IN THE TWELFTH BERLIN BIENNALE, images of Iraqi torture and sexual abuse victims have been blown up and arranged into a maze of crude entrapment. The walls of this maze reproduce the photos taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and leaked in 2004, one year after the US-led invasion of Iraq. This edition of the Biennale is said to be centered on decolonial engagement, to offer “repair . . . as a form of agency” and “a starting point . . . for critical conversation, in order to find ways together to care for the now.” Yet the Biennale made the decision to commodify photos of unlawfully imprisoned and brutalized Iraqi bodies under occupation, displaying them without the consent of the victims and without any input from the Biennale’s participating Iraqi artists, whose work was adjacently installed without their knowledge. Who is given agency in this form of “repair”? Certainly not the Iraqi victims in the photos, nor the Iraqi artists who participated in the Biennale, nor the Iraqi viewers who were retraumatized by this callous restaging of one of the United States’ most notorious war crimes.
At the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, one of the Biennale’s venues, I enter a room with Sajjad Abbas and Layth Kareem, two of the three Iraqi artists exhibiting in this edition. I had introduced Abbas and Kareem’s work to the Biennale, lent a painting by artist Raed Mutar to the show, and contributed catalogue texts on their work. I first got to know each of these artists in Baghdad, where they lived and made the selected works between 2011 and 2014, the period immediately following the American-led withdrawal of occupation forces. In public intervention, video, and painting, the artists unequivocally address the act of consuming their undoing-as-human, and the impossibility of ever communicating what that feels like.
I view Abbas, Kareem, and Mutar’s cutting, sweeping work, and a curtain. The second half of Abbas’s work is on the other side; I have to go through the curtain to see the rest of his installation. As I do, I am presented with an installation by Jean-Jacques Lebel titled Poison Soluble. It is composed of images printed to life-size: the charred skin, limbs, and hooded faces of the Iraqi men abused and murdered at Abu Ghraib.
I see the white female soldier grinning over the arrangement of bodies piled together, and I am eye-level with a faceless person forced to hold his genitals. I see a corpse, the dead still waiting. Still waiting to give their permission the first time, the thousandth time, and this time is no exception. I’m forced to see them once again simply to view the second half of Abbas’s splintered work.
At the exit of this cruel labyrinth is Abbas’s I Can See You, 2013, an outline of his own eye printed onto a massive banner originally placed on a building facing the Green Zone in Baghdad and emblazoned with the words of the title. It casts a powerful judgment on the United States military, their billion-dollar embassy, contractors, illegitimate governments, and corporate dealers that, to this day, invade and pillage and dry up every piece of flesh and soil they can squeeze something—blood, money, gratification—out of. Abbas’s eye and the physical, political risks he took to mount it embody a fierce insistence on agency and accountability. It is the antithesis of the vile, voyeuristic scenes behind the curtain. I see the eye and turn to Abbas. All I can say is that I am sorry. That I should have known better than to trust an art world that finds culture in our flesh.
To the right of Mutar’s painting and below the first part of Abbas’s work was a trigger warning, meant for those entering Poison Soluble. Those who put up this warning chose to place work by young Baghdad-based artists around and beyond the Lebel installation. These artists were invited to an exhibition in which they could not view their own work, or that of their peers, without having to navigate through a space the organizers acknowledge could “trigger negative or retraumatizing reactions.”
There is nothing in the work that points to missing information, to anything we haven’t already seen. The images that flooded global media two decades ago only made visible the United States’ ability to move the world to hate and abuse the Iraqi body. Images of leashing, electrocution, and mass rape reinforce the long-standing portrayal of the Arab, the Iraqi, as animal, both disposable and in need of being controlled, warred upon. This work did nothing but enforce and enlarge these tactics.
