Art

Healing History’s Scars in the Art of Kader Attia

Kader Attia’s new solo exhibition in Barcelona reminds us of the permanence of scars as well as our ability to heal.

“J’accuse” (2016), installation, wooden busts on metallic plinths, wooden sculptures on metallic supports, single-screen video projection (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BARCELONA — Why must English be so angled? Our words are often blunt when they should be soft. Take the word “scar,” for instance. That which defines the marks left by trauma conveys in its sound the violence of wounds. The crass “S” and the hard “R” of the word are much more aggressive in English than in other languages. Take the Italian “cicatrice” or the similarly lettered Spanish, “cicatriz,” which convey (to my ear, at least) something more salutary than the English. It is an epilogue to pain rather than the main event: the scar signals healing, not the wound.

This little linguistic foray into the psychology of trauma is perhaps too basic. For something more complex, often-contradictory, difficult, and rich, see Kader Attia’s current exhibition at Fundació Joan Miró, Scars remind us that our past is real. The artist’s first solo show in Spain investigates how different cultures (e.g. The West versus the Global South) deal with their scars by either covering up signs of damage or cherishing the wound as a marker of history.

“Untitled (Couscous)” (2009), floor sculpture, couscous, black acrylic paint, spotlight

A French-Algerian artist now living and working between Berlin and Algiers, Attia takes a poetic approach to exploring the repercussions of colonialism on the sociopolitical, linguistic, and visual outfits of everyday life. Entering his exhibition, visitors will first see “Untitled (Couscous)” (2009), which sprawls across the center of a pitch-black room. This recreation of a desert city from a bird’s eye view is as haunting as it is heartbreaking. Here, the black squares and rectangles are reminiscent of the video footage from military reconnaissance planes, or more recently, drones. What Attia captures is the inability for such surveillance technology to properly distinguish buildings — let alone people — from each other. The viewer is left wondering if this image is supposed to be before or after an attack. Are these designated targets or the ruins of the targeted? Couscous scatters across the floor, crumbs tapering off into the darkness of the black rug.

“Dé-construire et Ré-inventer” (2012), lightbox

Turning the corner from this gallery is a lightbox work called, “Dé-construire et Ré-inventer” (2012), which gives more context to the previous work. There’s something indexical about its presence, as if this image cast in a bright light is meant to articulate the tops of the buildings that we couldn’t see in the previous room. Attia continues to articulate the cityscape with his next piece, “Indépendance Tchao” (2014), which recreates the Hotel Indépendance in Dakar, Senegal with metallic boxes taken from the French colonial administration. An echo of the real deal’s modernist façade, “Indépendance Tchao” emphasizes the illusion of independence; its rusting structure is a critique of the postcolonial regime to deliver on the supposed economic bounty that independence was supposed to bring the African continent. Instead, one could argue that postcolonial states became rentier states still beholden to their former masters for trade relations.

“Indépendance Tchao” (2014), sculpture, vintage metallic boxes from the French colonial administration
Detail of “Indépendance Tchao” (2014), sculpture, vintage metallic boxes from the French colonial administration

Nobody can escape the history. Nobody can cure history. Attia knows this; he recognizes history as the undead. From time to time, scars can reappear. “Héroes Heridos” (2018) is a three-screen video installation that documents activists committed to a variety of social issues revolving around immigration. This work, translated as “Wounded Heroes,” could easily merit a separate article locating the lasting biases against immigrants that stem from Spanish colonization.

“The official language exam is a written test,” one immigrant explains. “Immigrants can speak but they can’t write much. They can ask anything about Spain and there isn’t an exam book.”

Another, a woman, describes how there are sounds inherent to colonization, details of language that disappear gradually through the postcolonial phase. After all, there are over 40 indigenous dialects in Mexico. Many of those are now dying out.

Still from “Héroes Heridos” (2018), three-screen video installation

Elsewhere, Attia shows an interest in the scars we try to conceal. “Open Your Eyes” (2011) is a parade of horrors from World War I. Like other grand opuses, this work has separate movements. Key here is “Modern Thought: the Myth of Perfection,” which juxtaposes brutally frank images of soldiers’ post-conflict, mangled faces with photographic trickery meant to portray them as “healing” past their terminal wounds. In another series, Attia juxtaposes these same images of butchered soldiers with similar-looking African masks. Of course, interest in these masks surged in the early 20th century just around the time of World War I. Here, Attia simply points out a curious correlation between the mangled remains of the young men who fought in World War I and the ceremonial masks artists the bourgeoisie collected in the same era.

Image still from “Open Your Eyes” (2011), double slide projection, 80 slides each

There is a single room toward the end of the exhibition that I will likely remember for years to come. In a previous room stood dozens of metal sculptures that emerged from stone pills like jagged, rusted trees. Here, though, the rusted metal bars support wooden sculptures formed into the mangled faces seen in “Open Your Eyes.” These faces are aimed toward the gallery’s entrance, where a screening of Abel Gance’s 1919 antiwar film, J’accuse! plays. There’s something chillingly poignant seeing these wooden faces, carved from hundred-year-old trees, watching a movie about the brutality of World War I that led to the gashes on their faces. This interplay allows the viewers to conceptualize the permanence of scars and the phenomenon of scars as witnesses to their own creation. And if scars are permanent — if they can’t be photoshopped out of life — then we must reckon with their image.

Detail of “J’accuse” (2016), installation, wooden busts on metallic plinths, wooden sculptures on metallic supports, single-screen video projection
“Mirrors and Mask” (2013), wooden mask, mirror, steel stand, pedestal
Detail image of “Mirrors and Mask” (2013), wooden mask, mirror, steel stand, pedestal

Scars reminds us that our past is real continues through September 30 at Fundació Joan Miró (Parc de Montjuïc, Barcelona, Spain).

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