) by Aris Prabawa of Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, was inspired by U.S.-backed bloodshed in countries like Indonesia and Iraq. The piece is part of Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita (The Flame of Solidarity: First They Came for Them, Then They Came for Us), a retrospective of Taring Padi’s 23-year history. It was one among hundreds of art shows, workshops and activations at documenta 15, the 15th edition of the prestigious 100-day art exhibition that takes over the town of Kassel, Germany (population 217,796), every five years. During summer 2022, 738,000 visitors from 86 countries came to see what’s au courant in art.
Taring Padi’s show dazzled with dense murals recounting capitalism’s violence in Indonesia, woodcut posters demanding food sovereignty and internationalism, and works celebrating Indonesian environmental activists and denouncing neoliberal foes like the International Monetary Fund. These pieces were born of anguish and of rage. And yet, the space hummed with hope.
Not everyone seemed as taken by Taring Padi’s work. Some visitors lapped the main exhibition space and then hurried out, skipping key areas. I suppose it was unsurprising: Controversy around Taring Padi had erupted at documenta 15, focused around one mural scene with anti-Semitic imagery (more on that later). Besides the controversy, the epic murals were reminiscent of Diego Rivera; for many, it likely seemed démodé, and one critic knocked the show’s “NGO aesthetic.” Because for the past 70 years, this is the type of art — figurative, political, collectivist — that Western powers, led by the United States, have tried to extinguish.
THE AMERICAN FIGHT TO DEPOLITICIZE ART
Art has long been a site of political battle. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union wielded the arts to advance their agendas. Starting in 1947, the Soviet Information Bureau began organizing conferences to bolster public support for communism. Attendees like Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Arthur Miller and others were sympathetic; philosopher Raymond Aron had, after all, declared Marxism “opium for intellectuals.” Beyond communism’s philosophical appeal, many artists were drawn to the funding for culture offered by communist parties.
U.S. officials were horrified. They decided they must quell this enthusiasm for communism before artists stoked greater public support. In 1950, the U.S. government organized a conference to present capitalism and culture as happy bedfellows, bringing hundreds of leading American and European intellectuals to West Berlin. Attendees included Tennessee Williams and Bertrand Russell. In front of 15,000 people, the newly launched Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) — an ostensibly independent cultural advocacy group — sought to replace the Soviet narrative of “peace-loving progressives versus imperialist warmongers” with one more flattering to America: “totalitarianism versus freedom.” The operation was largely, and secretly, funded by the CIA.
Over time, CCF organized and funded an extensive network of congresses, literary magazines, art exhibitions and music events promoting America’s brand of freedom. In art, CCF championed modernism, a movement that had been deemed “degenerate” by the Third Reich and “bourgeois” by the Soviets. To CCF officials, modernism represented innovation and freedom of expression — inherently anti-communist. To make this case, they allied with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
For decades, MoMA, with CIA funding, organized traveling exhibits to advance U.S. geopolitical interests. In 1956, it exhibited 12 Modern American Painters and Sculptors, a showcase of multiple styles of American art — a retort to the official Soviet style of socialist realism. The show’s largest section was dedicated to contemporary art, with works by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. American officials were particularly keen to promote Pollock’s giant canvases of wild, unrestrained drip paint romanticizing individual freedom and the search for self. Conveniently, they were also devoid of politics.
Audiences were not uniformly won over. One viewer in Belgrade, then capital of the Non-Aligned Movement, described the show as “some kind of American Tutti-Frutti.”
Whatever the response, the CCF — one of the world’s largest ever cultural funding programs — changed history. At its height, it operated in 35 countries and funded more than 20 publications to “propagate Western democratic culture,” many helmed by the leading writers of their generation. Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, for example, got his start publishing poems in the CCF-backed Black Orpheus.
In 1967, the New York Times revealed the CCF as a CIA front. Many groups were furious and cut their links, but others shrugged it off. The celebrated Iowa Writers Workshop, which some blame for depoliticizing the Great American Novel, was also CIA-funded. Its graduates went on to publish in influential CCF-funded magazines like The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Paris Review and Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
What might our world look like if some of the most celebrated writers, artists and social scientists of the past two generations had not been lured to prioritize individual introspection over collective struggle? What would alternative paths of patronage and imagination have yielded?
These are impossible questions. We will never know. Yet, because of documenta 15’s visionary cultural organizing, we can see what a new alternative might look like.
REIMAGINING COLLECTIVE STRUCTURES
To understand documenta 15’s vision for the future, we must first understand the history of those setting it. Let’s go back to October 1965, when the Indonesian military began a CIA-backed anti-Communist purge targeting members of the popular Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the world’s third-largest Communist party after China and the Soviet Union. Over six months, an estimated one million citizens were tortured, raped and killed. The CIA noted it as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” — and a major victory for capitalism, as well as a key turning point in the Cold War.
