Kader Attia, Berlin Biennale’s Curator

15 September, 2022
Kad­er Attia in the video “Reflect­ing Mem­o­ry,” direct­ed by Mat­teo Frit­tel­li (cour­tesy Mat­teo Frittelli).


The pro­lif­ic French-Alger­ian mul­ti­me­dia artist Kad­er Attia, whose work focus­es on colo­nial and post-colo­nial his­to­ry, trau­ma, and the spaces of repair, had his biggest event in Berlin with the Berlin Biennale.


Melissa Chemam


In 2021, when he was cho­sen to be the cura­tor of the 12th Berlin Bien­nale for Con­tem­po­rary Art (June 11 to Sep­tem­ber 18, 2022), Kad­er Attia titled the edi­tion “Still Present!” Ear­ly on, he expressed a desire to explore “how colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism con­tin­ue to oper­ate in the present” and to “decol­o­nize the art world and museums.”

“There is a sort of prin­ci­ple of invis­i­bil­i­ty in Berlin,” Attia told me recent­ly over Zoom, “linked to the reuni­fi­ca­tion of the two Ger­ma­nies, with the vio­lence of the cap­i­tal­ist hege­mo­ny, which has result­ed in a forced dis­ap­pear­ance of the East’s iden­ti­ty, as well as the obliv­ion over Germany’s colo­nial enterprise.” 

Attia want­ed to invite Ger­man artists to the Bien­nale as much as artists from the diverse dias­po­ra to be found in Berlin and beyond — the Viet­namese com­mu­ni­ty, for instance, which he insist­ed was often for­got­ten. This com­mu­ni­ty grew with the arrival of so-called “boat peo­ple,” refugees from the Viet­nam war, Attia reminds us. But he also reached out to oth­er exiles, from Asia, Latin Amer­i­ca and of course the Arab world.

“I’ve been liv­ing in the city for about a decade,” he said. “I live in a ‘white’ area of East Berlin, where the aes­thet­ic of the DDR [the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of East Ger­many, as abbre­vi­at­ed in Ger­man] is still present. Here is the for­mer head­quar­ters of the STASI [the for­mer East Ger­man State Secu­ri­ty Ser­vice, or state police], as well as diverse com­mu­ni­ties from the for­mer social­ist bloc, from Asia to Africa.”

Berlin has long been known for its vibrant Turk­ish com­mu­ni­ty, as Ger­many and Turkey have built strong ties since World War I, which includ­ed open­ing routes for Turk­ish migra­tion to Ger­many. But over the past ten years, with the Arab Spring and the war in Syr­ia, Mid­dle East­ern cul­ture has become more rep­re­sent­ed across the city by Arabs than Turks. Some even speak of a spe­cial move­ment in Berlin of Arab artists in exile (see “Arabs in Exile: How Berlin became a new cul­tur­al hub”).

“When I go shop­ping, my nos­tal­gia for Arab prod­ucts is easy to sat­is­fy,” Attia admits, “as there are very strong Arab com­mu­ni­ties in the city. There are many Syr­i­ans around here; most of them arrived from 2011 and the start of the civ­il war in their home­land. There are also many Lebanese and Pales­tini­ans who have called the city home for decades.” Attia, who is French and  Alger­ian, wel­comes them all. “To me, they all brought a diver­si­ty that was miss­ing in the city,” he said. “Berlin became less closed up, and they con­tributed to decreas­ing the ‘white’ gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of East Berlin.” 



From Paris and Algiers to Berlin, a decolo­nial journey

Born in Dugny, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, to Alger­ian par­ents, raised in both Alge­ria and the sub­urbs of Paris, Attia chose to leave the lat­ter for Berlin about ten years ago, when the city was hailed as cen­tral to the world of inter­na­tion­al con­tem­po­rary arts. There, he was offered many oppor­tu­ni­ties to exhib­it, explore new ideas, and make use of a larg­er space for his stu­dio and team. 

His art edu­ca­tion was very French, but also mul­ti­cul­tur­al. He went to the École Supérieure des Arts Appliqués Duper­ré and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Déco­rat­ifs, in Paris. Before doing so, he spent sev­er­al years in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go and in var­i­ous coun­tries of South Amer­i­ca. After his stud­ies in Paris, he pur­sued fur­ther art edu­ca­tion at Esco­la Mas­sana, Cen­tre d’Art i Dis­se­ny, in Barcelona.

