The 2022 edition of Orbitals took place in Brazil, from October 31 to November 10, 2022, and was organized as an introduction to some of the art activity in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The participants, Ahmad Al Aqra (Palestine), Farah Aksoy (Turkey/Iraq), Karim El Moselhi (Egypt), and Soumeya Ait Ahmed (Morocco), travelled together and met artists and curators, as well as art institutions and cultural initiatives in both cities. The research trip focused on questions around the right to land, art’s relationship to gentrification, and how to occupy space. The program was designed and organized by Krystel Khoury, Program Associate, with Brazilian artist Felipe Steinberg, who together guided the group during the trip.
The trip included visits to Museu De Arte do Rio, Museu De Arte Moderna de Rio de Janeiro, Bela Maré, Escola Livre de Dança da Maré, Museu da Maré, Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage (EAV), Pivô, Casa do Povo, SESC Pompeia, SESC Belenzinho, Teatro Oficina with artists Rodrigo Andreolli and Pedro Felizes, and Museu das Culturas Indígenas. It also offered site visits to Quilombo do Cafundá, Caes do Valongo, Pedra do Sal, Vila Itororó Canteiro Aberto, and Ocupação 9 de Julho, which is part of the Movimento Sem Teto do Centro (MSTC), led by Carmen Silva. They also visited studios with artists Aline Motta, Amilcar Paker, Eugenio Lima, Graziela Kunsch, Ricardo Basbaum, and Thelma Vilas Boas; and had encounters with curators Amanda Bonan, Ana Roman, Benjamin Seroussi, Bianca Bernardo, Helmut Batista, Jean Carlos Azuos, Keyna Eleison, and Sandra Benitez.
In reflecting on their trip back in November, the participants wrote “An Unfinished Text”, which may be found below, where they raise questions on reimagining their practices within a South-South dialogue and collaboration, a grassroots occupation of spaces, and critical community work, with all its contradictions and challenges. They wonder about their role as curators and researchers, and how their visits to many of these spaces may give nuances to their work and critique, each within their own city and local community.
The 4 participants were selected from a very competitive pool of over 80 applicants:
Ahmad Al Aqra (Palestine) curator, artist, and architect who explores the ways artistic practices can be used to unmake the state-building cultural infrastructure. Ahmad is currently a guest curator at the Palestinian Museum. He also co-founded Fana’ Collective in Ramallah.
Farah Aksoy (Turkey/Iraq) curator and art historian based in Istanbul. From December 2017 to September 2022, she was working on long-term exhibition projects as a programmer at SALT, a non-profit cultural institution located in Istanbul. Her research interests include modernism and comparative avant-gardes, postcolonial and globalization studies, and cultural politics within the Middle East and Turkey.
Karim El Moselhi (Egypt) cultural practitioner and researcher. He has worked with the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo and the Goethe Institute in Alexandria, and is currently working on an archival project on the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization. His interests include fashion, film, food, and pop culture.
Soumeya Ait Ahmed (Morocco) curator and cultural worker. She is also a member of “LE 18,” a multidisciplinary artistic space in Marrakech where she co-founded AWAL, an art and research program dedicated to ancestral and contemporary oral art forms in the Moroccan Atlas and Southeast. She is currently working on “Against Monoculture and Mono-Culture”, a multi-disciplinary art and research project on agricultural workers, climate change, and the apple industry in the High Atlas Mountains.
The 2022 edition of Orbitals was made possible with the support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Teiger Foundation.
“An Unfinished Text”
São Paulo, Brazil Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Turkey
Karim, Soumeya, Ahmad, Farah Online
It was indeed a unique experience to meet various cultural organizations, artists and professionals in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo on our quest around the issues of the right to land, art’s relationship to gentrification, and how to occupy space. In as little as 10 days, we, four cultural practitioners coming from a region with so many unresolved disputes and questions, had a crash course on Brazil’s history and culture, which almost in a way unraveled in its present, with our arrival coinciding with the presidential elections. As you’ll read below, we were—and still are—elaborating on our experiences. Yet our first mutual agreement regarding this trip has been that it would be unfair to develop a discourse on our impressions, probably because we are so accustomed to ‘others’ making one about ‘us’. Thus, the subjective posts below do not have any resolution, yet they are the initial steps of concrete future questions seeking new approaches on South-South solidarity, collaboration and action.
Karim: Coming from Egypt, with its current state of constant gentrification, whether from the state or the private sector, I am always trying to understand and learn how other cities deal with this kind of change. Being in Brazil was a huge learning experience for me, arriving first in Rio de Janeiro and then in São Paulo, where I got to witness a very complex society, different from the Arab region and yet shares many similarities. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to visit occupation sites, museums, and different cultural institutions that all have a social impact on the spaces where they exist. This all made me wonder how positive development could exist through many different approaches and forms.