In July 1966, with a $10,000 CCF grant, a group of Jakarta based writers launched the magazine Horison. Its opening editorial reads: “We launched ‘Horison’ in our society that is in the midst of reawakening the spirit to fight for the return of all democratic values, human freedom, and dignity of the Indonesian people.” This was the American intelligence cultural alliance in action: First, depose political actors who disagree with our agenda. Then, shift the culture so future generations support it.
In 1967, the CIA-backed General Suharto wrested power away from Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, a revolutionary who had won Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. One of Suharto’s first tasks was enlisting the Berkeley Mafia—a group of American-educated economists—to reverse Sukarno’s economic self-sufficiency policies. The Berkeley Mafia quickly deregulated the economy, privatized national industries and opened Indonesia to foreign investment. America was delighted.
The honeymoon lasted 30 years. In 1997, Indonesia’s economy collapsed. Citizens flooded the streets, among them a group of artists in Yogyakarta. Some made posters denouncing Suharto’s corruption. Others used street theater, music and shadow puppetry to mobilize fellow citizens.
After much resistance (and only after the United States called for his resignation), Suharto stepped down, ending 32 years of authoritarian rule. The artists were jubilant. Energized by the fruits of their activism, they formed a collective called Taring Padi (“Rice Fangs”), after the first growth of the rice plant, which resembles fangs sprouting from the earth. Rice can nourish an entire community, but its fangs can also bite those who challenge them.
Taring Padi published a manifesto, “The Five Evils of Culture,” which spurned the notion of art for art’s sake and declared social justice as art’s defining goal. They chided institutions that objectified and judged art, thus pitting artists against each other, and they rejected individual freedom and expression as art’s core values. Such American ideologies, they believed, were immoral, since they encouraged artists to put individual gain above collective interest.
The manifesto became Taring Padi’s practice. For about 20 years, the group has stood with the humble and oppressed at protests, vigils and street actions. “Solidarity,” it insists, is a verb, and justice a shared responsibility.
Under Suharto, rigid social structures served the elite. The Western-influenced market had pushed artists toward apolitical abstract expressionism while political artists were jailed. After Suharto’s fall, another group of artists — this time from Jakarta — wondered how new structures might seed different ways of being and relating. They, too, started an art collective: ruangrupa (ruang means “space” and grupa means “form”).
To start, ruangrupa rented a house in Jakarta for nongkrong— Indonesian for the sweet pursuit of hanging out — a practice the group viewed as inherently anti-capitalist and anti-productive. At ruruhouse, people gathered and shared knowledge, unconcerned with tangible results.
As part of ruangrupa’s experimentation, it partnered with activists and nonprofits on social justice campaigns. Soon, the group grew disillusioned by how fragmented and incrementalist most people seemed, their energies focused on demanding only marginally better.
“Political activism has often failed us because it’s divided, based on ethnicity, class, political belief,” said member Farid Rakun, naming a Gordian knot of today’s social movements. Realizing the limits of protesting what exists, ruangrupa shifted its focus to modeling what could be: “We became interested in, ‘How do we build together?’ ”
In 2018, ruangrupa co-founded Gudskul, an art school teaching the art of collectivism. Subjects include the history of collectivism, the politics of spatial practices and collective finances. While the curriculum may appear countercultural, ruangrupa reminds us that collectivism has been a central practice through most of Indonesian history. Under Suharto, people became cogs in the imported neoliberal project, their labor redirected toward “development” to enrich Jakarta businessmen and distant nations. What might a return to tradition yield?
EXPERIMENTS IN RADICAL CARE
At documenta 15, ruangrupa became the second-ever Global South curator and the first-ever collective to direct the storied exhibit. Like Taring Padi, ruangrupa rejected the notion of artists as exemplars of individual freedom and aimed instead to explore how artists might advance collective liberation. The group spurned the idea of art as apolitical objects, and wanted to demonstrate art as political practice.
Ruangrupa knew other collectives were also doing important reimagination work — how could they use documenta 15 to learn from each other? Suharto’s brutality had taught them that caring for each other was essential— how far could these cosmologies of care extend? To explore these questions, ruangrupa would distribute documenta’s power. Forty-two million euros of it.
“The rise of neoliberalism brought endless suffering, widening inequality and ever-accumulating elite privilege,” said ruangrupa member Mirwan Andan. “Sharing resources was key to survival.”