Attia’s research led him to deep­en the notion of “repair,” a con­cept he has been “devel­op­ing philo­soph­i­cal­ly in his writ­ings and sym­bol­i­cal­ly in his oeu­vre as a visu­al artist,” as he puts it. To him, any sys­tem, social insti­tu­tion, or cul­tur­al tra­di­tion can be con­sid­ered “an infi­nite process of repair,” to get over loss and wounds, to gen­er­ate recu­per­a­tion and re-appro­pri­a­tion. Repair should con­nect the indi­vid­ual to gen­der, phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, and archi­tec­ture, and also involves peo­ple in evo­lu­tion­ary process­es with nature, cul­ture, myth and history.

His prac­tice includes sculp­ture, film, works on paper, and instal­la­tion, for which he was award­ed the Mar­cel Duchamp Prize in France in 2016, fol­lowed by the Prize of the Miró Foun­da­tion (in Barcelona) and the Yanghyun Art Prize (in Seoul) in 2017. For two decades, he has been explor­ing themes of divin­i­ty and skep­ti­cism, loss and recla­ma­tion, beau­ty and atrocity.

He has researched colo­nial trau­ma and its anti­dotes, and in con­ver­sa­tion, he cites an impres­sive num­ber of philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans, researchers and thinkers, from Taoist Chi­nese philoso­pher Lao Tzu (espe­cial­ly his teach­ings about mean­ing and void) to Joseph Beuys.

Kad­er Attia (b. 1970). On Silence, 2020. Prothe­ses, vari­able dimen­sions. Com­mis­sioned by Math­af- Arab Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, Doha


A recent solo exhi­bi­tion of his was “On Silence” at the Math­af Arab Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in Doha, Qatar, which was cen­tered around his instal­la­tion “Ghost,” from 2007, fea­tur­ing rows of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Mus­lim women pray­ing, ren­dered through shrouds of alu­minum foil. Attia mod­eled the fig­ures after his moth­er, keep­ing each one hol­low, allow­ing for an eerie void.

His piece, “Unti­tled (Ghardaïa),” from 2009, shown at the Tate Mod­ern among oth­er venues, dis­plays a repli­ca of the epony­mous ancient Alger­ian city, made entire­ly of cous­cous grains. The work is a ref­er­ence to ancient African archi­tec­ture and arti­facts and how they often inspired West­ern archi­tects, who failed to give them cred­it. Attia want­ed to direct the view­er toward a reflec­tion on the com­plex exchange between the North African aes­thet­ic her­itage and the region’s colonizers. 

“Open Your Eyes” (2010), a dou­ble-sided pro­jec­tion of archival images culled from main­ly West­ern muse­ums, exhib­it­ed at the MoMA in NYC in 2012, intro­duced a jux­ta­po­si­tion of repaired arti­facts with pho­tographs of bru­tal­ly wound­ed sol­diers, while his work “Phan­tom Limbs” and the film titled “Reflect­ing Mem­o­ry” addressed more direct­ly the vio­lence of war and colo­nial wounds. A lost limb, accord­ing to Attia, is “a polit­i­cal reminder, a way for the author­i­ty to per­form its power.” 

“Author­i­tar­i­an neolib­er­al regimes cre­ate war vic­tims, amputees who can­not afford pros­thet­ics, while their phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al trau­ma impos­es fear on oth­ers,” he once said. “The loss in this case is caused by chaos and neg­li­gence. The cacoph­o­ny pro­duced by media shad­ows the real prob­lem today in places like Pales­tine or Yemen.”

In 2016, he opened a Parisian mul­ti­pur­pose cul­tur­al cen­ter, La Colonie (strick­en through on pur­pose) in order to take these reflec­tions out of muse­um venues and bring them clos­er to the gen­er­al pub­lic; artists, writ­ers and his­to­ri­ans were invit­ed to hold free dis­cus­sions, which were almost always well attend­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, La Colonie was forced to close dur­ing the first wave of the pan­dem­ic. Yet Attia remained hun­gry for fur­ther dis­cus­sions and con­fronta­tions — and Berlin proved a promis­ing city to pur­sue them.


The cen­tral­i­ty of Berlin

Attia has plans to reopen La Colonie in a per­ma­nent space in 2023, but mean­while the events con­tin­ue online. The Berlin Biennale’s pro­gram was con­ceived so that thinkers could con­tem­plate ways of “de-col­o­niz­ing,” “with a space of medi­a­tion” on top­ics with­in and out­side of the art world.

Attia feels that, in his role as cura­tor of the Berlin Bien­nale, he has a city­wide plat­form to break down his decade-long dis­cus­sions around repair and decol­o­niza­tion. Since the fall of the wall, Berlin’s rep­u­ta­tion as an inter­na­tion­al art city has grown along­side its sta­tus as “par­ty cap­i­tal” of the world. How­ev­er, Attia feels that the ques­tion of Germany’s colo­nial his­to­ry was often over­shad­owed by the his­tor­i­cal­ly clos­er trau­mas of the Holo­caust and the Cold War.

