There are two distinct ways in which the work of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia has been prescient about the times we live in. The 49-year-old artist has been making art about how non-western people construct their identities in the face of the West’s cultural hegemony well before postcolonialism became a hot theme for biennials and art institutions with progressive agendas around the world.
And, unlike many others who engage with the aftermath of the empire-building era, Attia doesn’t shy away from appealing to his viewers’emotions. In fact, in conversations and interviews he argues for the return of a more emotional approach to art-making.
Born in a banlieue of Paris to a Berber mother and Algerian father, Attia is uniquely attuned to the perspectives of both the coloniser and the oppressed, the well-meaning leftist bourgeoisie and the working-class “other.”
The tensions between identity and difference, integration and exclusion that seem to be definitive of current social conflicts are ones that he has intimate insights into, be it within French society, or in Germany, where he also lives and runs a studio in Berlin.And while Attia’s artistic approach has long struck a chord with curators in both France and Germany (he won France’s most prestigious art award, the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2016), it is only more recently that the rest of the world has caught on. Earlier this year, London’s Hayward Gallery presented the first survey exhibition dedicated to him in the UK, titled ‘The Museum of Emotion.’
By then, Attia had already been featured in highly visible art events across the world, including the 12th Gwangju Biennial, the 2018 Manifesta in Palermo, the 57th Venice Biennial, and documenta 13, among others.In the catalogue of the London survey, Attia recalls how a visit to the exhibition Picasso and the Masters at Paris’ Grand Palais in 2009, had angered him.
The show demonstrated the influenced of the likes of Caravaggio, El Greco, and Paul Cézanne on Picasso, yet it did not include any African art, despite the fact that African masks’ influence on masterpieces such as the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is well established. To undo this injustice, he took a wooden mask he had found in a market in Senegal and covered it in small mirrors.
Looking into the mask, viewers would see a “Cubist portrait of themselves,” he says. And with that, the concepts of repair and transformation, which are so central to his work, were distilled. Meanwhile, mirrors – shattered, fragmented, or purely metaphoric – have remained a potent motif in his oeuvre. Repair and transformation feature in one of Attia’s most well-known and emotionally affecting installations, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), which garnered much acclaim when it was first shown at documenta in 2012.
In a display resembling a museum storage or a cabinet of curiosities, Attia juxtaposes pictures of soldiers severely wounded in the First World War with African busts and clay vessels. The facial injuries of the men returning from war were patched up by early plastic surgery procedures; the pairing of their images with objects bearing visible signs of physical repair poignantly challenges conventions on beauty, wholeness, and visible – thus undeniable – trauma.
In the video installation Reflecting Memory (2016), he interviews psychoanalysts, surgeons, and academics about phantom limb syndrome, the pain still felt by amputees in removed limbs, to explore how communities, too, can be similarly affected by the denial of collective trauma, or failing to engage with past crimes. In his effort to repair social injuries that are global and trans-generational, Attia frequently turns to rigorous fields such as medicine, philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, and political science to reveal the invisible yet stubborn links that define this post-colonial age.
For Attia, repair has become a metaphor for cultural re-appropriation and resistance. “Repair and hybridization are the terrain where many cultures begin to take back their liberty,” the artist told The New York Times in 2013. To translate these concerns into direct action, Attia founded La Colonie, a space for discourse and gatherings near the immigrant-rich Gare du Nord in Paris. “I am not speaking as an artist with my work at La Colonie,” he said in an interview. “It is not artwork and it will never be. We need to create spaces where we meet, where we can disagree.” But his artistic production, too, has recently become more directly political.
In Mirrors of Emotions, his latest solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York, Attia explores how the frightening rise of far-right populism around the world could be linked to the emotional intensity fascism offers. The Left, he argues, has been too snobbish to harness emotional catharsis as a form of political appeal. Through art, however, he sees a potential for producing visceral connections that can unify and mobilise. ■
Images courtesy by Kader Attia and Camille Millerand
From the Winter Issue 2019 of Harper's BAZAAR Art