For documenta 15, ruangrupa negotiated higher artist fees, invited art collectives it admired to co-create the exhibit, and asked those groups to invite others. The collaborators ballooned to a record 1,500 artists. Participants sold work through a cooperative gallery. Ruangrupa battled German bureaucracy to send money to Global South collectives and negotiated to donate a portion of ticket sales to ecological projects, including a sustainability festival in Sumatra, Indonesia, and land reforestation near the exhibition’s home of Kassel, Germany.
In 2020, two ruangrupa members moved to Kassel to explore how documenta 15 might serve local communities. They were pained by the houselessness they saw, and learned the city’s unhoused population earned money from selling Asphalt, a street magazine covering poverty and houselessness. They decided to announce their artist list—a highly anticipated event — in Asphalt, driving sales.
To select exhibition sites, ruangrupa took the idea of acupoints from acupuncture, creating energetic pathways through the city to decentralize the show and connect it to Kassel’s neglected industrial east.
The symbolic center of documenta is the Fridericianum, one of the world’s first public museums (founded in 1779) and historically the show’s most prestigious venue; it is a space for grand gestures. Ruangrupa turned it into Fridskul, a school that exhibited artists with educational practices. Workshops by Vietnamese, Kyrgyzstani and Ghanaian artists explored questions like: How do we organize through long and intersecting crises? What have we learned about resilience?
In the Fridericianum, I noticed only four European collectives, and each foregrounded populations marginalized in their countries: OFF-Bienale Budapest (Hungary) celebrated Roma artists; The Black Archives (Netherlands) presented the legacy of Black Dutch activists; Project Art Works (U.K.) featured the work of neurodivergent artists; and *foundationClass (Germany) centered migrant wisdom. Was this curatorial choice a challenge to mainstream European art? A statement of solidarity with marginalized populations?
I pose the question to ruangrupa member Farid Rakun, who looks surprised. “Really? Interesting.” His eyes roll up, scanning his mental catalog against my query. “I guess you’re right. It was not intentional, but that’s how it played out.”
I consider the beauty of this coincidence: That after scouring the world for those with the most to teach, the majority of these artists came from the Global South. The few from Europe were ostracized in their own countries. There was only one American collective, Black Quantum Futurism.
Another revealing fact: 95% of documenta 15 artists did not have gallery representation. Rakun explains that this, too, was unintentional. But it does speak to the (ir)relevance of the institutionalized art mainstream to the lumbung vision, the practice of documenta 15.
Lumbung literally refers to an Indonesian collective rice barn, where a community’s excess harvest is stored and redistributed. Much Western ink has been spilled about lumbung in tones suggesting that collectivism is an admirable (if quixotic) idea, its harvest some kind of Global South Tutti-Frutti. But “being in common” has deep roots, known in many South American countries as minga (a Quechua term), in Cherokee communities as gadugi, in several African countries as ubuntu (a Bantu philosophy), in East Asian cultures as guanxi, from Confucian philosophy and in some Arab communities as naffīr.
Across human history, collectivism has, in fact, been the norm. Capitalism has tried to discredit it as inefficient, naive and backward. But at documenta 15, artists reclaimed their inheritance. In the shadow of dominant Western, top-down approaches, ruangrupa insists on the beauty and possibilities of art as radical, bottom-up organizing.
Indonesian art collective Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF), for example, hosted the New Rural Agenda Summit, with artists from rural areas of Congo, Mali, Palestine and others. The name is a rebuke of the UN Human Settlements Programme, or UN Habitat, and its New Urban Agenda.
UN Habitat frames urbanization as natural, inevitable and “a tremendous opportunity” for sustainable development. But urbanization is neither natural nor inevitable; it is an outcome of neoliberalism. Yet according to the U.K.-funded Coalition for Urban Transitions, “Indonesia has not reaped the full rewards of urbanization.” Its evidence: a 2016 World Bank analysis showing Indonesia’s GDP per capita rose only 4% — versus China’s 10% and Vietnam’s 8% — for each percentage point increase in urban population.
JaF rejects this calculus and offers to help correct Indonesia’s so-called urban inefficiencies, which will only further enrich wealthy nations. The group rejects climate-doom narratives that see their communities as expendable, exploring instead a path of collective and planetary care. The New Rural Agenda Summit’s performances declared: We exist. Our bodies exist. Our homes exist. We refuse your urbanization schemes. We refuse your development agendas. We refuse to be complicit in our own destruction.
We will build our own power. We will find our own way.
POWER FIGHTS BACK
The question posed by documenta 15 is the urgent question of our times: In a world that keeps breaking our hearts, what can we learn about survival from communities that have long battled political, economic and ecological crises?