“Many cit­i­zens in the East per­ceived reuni­fi­ca­tion as a form of neolib­er­al col­o­niza­tion,” Attia said at a Bien­nale press con­fer­ence. “This is a part of his­to­ry that has hard­ly been dealt with so far, but it comes up in sev­er­al works in the exhibition.” 

Some of the venues cho­sen for the Berlin Bien­nale, like Wil­helm­straße 92, the loca­tion of the Berlin Con­fer­ence on West Africa of 1884/85, make links between the city’s his­to­ry and Ger­man colo­nial­ism. Among the invit­ed artists are Turk­ish fem­i­nist Nil Yal­ter; Jor­dan­ian pho­tog­ra­ph­er Lawrence Abu Ham­dan; video artist Susan Schup­pli; Imani Jacque­line Brown; Con­golese artist Sam­my Balo­ji, Iraqi artists Saj­jad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem; and French pho­tog­ra­ph­er Math­ieu Per­not. The Bien­nale also dis­plays pio­neer­ing data and video research of the Foren­sic Archi­tec­ture col­lec­tive and a Russ­ian airstrike in Kyiv. 

“The con­ver­sa­tions on decolo­nial prac­tices are very dif­fer­ent in Ger­many, Bel­gium, Eng­land and France,” Attia says. “In France, decolo­nial ideas are still con­sid­ered as exoge­nous, as import­ed from the Eng­lish-speak­ing world, espe­cial­ly the Unit­ed States, or they are seen as linked to each spe­cif­ic colo­nial his­to­ry, like in the case of Alge­ria. Both these ideas have truth in them, but no for­mer colo­nial state has been exempt­ed from post-colo­nial reflections.” 

Ger­many was for much time more focused on Holo­caust-relat­ed issues, Attia added, and post-com­mu­nist cap­i­tal­ist neo­colo­nial­ism, but has now also become an inter­est­ing place to take on the glob­al con­ver­sa­tion on the rela­tions between the Glob­al South and the North. 

“It’s become big­ger than a world­wide land­slide now,” Attia insist­ed. “Colo­nial, post-colo­nial, neo­colo­nial and anti­colo­nial debates have reached the lev­el of a uni­ver­sal con­ver­sa­tion, all over the globe, espe­cial­ly in set­tle­ment colonies, like the Unit­ed States and Latin Amer­i­ca, but also in Europe and Asia. Colo­nial­ism is seen as what it was: a part of the mod­ern cap­i­tal­is­tic project. Now, an evo­lu­tion is pos­si­ble thanks to the glob­al con­ver­sa­tion we have all over the world, to decol­o­nize uni­ver­sal­ly repres­sive systems.”

And to Attia, Berlin is an inter­est­ing place for such con­ver­sa­tions, like Tokyo and Thai­land. It is not a main­stream Anglophone/American cen­ter, nor in the hands of an intel­li­gentsia deny­ing post-colo­nial reflec­tions, as it is in France. 


Saj­jad Abbas, “I Can See You,” 2013, video, col­or, sound, 5′03′′, video still (cour­tesy Saj­jad Abbas).


Yet the jour­ney wasn’t easy, even in Berlin.

In mid-August, Saj­jad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem pulled out from the Bien­nale, say­ing that cura­tors chose “the dis­play of wrong­ly impris­oned Iraqis,” refer­ring to pho­tographs by the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel that showed tor­tured inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in their home­land. Which the Iraqi artists find disrespectful. 

Attia and the artis­tic team of the 12th Berlin Bien­nale pub­lished a state­ment in response, say­ing: “We do not deny our account­abil­i­ty. We humbly ask you to please grant us your atten­tion for our response to the cru­cial ques­tions of show­ing wounds and repair, to make sure our cura­to­r­i­al inten­tions and the aspi­ra­tions of our exhi­bi­tion are not misrepresented.”

These issues were bound to open some more wounds, yet to Attia, the idea is sim­i­lar to the prin­ci­ple found in the work of Ger­man artist, teacher and art the­o­rist Joseph Beuys, who cre­at­ed the piece “Show Your Wound” (1977). Beuys believed that art had to dis­turb. “Show it!” he insist­ed. “Show the wound that we have inflict­ed upon our­selves dur­ing the course of our devel­op­ment; the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.”

Not every­body agrees on the cor­rect way to do so, but Berlin seems to be the right place to have this con­ver­sa­tion in 2022, and despite the crit­i­cism, Attia intends to car­ry on show­ing the wounds.



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