For the exhibition  water bodies - narratives of the anthropocene  at Mahalla Berlin, nine artists from Africa, Latin America and Europe came together - as part of a documenta fifteen residency. They have dealt with the theme in very different ways: Their strategies range from whistle blowing to reflection, from documentation and shocking to healing.

Juste Constant Onana Amougui, Isadora Canela, Hugo Haddad, Lis Haddad, Esther Kute, Thaís Paiva Machado, Theophilus Mensah, Shonisani Netshia, Christian Kabuß

19.8.2022 - 21.8.2022, MaHalla Berlin

In cooperation with Benjamin Merten (thx again) and Joachim Borner (Projekthof Karnitz)

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Joint opening with Jim Avignon


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Water Bodies - Narratives of the Anthropocene

By Benjamin Merten


Fahrenheit -459,67 is the temperature at which paper sets fire. Brazilian artist, Isadora Canela, carefully and patiently returns to this exact temperature in her creation of the artwork with ‘fire on paper’. Through experimentation, Canela reveals a dystopian landscape that once alive, now erodes, quite literally into flames. At its centre, a human figure walks away from a burning habitat and faces the spectator - desperate, bewildered and in search of words that capture a collapsing world.


The artwork was part of the exhibition Water Bodies - Narratives of the Anthropocene at MaHalla, which showed the work of nine artists from Africa, Latin America and Europe who came together as part of the documenta fifteen residency. Meeting in Kassel within the framework of the EXPLORING VISUAL CULTURES program for the first time, the artists discussed their experiences and initial research on the Anthropocene in their respective countries. A collaborative process, which made space for honest exchange and specifically a conversation particularly resonant amongst artists experiencing the global consequences of exploitation and hyper-capitalism (from Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana to Cameroon).


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Fahrenheit -459,67, fire on paper, 250cm x 130cm, 2022 by Isadora Canela


After their time at Kassel, the collective went on to a residency at Projekthof Karnitz in Mecklenburg Vorpommern, here, the artists were supported to transform theoretical discourse and impressions from the documenta fifteen into art.


Rooted and guided by their own personal experiences and cultural and artistic backgrounds, each participant formed ideas related to the multifaceted Anthropocene. During these discussions, water was quickly identified not only as an indispensable source of life, but also as a carrier of stories, meaning and hope. Integrating these ideas into their making process, the group then collectively decided on techniques and materials to best translate and articulate their conversations. Over the course of the project’s timelines the group realised various artworks which became site specific installations on their exhibition in Berlin.


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Impressions from the residency in Karnitz, taken by Juste Constant Onana Amougui


Entering the cavernous industrial hall of the exhibition venue on the day of the opening, visitors were first met by Esther Kute’s, Theophilus Kwesi Mensah’s, Juste Constant Onana Amougui’s and Shonisani Netshia’s installation, titled the Foreigners Bag. This work was based on a bag that Kute had bought in 2015 on her previous visit to Germany. While buying the bag, she was assured it was real leather, which she intended to use resourcefully and pass on to future generations, therefore paying a large amount of money for it. However, within only four years, the bag proceeded to peel and degenerate in a way only synthetic, oil-based PU/PVC materials are capable of. Travelling back to Germany this year, Kute saw a great opportunity to return the bag to its original source.


Just like the Return to Sender art installation by The Nest Collective (also from Nairobi, Kenya), that Kute saw in Kassel, the award-winning textile and industrial design practitioner aimed to reduce, in a minuscule way, the export of waste from countries from the Global North to countries in the Global South, whilst creating awareness around the multitudinous damage the fast fashion industry inflicts on the environment.


The exhibition continued with a towering water fountain made of barrels, hoses and water - produced by the team led by Brazilian artists Thaís Machado and Isadora Canela. The title O amanhã não está a venda (2022) translates into the popular saying ‘The future is not for sale’ - which was written in various other languages, from Twi to Swahili, and refers to waste and overproduction of resources, which future generations face the consequence of. The sound of the water dripping from the fountain was amplified, so it acoustically and metaphorically emphasized that one day, there might not be any water left.


