For the Berlin Biennale, decolonisation is nothing more than a catchy slogan
When “Still Present”, the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, opened in June, it set an ambitious bar for itself, aiming at addressing “the urgent questions of the present.”
This year’s edition, curated by Algerian-French artist Kader Attia, was framed as a critical discussion to examine over “two decades of decolonial engagement.” Given Berlin’s vibrancy as a place of creation, tolerance, and multicultural refuge, one expected a radical offer.
It therefore came as a surprise to many that the Biennale not only failed to develop any proposition advancing decolonial discourses, even going as far as adopting regressive PR tactics to protect its controversial choices.
This year’s Berlin Biennale, a large-scale contemporary art exhibition occurring every two years, presents the works of seasoned artists such as Simone Fattal alongside emerging contemporary artists such as Laurence Abu Hamdan, Asim Abulaziz and Palestinian duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme.
"Despite performative statements and appearances, diversity in representation—from the curatorial team to the artists—remains a token masking the lack of meaningful institutional effort towards rethinking power structures and expressions of legitimacies"
In the Biennale’s curatorial statement, the notion of physical, emotional, and symbolic repair anchors Attia’s vision for the programme. With notable works such as Janeen Frei Njootli’s Thunderstruck (2013-2022) and Mai Nguyễn-Long’s Vigit (Vomit Girl) 2022, the show exposes colonial and imperial violence and injustice, as well as the ways in which artists can confront these.
Overall however, “Still Present” barely transcends trauma-porn and conventional narratives. Despite performative statements and appearances, diversity in representation—from the curatorial team to the artists—remains a token masking the lack of meaningful institutional effort towards rethinking power structures and expressions of legitimacies.
Undoubtedly, such blindness to changing times gave rise to the casual insertion in the show of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Poison soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad (2013), a gruesome maze-like installation, shows panels of tortured Iraqi bodies at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison during the US invasion of Iraq.
In a public letter co-signed by over 400 people on 29 July, Baghdad-born writer and art educator Rijin Sahakian, founder of non-profit Sada, explains how Poison Soluble and its placement perpetuates the fetishization and commodification of exposed, degraded, charred Brown bodies, who have not consented to this public, intimate display of their plight.
Attia’s response is quite shallow & baffling. Times have changed. It’s not ok to fetishize the pain of others for art clout. When Attia says “we” shouldn’t turn our eyes away from imperialism, he’s not talking about Iraqis. So who is he curating for? https://t.co/pbkcYMzDps— Farah Abdessamad (@farahstlouis) August 18, 2022
The Berlin Biennale wants to “present the unseen and the unfamiliar,” it says. But Sahakian argues that the result is an over-saturation of such dehumanising images which, in the context of a self-portrayed decolonial art show, lacks any originality in reimagining the past, present, or future of Iraq, the violence of occupation and widespread human rights abuses beyond a (tired) shock value.
In an obscene scenography, Iraqi artists needed to cross Poison Soluble before accessing the works of other Baghdad-based artists, generating a sense of indelibility and malaise, as if it remains impossible to emancipate from such haunting imagery and stain.
Before the open letter came out, Sahakian tried to privately discuss the matter with the curatorial team to no avail. Since then, three Iraqi artists on show in “Still Present,” Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar, and Layth Kareem, have decided to withdraw their work from their initial placement—they want to have a say in how they are presented and how the public can interact with them, as they should.
Kader Attia and his team have penned a public reply on 15 August, which re-uses all virtue-signalling codes seen during the height of the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020, when voices questioned the abysmal lack of diversity in arts institutions and decision-making boards.
Attia invokes his personal background and his family’s experience of abuses under French-colonised Algeria to justify a moral standing - as if individual attributes magically trump or absolve measurable actions, scrutiny, and accountability. The argument that if someone is “good” they can only “do good” is seriously infantilizing and frustratingly self-centred.
Attia even goes a step further in lecturing local artists how they should feel about their own pain. “If it is difficult for you to accept this, because of the proximity between your own wounded history and the subjects represented, at least acknowledge that other forms of reading are possible in order to claim reparation,” Attia writes about his “misunderstood” choices.
His justifications illustrate the structural alienation of local voices, often qualified as inferior so-called native informers, in circles of art, culture, and power. It’s precisely because these artists are close to their wounded history that we must listen, support, and fix wrongdoings. This is what reparative justice, one that places survivors and communities at the centre, should look like.
"The show glides over localness and reminds that these surveys of contemporary art are global profitable events geared to a largely white gaze and audience, not artist-driven dialogue of equal voices and disruptive counter-narratives"
And it takes a lot to say no, to refuse an externally-imposed narrative to please art elites, secure the exposure and financial means to sustain an oft-precarious artistic practice. It’s not about censoring the depiction of difficult scenes either.
Iranian artist Reza Aramesh paints bodies in tortured positions on Ancient Greek-inspired pottery, in Study of the Vase as Fragmented Bodies (2021). Respect, understanding, and a will to critically engage with form, medium, and message permeate in this work, unlike Poison Soluble.
Sahakian and co-signatories are part of a growing movement among artists of colour which seek cultural resistance built on self-knowledge, self-affirmation, self-determination, and unveiling the “white masks” that continue to prevail in these spaces.
While set in Berlin, Germany, a country that carries a colonial past and legacies loudly absent from “Still Present,” the show glides over localness and reminds that these surveys of contemporary art are global profitable events geared to a largely white gaze and audience, not artist-driven dialogue of equal voices and disruptive counter-narratives.
“We deemed it important not to indulge the impulse to turn a blind eye to a very recent imperialist crime,” Attia answers. Since when have Iraqi people had the luxury of ignoring their day to day life, and the violence inflicted upon their country since 2003, or Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians, First Nations, descendants of Agent Orange survivors?
And if not for them, then for whom is this Biennial and when will decolonising be more than just a convenient slogan du jour?
Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.
Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.