In Brazil, I learned about the issue of public housing while visiting “Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho”. “Cozinha” is a building occupied by MSTC, a political housing movement in São Paulo, which aims to guarantee the constitutional right to housing and social reform. While the space took years to occupy, it is now a functioning commune-like space for many low-income families that now, through the movement, have access to education, culture and, in some cases, even legal papers and citizenship. The building is located in the middle of the city within a very central neighborhood, from the outside, it looks like an abandoned space. Once you walk in, however, this space comes to life. A beautiful garden, a small bar, vendors selling all kinds of desserts and pastries, an outdoors barbershop and a communal restaurant mostly run by the residents of the Occupation to help raise funds for themselves and the space. I believe that this is the kind of development that I would love to see more of in concentrated neighborhoods with tons of abandoned buildings in the big cities of Egypt, like Cairo and Alexandria. I wonder, though, about how we could run and infiltrate such movements there. I tried to project this narrative onto the current state in Egypt. It proved to be a challenge, and it was difficult to come up with definitive answers or make concrete conclusions. Having had a very short visit to the place, I cannot say that I completely understand how “Cozinha” still manages to function in Brazil’s current milieu.
“Casa do Povo” was yet another example of repurposing of old buildings to create a social impact. The space was founded by a non-profit cultural association in 1946, shortly after the Second World War. It was built with the collective effort of a portion of the leftist Jewish community that hailed from Eastern Europe, as a symbol of their resistance against the Nazis. The space has now transformed itself not only into a Jewish community center, but also as a home for any small and upcoming initiative, artists’ collectives, small businesses, and even for sports training groups. Any of these groups could use the space and be a part of it. While keeping and preserving its heritage as a symbol of resistance, the space is now used by many actors in the community. It continues to preserve its archive, which holds 4,000 books, hundreds of photographs, objects, and documents that tell some of the cultural history of the resistance to the dictatorship and Yiddish culture. Again, reflecting back on similar spaces in Egypt with its current state, I wondered how we could replicate this experience, while noting that most archives in the cities are state-run and that most of the minority-owned spaces are closed to the public due to security concerns. On its own, the South-South conversation shares many similarities but is still quite location-specific. Overall, visiting those spaces was an inspiration to hope for such future spaces in Egypt.
Currently, I am interested in the city of Alexandria’s past, present, and future in terms of artistic practice, use of spaces, and the process of development and gentrification. Many architects, urbanists, and Alexandrian intellectuals are opposed to the state’s new development of Alexandria’s shoreline, while many real-estate development companies are moving towards the preservation of many of the city’s European heritage buildings that are now mostly inhabited by local old shops and middle-class households. These European-style buildings mostly existed because of colonialism; one can always argue for the historical importance of preserving this architecture. I wish to explore, however, why it is important to preserve them, how we could move forward with these preservations without actually harming the current inhabitants of these areas, and how development or gentrification can benefit the urbanization of the city.
When I think about the Brazilian spaces we visited as a model for interventions that could potentially be positioned in Egypt, many questions come to mind: What would an occupation site in Egypt look like, and why is it not possible for the time being? How could heritage spaces for minorities in Alexandria, such as the Greek community, become open to members of the public to engage with these untold histories? These are the questions I want to explore in my work in and on Alexandria, looking for models where the development of neighborhood spaces could positively impact its inhabitants.
Soumeya: What do we have left to learn from the North, besides, maybe, a broken fragment of our own history?
When we think about our land, our customs, our imaginary, our archives, it is often a colonial image, a photograph, or a film that appears before our eyes. This image floats in a void where any narration would suit it. “Objective” history is then written by those who know how to make a beautiful story of a beautiful victory or, rather, a terrifying defeat. Our interpretations are then subjected to various external truths which —once written, painted, photographed or filmed— aspire to become ours. This is in part what today subjects and subjectifies our regions to a real, partial or metamorphosed colonialism. Our memory becomes kaleidoscopic, ruptured, fragmented through language and time, conjugated only in a future tense: to modernize, to develop, to civilize.