Theophilus Kwesi Mensah is a sculptor, painter and performer born in Ghana. Menshah led the art installation Clay Heads. The small human skulls which comprise this work are made from eco-friendly and biodegradable clay extracted from water bodies around Karnitz and assembled on silver trays, with empty water vessels hanging ominously above these sculptural pieces. The facial expression of each sculpture is marked by a disturbing and desperate thirst and yearning for water.


In a panel discussion between all the artists on day two of the exhibition, Mensah articulated the significance of pure water in the Ghanaian culture – also referring to his installation Bottles. Referring to his installation made of upcycled plastic kites, Hugo Haddad passionately responded to Mensah’s provocation, acknowledging how easily the world becomes imbalanced when ecosystems are threatened. Together with his Brazilian colleagues, Haddad is committed to researching and working on the exploitation of mines in the state of Minas Gerais and the repercussions on land, society and democracy in Brazil. Consequences that disproportionately affect countries in the Global South, where colonial empires started to drill for resources. A commentary that artist Shonisani Netshia portrayed in her abstract painting inspired by mining waste in South Africa.


The collaborative installation Becoming River was a 19-minute video projected on the same 124m long white fabric piece that was used in a performance two weeks prior to this exhibition, during the artists’ residency in Karnitz. The video shows all participating artists carrying the piece of fabric onto an arid and parched corn field in the evening light, located in an area in Eastern Germany that has been suffering acutely from global warming for years. With the white fabric laid down on the floor, it evoked the image of a river, revitalising a field that was harvested in late August. In their performance, the artists then ‘washed their clothes’ in the metaphorical river, an ode to traditional human labour, fast fashion consumption and the purifying energy of water.


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In her artwork Amphora Uterus, Lis Haddad compares the privatization of water to the fertility of a female body.


As a photographer and filmmaker Hugo Haddad was responsible for a 2-channel video installation (Myriad, 2022) that interrogated the mining industry through a specialised AI program. Other outstanding works of the exhibition were paintings by Christian Kabuß, which showed the fragile constitution of man and the work of Juste Constant Onana Amougui responding to water pollution. Please refer to the individual artwork descriptions on this site for a more detailed description.



So what can we learn from this exhibition which attracted around 3.000 visitors, but was only up for a single weekend? As a starting point and framework, documenta fifteen focused on the process of art making in the context of people rather than the exhibition of shiny new artworks. Building upon this discourse, the exhibition WATER BODIES also showcased a collaborative spirit spanning across continents, playfully yet consciously exploring and researching our ever-evolving relationship with the world. By delving beneath the superficial layer that enshrouds the art market, the installations were able to tackle human emotions, existential quests and political mistrust in a tangible and genuine way.


The residencies in Kassel and Karnitz were able to create a safe space for the artists to learn from one another and re-write Eurocentric narratives. Coming up against ecological battlefields across the Global South, the artists negotiated ideas of possession, ownership and exploitation - concepts that continue to define individual mindsets and economic structures even long after the dawn of colonialism.


The artists’ immediate concerns, provoked audiences to rethink their global responsibility and re-connect with indigenous communities and the ancestral wisdom innate within these groups - a source of knowledge to understand and preserve our planet. Bringing an awareness to the urgency of drastic ecological changes that can be observed across the globe, the show also consolidated its political relevance.


In November, two months after the exhibition, a photo went viral on Instagram (or at least in the geo-targeted region of Berlin). The post showed a light projection on a skyscraper that is currently being erected in Berlin Friedrichshain: THE WRONG AMAZON IS BURNING - it said in capital letters and in opposition to the new Amazon Headquarter in Berlin. Another artistic intervention that proves the planetary vision that is informing art production and activism in the early 2020’s. A provocative statement that harks back to Isadora Canela and her play with fire:

”In 2022 the mountain in front of my house (in Brazil) set fire, the Amazon is burning, South Africa, Angola, US, Europe. Where there is not enough water, the world is on fire. Geographic and thermal extremes meet in the post-industrial apocalypse of the Capitalocene. This is not theoretical.“


Benjamin Merten

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