Most media coverage, however, focused on a different question: Was documenta 15 anti-Semitic?
For context: Around the opening, attendees noticed anti-Semitic caricatures in “People’s Justice,” a Taring Padi mural that depicts events across Indonesian history. One scene of the 1965 mass killings shows soldiers of various countries assisting, identified by the labels on their helmets: KGB, M-15, MOSSAD and ASIO. Nearby, a caricature of a Jewish man with sidelocks, fangs and a Nazi SS hat watches.
Once notified, documenta 15 officials swiftly removed the piece. Taring Padi apologized, as did ruangrupa, and explained that the piece was created 20 years ago to explore the global networks complicit in Indonesian injustices. The artists had not meant to single out Israel; in the mural, greater blame is placed on the U.S. and U.K. Still, German activists, including those who are proudly anti-Muslim (Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation), persisted in condemning the entire exhibition. They pointed to documenta 15’s inclusion of Palestinian collectives and groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as additional evidence of anti-Semitism.
The media latched on. German social media exploded. Pro-Israel groups called for the resignation of key figures at documenta 15 and the German Ministry of Culture, the cutting of public funding for the exhibition and increased state oversight of artistic expression. The German Parliament brought ruangrupa in for questioning, and one Palestinian collective saw its exhibition space vandalized. Muslim artists received death threats. Documenta 15 eventually appointed a “scientific advisory panel” to examine whether the show was anti-Semitic; its conclusion: yes, it was. One art historian described the committee and its reasoning “a mockery of science.” More than 100 artists and collectives issued a letter protesting this assessment and pasted posters across the exhibition: “we are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united” and “telenovela documenta, season 15, final episode.”
At documenta 15, entangled lineages of racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism and genocide collided. Scholar Michael Rothberg coined the term “multidirectional memory” as a way of understanding what happens when different histories of extreme violence confront each other in the public sphere. Interestingly, he notes that the anti-Semitism in Indonesia is entirely European in origin, brought by German Nazis to Indonesia in the 1930s and supported by Dutch colonists. Today, it has boomeranged back to Germany.
Instead of grappling with their country’s culpability, German politicians and media chose to perform their superiority. Rothberg argues that “Germany’s guardians of ‘anti-anti-Semitism’ have largely taken the opportunity of a disturbing image in a 20-year-old work of political art created in a radically different context to instrumentalize accusations of anti-Semitism and confirm their own prejudices about the Global South.”
At documenta 15, artists largely of the Global South offered a rare, revolutionary vision for our future, while the media instead fixated on one historical piece. Meanwhile, white elites rarely apologize for grave misdeeds; when they do, they are commonly offered redemption. Western countries that brutalize others mostly deny their crimes, let alone apologize. America certainly never has for its own history in Indonesia.
THE POSSIBILITIES OF LUMBUNG
Toni Cade Bambara said the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Documenta 15 showed how delicious, and how close, a revolution of care can be. For one week, I wandered Kassel taking notes on how to imagine, organize and build.
On my final night, I saw a ruangrupa member at a bar. I thanked him for the show, briefly recounting my moments of joyful revelation. Before I finished, a white British artist interjected to mock me in exaggerated falsetto: “Oh, I too cried throughout the show!”
The Brit was the most famous person at the bar, with a Turner Prize nomination and work in the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Tate. But I had not approached the table to talk to him. My enthusiasm had nothing to do with him. Would it be possible, I asked, just for 100 days — or 100 seconds now — to decenter himself? He looked surprised, then wandered off for a smoke.
I walked to the Fridericianum, where a crowd gathered nightly in the courtyard. Films played on the museum walls and groups huddled in a see-through sauna shaped like the Fukushima nuclear reactor. I scooped a bowl of goulash from the communal pot and grabbed a beer, dropping some euros into the donation box, then joined a group by the fire. A Japanese artist barbecued chicken wings to share. We were Taiwanese, Brazilian, Austrian, Malaysian, Kenyan. We told stories. We shared our hearts. We laughed. We nongkrong’d.
A crowd bobbed to reggae-laced techno on the dance-floor and I joined Aboriginal artist Richard Bell from Australia, a beloved fixture at documenta 15. Of its 100 days, Bell had only left for 17.
“I’m 68. I’ve gotten around, I’ve done a lot of things,” he grinned. “But this? Look around. Look at this.” I did, and for a minute we were silent, humbled, awed.
“Our communities, our stories, our ways being celebrated. This is incredible, this is the best thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said, “Why would I ever want to leave?”
Panthea Lee is an ethnographer, writer and activist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is currently writing a book on healing, imagination and structural justice.