Solidarity is not a question of identity: Iraqi artists are withdrawing their works from the Berlin Biennale

opinion Kader Attia

Solidarity is not a question of identity

The artistic director of the Berlin Biennale, Kader Attia

The artistic director of the Berlin Biennale, Kader Attia

Those: © Jennifer Soike

For months, Germany has been discussing the Documenta’s inability to take responsibility. At the Berlin Biennale, artistic director Kader Attia is showing how it’s done. The accusation against him: cultural appropriation. Why the dialogue still failed – and what the consequences are.

DThree Iraqi artists have withdrawn from the Berlin Biennale. Works by Layth Kareem, Raed Mutar and Sajjad Abbas were on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, in close proximity to a labyrinthine installation by Jean-Jacques Lebel. The 86-year-old French artist and activist is showing his work “Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Baghdad” from 2013, which shows the horrific images of torture victims with their US-American tormentors in Abu Ghraib prison on Iraqi soil in large format. The images became public between 2004 and 2006 and are preserved in the Internet’s online repository for posterity.

A trigger warning at the entrance indicates that the work could “trigger negative or retraumatizing reactions” – so you can decide beforehand whether you want to do this brutality to yourself. Iraqis Layth Kareem, Raed Mutar and Sajjad Abbas were disturbed by the re-experience of the horrors being done to their compatriots and families – and culminating in a debate over the legality of torture. Two days after the opening, the artists sought dialogue with the curator of the Biennale, the artist Kader Attia, whose main theme is the wounds of the colonial era. Attia explained that Lebel’s work is intended as a memorial to America’s brutal imperialism and offers viewers an intense experience – which, in his view, is the task of art. The artists agreed. But shortly thereafter, they demanded that their works be relocated to other exhibition venues. The curator complied with the request.

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But then, on July 29, an open letter appeared in the American art magazine Artforum, written by the curator Rijin Sahakian, who acted as the mouthpiece for the three artists and the Iraqis living in Berlin. She writes of the deep dismay that Lebel’s work triggered in all of them, of an “insist on insensitivity and devaluation of lived Iraqi experience”. It was also said that the artists had to negotiate the relocation.

The confrontational tone of the letter forced the Berlin Biennale to issue a statement. On August 15, the artistic direction apologized for the pain it caused. Anyone familiar with Attia’s work should actually know that the subject of trauma through colonization is a personal concern for him. He shares experiences of murder, torture and rape in his own family history in Algeria.

A day later, however, Sahakian announced that the three artists would withdraw their works. She speaks of an “instrumentalization of our work and our identity as Iraqis”. The Biennale team legitimized Lebel’s “exploitative, fetishizing reproduction of violence,” the victims depicted were not asked for their consent, let alone the Iraqi artists, some of whom had relatives in Abu Ghraib themselves, were consulted. The Biennale could only express its regret about the deduction – the artists were not willing to talk.

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Meanwhile, the critics raged online and demanded the dismantling of Lebel’s work: an old white man has no right to appropriate someone else’s trauma, to commercialize it and thus gain a reputation in the art world (whereby Lebel lives above all from his reputation, his Art hardly sells). This is reminiscent of Dana Schutz’s painting of the lynched Emmett Till, who later became an icon of black anti-segregation resistance. Five years ago, at the Whitney Biennial, it sparked debate about “cultural appropriation” in art—a battlefield term that now leads to concert cancellations because white singers wear dreadlocks. If you think this principle through, you would have to lock away the records of the Rolling Stones, because they are inconceivable without the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, which basically means white rock, pop and jazz music, yes, European culture as a whole would have to be banned.

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Lebel comes from this generation in which solidarity was not defined by identity. You marched as a straight white male against the Vietnam War and for black civil, women’s and gay rights, without belonging directly to the group you stood for. If there had been no such people at the time, if only the victims themselves had marched out, where would that have led?

In order to generate change, you need diversity and dialogue instead of demarcation and blame. Because Attia knows this, he shows Lebel’s work and is undeterred. And so, as is so often the case in the debates of these years, it is about much more than just Abu Ghraib – namely the increasing inability to talk about conflicts and to accept the attitude of the other side.

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