These fragments of broken memory are scattered in different contexts and territories. An image from Brazil floats into the void where a French voice brings it to Morocco, a Portuguese word is translated into English. I hear it in French, I read it in English, I think about it in Moroccan Darija. I have an idea of Brazil. I had an idea of Brazil, it was always present in my research as a set of references and inspirations. But no matter how close our shared experiences are, how similar our memories are — a northern filter interjects to keep us distant and to maintain a hegemonic mediation. I was faced with this fact when I recently visited Brazil for the first time. This hegemonic mediation existed despite the intense dialogue existing between the Brazilian cultural fabric and the history and culture of North Africa: an indigenous people who claim rights to exist on their own lands, a common Portuguese colonial trauma, a common historic tendency to escape from power— Quilombo dos Palmares is our Bled Siba. I have no doubt today, as an indigenous Amazigh, that mutual learning from other contexts can help resolve the issues faced by North African indigenous peoples. But then language, fragmentation, interjects again as I am put face to face with the first indigenous curator in Brazil— she didn`t speak English. With some rare exceptions, only white migrants (“expats”) or white Brazilian curators do. Their voice begins to force itself as the narrator of my journey, as that of Sandra Benites’ from the Museum of Indigenous Cultures. It frustrated me.
Yet, despite this unescapable voice-over and because of our common past, our realities still reside in the understanding of the narratives of all those who have experienced similar ruptures. This is why it is important to try to heal ourselves by developing intergenerational South-South approaches. Our fragmented memory leads us to believe that sometimes we are the first to address this or that question when in fact those who preceded us, often forgotten or recently commemorated, have already set the groundwork for these approaches. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, the first cine-clubs in North Africa were eager to show Brazilian Cinema Novo. Glauber Rocha’s films were programmed across Algeria and Morocco, fomenting debates and research, which also led to the development of a cinematographic language proper to the North African cultural context. The similarities between Ahmed Bouanani’s Mirage (1979) and Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1966) are striking.
Furthermore, and until today, the work of Augusto Boal and his “theater of the oppressed” has left undeniable traces on the Moroccan theatrical scene, where its theory is put in dialogue with our ancestral form of theater, the “Halqa” or the “Bsat.” Between Boal and the Halqa, the “Halqa-forum”– an entirely new theatrical school was born in Morocco. While visiting the Teatro Oficina, I could not help but think of how Moroccan performers could relish in its architecture. I thought of Hosni Mokhlis’ theater of the oppressed troupe in Casablanca and how architects of Moroccan theaters failed us, and how the architecture that builds around orality and our ancestral theatrical practices could help them thrive. I even thought of how–
I will stop here, it’s an unfinished text.
I have far more to say, but there’s no time. Even in Brazil, there was no time. No time to rest, no time to apprehend this entirely new context at our own pace. It’s what grantmakers want across our region in general. They want us to pack our programs, over-programs, produce, over-produce. Orbitals, this program, which took four people from North Africa and Southwest Asia to Brazil, fell victim to this tendency like we all do. Yet, Orbitals makes sense, no – it’s a primordial initiative. What other artistic initiatives allow for south-south dialogues like this? Almost all international exchanges outside the North African region are with Europe, so I’ll finish with this: there must be a multiplication of Orbitals. It should be the norm, not the exception because… what do we have left to learn from the North, besides–
Ahmad: I have always questioned my position in the art world and the role of contemporary artistic practices in furthering the narratives of the elite in the Arab world. I’ve always wondered about the ways in which artists, collectives, and practitioners deconstruct such narratives from within and outside the current established artistic infrastructure to contest history as written. In Palestine, it seems that the current trends within art circles succumb to such a narrative and have rather developed side by side with the rise of the new bourgeoisie that is a descendant of the feudalist families.
I have always wanted to demolish this narrative.
I was looking forward to learning from black and indigenous communities about the ways they practice their art towards the establishment of independent infrastructure that operates outside the state/neoliberal/elite establishment. I was educated in Europe and most of my current knowledge has roots in white epistemological discourse about art. Does being in Palestine legitimize my practices even if there is such a rupture between what I want and what is available?
We are our own contradiction – but is that enough?
I wanted to unveil these contradictions that are found in all the collectives, artists, and institutions that we encountered. When I first arrived at “Lanchonete – Ocupaçao Bar Delas”, I was horrified to learn the history of the place; located in one of the oldest parts of Rio de Janeiro, the area was a gateway to slavery due to its proximity to the port. Several ruins and signs indicating the cruel history that the black community has experienced are visible. The area is still underdeveloped and neglected, yet many grassroots collectives are attempting to revive it and acknowledge its cruel history. When we met Thelma Vilas Boas, an artist who is currently operating a small social kitchen in the area, it was clear that she has been living her own contradictions as well, trying to converse with her White heritage in this scarred part of her city.
This is what I wanted to understand.