Kareem and I take part in a conversation as part of the Biennale’s public program. Our final exchange addresses his video work—created with friends and other Baghdad residents who share their experience of living with the constant specter of violence—in contrast with the Abu Ghraib work, which reproduces the asymmetrical power inherent in the photos void of respect or repercussion. Kareem responds by calmly informing the audience that he has family members who were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. He points to what is missing in the bright yellow trigger warning at its entrance: “They haven’t given their permission. I can’t accept this.” A few minutes later, Kader Attia, the lead curator of the Biennale, is onstage, providing a rationale for the work’s inclusion: We should understand the photos must be seen for political change to take place.
But Kareem, I, and the whole world have already seen these photos. At the height of their circulation in the early years of the coalition’s occupation of Iraq, there were no consequences, political or otherwise, outside of Iraq. The images remain online and in the public’s register of “iconic” photographs. In Berlin, they are simply bigger and even further decontextualized. They are explained in the warning as a “prompt for engaging with anti-racist and anti-war movements.” Yet a basis for political action is nowhere to be found in this presentation of images, nor is an understanding of the immeasurable, ongoing pain they inflict. The Iraqi women raped and tortured at that same prison never had their photos released. Maybe those images would have proved too obscene, turning the public on the occupation in a way that might have mattered. If the photos of those Iraqis were available, would they have been permitted to serve as a “prompt”? Still worth the price of using Iraq’s catastrophe and victims as political art?
The artists—Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar, and Layth Kareem—each have an art practice informed by their own very real experiences resisting this violence. And yet their work was used by a curatorial authority that failed to consider them as partners in the exhibition, or as Iraqi citizens who would never agree to sharing space with what was done at Abu Ghraib. No respect was paid to the subjects of those images, nor was any extended to the Iraqi artists whose work was used in a torture spectacle and whose trust in the Biennale was violated. The tethering of the show’s Iraqi artists with Iraqis undergoing physical and sexual torment turned their artworks into a sordid window dressing for their fellow citizens’ transgressed bodies.
The result undermines the intent of their original work as well as the magnitude of the atrocities, providing only more evidence that the struggle to assign value to Iraqi life continues in politics and in culture. The outcome of all of this is a familiar sadness. Must Iraqi artists ask, when they are included in exhibitions, if the curatorial premise demands that there be torture victims nearby?
Before we walked into the museum, we were happy to share our work in Berlin, where many diaspora Iraqis now live and where we have long heard of the German capital’s support and draw for artists. But we, and every Iraqi we met who saw the work in question, were deeply disturbed, and felt betrayed by this inclusion. By this insistence on insensitivity to, and devaluation of, lived Iraqi experience. Experience formed by a coalition of nations waging decades of globally sanctioned violence on civilian residents, resulting in over one million Iraqis dead and millions more in flight. Discussion of these images and the legacy of war-making in Iraq go far beyond this one event, but after much thought and reflection, our participation demands this response to the Biennale’s question of how to “care for the now.”
We know at least one curator, Ana Teixeira Pinto, resigned from the Berlin Biennale team due to her objection to the Abu Ghraib display. Sajjad Abbas succeeded in removing his piece from that museum after a month of negotiation. It is shown publicly in another building across the city. Raed Mutar has requested his artwork be moved as well. None of this has been enough for the Biennale’s leadership to reconsider their inclusion of the work or to recognize the rights of Iraqi artists to be consulted and to be heard. But the voices of Iraqis exist, and as the artist Layth Kareem stated, he is one of them. So are we. And we stand firmly against this unconsidered reproduction of the invader’s crimes.
Bassim Al Shaker
Amir El Saffar
Kader Attia and 12th Berlin Biennale artistic team respond (August 15):
Dear Rijin Sahakian, dear Sajjad Abbas, dear Layth Kareem, dear Raed Mutar,
We read your text with great distress. The pain that Iraqis endured and still carry to this day, along with the toll of the trauma, are obviously ongoing, and justice for the victims of the dictatorship, as well as of the American occupation, has yet to be addressed. We have read your words with compassion, and for the reactivation of the trauma, pain, and torment that Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Poison soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad (Solvable Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Baghdad), 2013, unintentionally provoked we present our sincerest apologies. We did not anticipate the hurt caused by the juxtaposition of the works, and this is maybe where the misunderstanding of our intentions comes from. 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.
For those unfamiliar with Kader Attia’s artistic practice, it is important to note that he has been motivated for years to explore the question of the material and immaterial wounds produced by colonialism and imperialism. And, more subjectively, his own family history is one of multiple colonial traumas, shaped by torture, rape, and killing. These morbid legacies continue to haunt us.
The history of colonial and imperialist violence has not ended, and the legacies of the colonial project, the laboratory of imperialism, continue to exist and become manifest in Western societies as systemic racism that structures access to healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc. Decolonizing those societies built on colonialism and slavery is more urgent than ever.
We understand that Poison soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad [Solvable Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Baghdad], 2013, activates pain and trauma. However, we deemed it important not to indulge the impulse to turn a blind eye to a very recent imperialist crime—a crime conducted under military occupation that was quickly brushed under the rug with the intention of prompting a swift forgetting. Because this is how imperialism fabricates its impunity. Kader referred to this practice during the conference in which you generously participated in Berlin: The reality of the world we live in is one where colonial and imperial regimes no longer require censors to protect their version of history, because we have been coerced to censor ourselves.
This is what Kader’s father, a great resistance fighter against colonialism in Algeria from the age of seventeen, taught him: “The history we are being taught is written by the colonizers”; we must therefore reappropriate the writing of history. And it is the fight he has always led with humble means, as both an artist and a curator. That was at the heart of the mission of La Colonie, the space he founded in Paris—namely, the emancipation of speech in the space of decolonial thought, specifically when this debate still had very marginal space in contemporary art. It was also indispensable to the fight to repair colonial traumas and to decolonize minds.
This self-censorship was reinforced by the paternalistic attitude of the European left in the 1990s, which— increasingly influenced by the American liberal Democrats—also locked itself into the denial of recognition of the legacies of colonialism, a necessary cog in the continuity of contemporary colonial crime. This liberal paternalism has abandoned the field of emotion in art—the force, the violence, the passion, the cries of rage, the tears, the crimes—for a totally benign, asepticized art. An art that abstracts not only the colonial locus from which it expresses and exposes itself, but also the imperialist crime perpetrated by the regime that it claims to attack . . . In this 12th Berlin Biennale, the field of emotion takes center stage because it bridges between the artists and the people, and also binds people (viewers/listeners) together. The field of emotion creates, for one moment, the movement of the soul from the inside towards the outside, to claim repair. It is that which collectively animates the conscience of the individual at the time of big gatherings.
Dear Rijin, dear Sajjad, dear Raed, dear Layth, we respect your ideas, notions, questions, and arguments. When you communicated to us how you felt, the team and I convened to try and find solutions and to respect your requests. Sajjad’s amazing banner was moved to the Akademie der Künste Pariser Platz. Raed’s work has been moved from Hamburger Bahnhof to KW Institute for Contemporary Art. For the sake of completeness, we would like to add that no visitor of the exhibition was or is obliged to go through the installation Poison soluble. All works in the exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof are accessible from the corridor as well.
Repair and injury are inherent to each other: Showing one’s wounds is part of the process of exposing—and repairing—the crimes that human beings have perpetrated on others.