Museu da Maré was a highlight. In the middle of one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas, there stands a unique museum, unlike any other. I was astonished by the collective curatorial approach that one of the curators explained to us. They do curate exhibitions collectively breaking the egoistic and self-centered approach that most of us curators have. It was a marvelous experience going around this museum that narrated the history of the Favella in a beautiful and honest way, using several themes that stem from people’s everyday life. Like some who also worked in museums, I questioned my own ways of operating in artistic institutions.
Who are we producing art for?
Meeting all these diverse collectives in Brazil and seeing the different ways they operate within and outside of institutions was very insightful. The way I witnessed a city like São Paulo bend itself to the movement of one of the members of “Teatro Oficina”, the way I saw “Casa do Povo” pulse to every word spoken by its director, the way we ventured into complex layers of history and social struggles was undeniably emotional, intense, and rich. As a person who is experiencing different forms of oppression, it was difficult to process and comprehend the history and the stories of all these people we met. It’d take a lot of time to unveil that and, in fact, consider the end of this trip to be the start of another journey of self-reflection – to unveil and acknowledge other truths and accept them all as part of my own. The Poetry of another land may in fact very well be my own as well.
I believe there is no conclusion to this trip. It is an ongoing journey.
Farah: Our experience was far beyond any stereotypical expectations one might have when traveling to Brazil for the first time. Both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in their unique nature, offered us unimagined social formations to further each of our individual practices.
The trip, which started in Jardim Botânico in Rio, a botanical garden founded by King John VI of Portugal in 1808, which was once also home to a gunpowder factory, ended with an intimate dinner conversation in São Paulo with Eugênio Lima of Legitima Defensa, a collective of performing artists and musicians of poetry whose work and research focus on the reflection and representation of blackness and its historical social unfolding. What commenced as almost a warming up exercise on dismantling the connections between the symbolic notions of land, sovereignty, and the capital ended with questions on the social structuring of the Brazilian national identity, the utopian yet hegemonic project of the 20th century – modernism, and the Third World as a construct.
The first meeting that left an impression on me was with Thelma Vilas Boas, the initiator of “Lanchonete – Ocupação Bar Delas” in Rio. She shifted from her photography-based art practice to a social practice through Lanchonete, a place that hosts workshops, readings, and plays, but primarily runs a collective kitchen in the Gamboa neighborhood. This place extends to the sidewalks when it’s busy particularly, with womxn and children of the ‘non-hegemonic’ community coming from poor living conditions. The conversations we had within the team about our privileges—whether racial or social—in a sense, could be traced back to this initial visit.
Although I have had some experience at the intersection of research-based work that problematizes various concepts through visual art practices, the Museu da Maré, which was created by a group of young residents as part of the CEASM – Centro de Ações Solidárias, which aims to create a self-representation of the Maré favela to strengthen the positive image of this slum and self, had a transformative effect. It was inspiring to see how the history of struggle and independence from slavery, evolving into territorial defense, can be shaped through public contributions, without following a top-down institutional methodology. What other roles can a visual exhibition have? Beyond being documents and photographs, how do archival sources find a response in the lives of the victims of this history? In light of these questions, this is the first time I became acquainted with an authentic social museum.
We then were introduced to “Casa do Povo” in São Paulo, which re-explores the concepts of culture, community and memory, while making the ‘people’—in the literal sense—its fundamental component. Regardless of the concerns regarding the active production of programming or content, activities within the organization see art as a critical tool in an ongoing process of social transformation. Witnessing the venue’s adaptability to function based on any group’s needs was a useful opportunity to address the gaps in my own professional experience, working in certain non-profit cultural institutions, where almost everything is very rigid and lacks room for genuine public outreach.
Ultimately, I ended this trip with some questions in mind. What would have changed if it was possible for us to feed off of a direct south-south connection, like we did in Brazil, instead of referring to the lexicon, curriculum, and systems developed by the “central systems” of the North? If we frequently demolished certain concepts and resorted to rewriting our own narratives? Most of the artistic practices or local institutions with which we frequently cooperate cannot function independently of certain forms of ‘European’ support; often forcing us to reappropriate such tools of soft power. Accordingly, how can the remnants of this visit serve as a model for our future endeavors? Aside from imitating existing structures, as if we were satellites in the periphery, how can communal practices and collectivity reshape our networks in the region like in the cases we encountered in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo?
We would like to express our gratitude to Mophradat’s dear Krystel Khoury and artist Felipe Steinberg for their knowledge, patience, and warmth throughout this trip. They made it even more worthwhile and rewarding. And finally, our thanks go to Mophradat for providing us with this opportunity in the first place.