What the presence of the work Poison soluble wants to incite is a provocative prompt to confront the violence of American colonialism and imperialism across the world (not only on Iraq) that continues through the cultural industries and its dominion over the imaginary, the media, and of course physical occupation. The purpose of this conquest of the territories of the mind is to plunge deep into the psyche of the subject, and to annihilate any desire for emancipation by keeping it muffled, so that even when we want to publicly address the crime of which we have been victims, we are forced to erase it and not to formulate it: to remain below its visibility. This is the real stake of this exhibition of the crime: It is a reappropriation of dignity, a reminder that the occupied subject who fights, also fights against a humiliation put under silence, and thus constrained to haunt the psyche in the secrets of families. Kader’s own history is an example of that: It took thirty-two years for his uncle Ali (may he rest in peace) to tell his family how his brother and his father were shot in the head by French soldiers in front of him, when he was only fourteen years old, and how he was lucky enough to escape. The same goes for his aunts who were raped by soldiers. They hid this crime all their lives, suffering in silence. Not to speak about these crimes, not to show them, is not the project of the peoples who struggle for the recognition of their suffering and their liberation. On the contrary, it is the tool of the imperialist project, which seeks to hide its crime at all costs.
Looking at websites of activists who fight for oppressed peoples, you will see that they do not hide the crimes committed by the occupiers. On the contrary, the images are unbearable. Activism has no choice but to fight with what it has left: representing the reality it denounces. As for art, when it becomes a messenger of reality, it is only left with the freedom to create.
Jean-Jacques Lebel’s work Poison soluble is polarizing and the structure of its architecture is claustrophobic, since it is a labyrinth. Several times during the installation, we found ourselves trapped in this labyrinth and felt nauseous. This is why a trigger sign is placed next to the entrance of the installation to warn visitors before entering. Frantz Fanon’s sentence at the exit of this labyrinth says clearly and forcefully that this work wants to remind us not to forget the responsibility of each one of us: “The only possibility of regaining one’s balance is to face the whole problem, for all these discoveries, all these inquiries lead only in one direction: to make man admit that he is nothing, absolutely nothing—and that he must put an end to the narcissism on which he relies in order to imagine that he is different from the other ‘animals.’”
There are many works in the history of art that have also left a mark by their violence. Should we take down The Massacre at Chios by Eugène Delacroix, which represents the violence of the massacres perpetrated by the Ottomans against the Greeks? The message should not be confused with the messenger, as Jean-Jacques Lebel told us—he, the anti-colonialist activist and signatory of the Manifesto of the 121 for desertion in Algeria, which in wartime meant the death penalty. If we do not show these images again and again, then we are protecting those responsible for these crimes, even if it is easier to be convinced of the contrary in the dystopian comfort of the conservative contemporary art world.
Online iconography participates in the algorithmic governance that neutralizes and depoliticizes the meaning of images, feeding us tailored content in order to extract behavioral data from our attention, sold on the attention markets. The images’ profusion online does not aim to inform us, but to zombify us. Paradoxically, this hypervisibility creates invisibility.
We also agree with you that the global diffusion of the images of Abu Ghraib through the media has not brought any consequences against the perpetrators. But while we understand the emotion aroused in you by the use of the images in Jean-Jacques Lebel’s work, and respect it, allow us to propose another angle, another distance in another context, one that is less neutralizing than the mass profusion of online iconography. 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. In the Berlin exhibition, these images are not “simply bigger and even further decontextualized,” they are moved to another environment: away from the opaque hubbub of the mass media. Recontextualized in an exhibition with other artworks that also show colonial and racist violence, this work, like any artwork, slows down the time of attention in order to resist the amnesiac speed of our information society. We must not confuse the contexts of image perception; art exhibitions are undoubtedly the last spaces of critical individual and collective experience of reality. By assimilating two different environments to the perception of these images, there is a danger of conflating the message with the messenger. On the one hand, the environment of mass media and the ocean of news, where every day a news item pushes the previous one away, dehumanizes the victims. On the other hand, the reflective environment of the work of art and of the exhibition, where time and the writing of history slow down and let us relearn by changing the way we look at images, “repoliticizes” them endlessly in a place where the viewers do not expect it. The work of art is like a machine to slow down time, and it sometimes brings us back to a present, as unbearable as it may be, but it is therefore the only political tool that can confront the most obscure authoritarian certainty. Moving the images into the field of the exhibition, under this magnifying lens, gives them the value of a direct reminder of the ongoing colonial crime and thus—by denouncing the crime—reclaims and seeks to repair the amnesia of which the colonized are victims.
As Đỗ Tường Linh, a member of our artistic team, speaks from her experience as a Vietnamese: “The complexity of such a topic/images/violence is a factor to create debate, discussion, agreement, disagreement. But it is also important at least that contemporary art these days still can offer such a platform. We (Vietnamese /Algerian/etc.) come from the context of a regime that is constantly shutting up those conversations, erasing oppositional opinions, etc. Should we re-enact that same violence or re-create/re-imagine a different world together?”
Several artists of the 12th Berlin Biennale whose family history, like ours, is marked by the trauma of colonial violence, have also been strongly impacted by this work; they are not Iraqis, but they were moved to tears. The cathartic communion of an experience is not identity-based, but human. It is difficult, but it produces what the theoretical enunciator cannot understand, because it lies at the edge of the irrational. We cannot explain the inexcusable, from the point of view of the theory, but the cathartic experience of the field of emotion extracts the subject to individuate it beyond the moralist barriers of reason. This violent experience is undoubtedly what the political covets most of artists, and of art, because of its immense affective power. Let us not leave to populisms and imperialism the control of the image and the erasure of the colonial crime, because here is the monopoly of its “winning” narrative. Let us show the colonial crime. Let us suffer from this vision of horror. We will come out of it, if not grown, at least more human, having experienced, for a few moments, catharsis and the field of emotion. For it is this issue that is at stake, which captures the emotion of the crowd by orienting public opinion.
When Colin Powell brandished vials of white powder at the United Nations, claiming that they were evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the entire mainstream media endorsed this lie. Today the generals responsible for the massive crime against Iraqi society are still at large, and this does not bother the small world of contemporary art, which takes offense at a reminder of this crime. Nor does the latest lapsus recently committed by former US President George W. Bush, when he referred to “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq . . .” before snapping back: “I mean of Ukraine . . . Iraq too, anyway.” “Ha ha ha,” cried the amused crowd listening to him. While I understand your anger, I am convinced that Lebel’s work brings another way of responding to this contempt on the part of imperialism, which laughs to see us argue about the strategy of denouncing its crime: We have the same enemy, let’s not fight each other but be in a dialogue . . .
—Kader Attia with Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal, and Rasha Salti
Rijin Sahakian responds (August 16, 2022):
We have not been moved to accept the instrumentalization of our work and identities as Iraqi.
The works we shared with this Biennale were made in Baghdad in the aftermath of, and in resistance to, US-led wars and invasion. We have a right to contest the curatorial actions of the Biennale without it being described as a “fight.” This is a tired way of painting Iraqis as unable to engage in liberal humanist values and has been used by the coalition to deflect blame for the war’s massacres and failures. Here, it is invoked as a teachable moment. Asking for the responsible handling of criminal evidence of war crimes is not a form of erasure, it is the assertion of a collective Iraqi voice against the perpetuation of the occupation’s violence.
This team has directed readers to elevate Lebel’s exploitative, fetishizing repetition of this violence, reproduced in an artwork made without consultation with the victims, as work for justice. The curators make this claim by listing their decolonial credentials while at the same time lecturing us on how to understand our own history. The curator’s artistic practice and personal family history taking precedence over the artistic practice, lived experience, and family histories of Iraqis speaks to the asymmetric power this biennial is intent on producing in its discourse and in its curatorial negligence. In an exhibition that prioritizes the display of wrongly imprisoned Iraqis photographed in the act of being sexually and physically tortured, no, we do not find sincerity or transparency in this paternalistic response.
As Iraqis, we know all too well when those who insist on their own authority have no intention of taking accountability for their actions.
We have withdrawn from the Berlin Biennale and appreciate the nearly 400 who have added their signatures in solidarity.
—Rijin Sahakian with Sajjad Abbas, Layth Kareem, and Raed Mutar