Titled “Still Present!”, the 12th Berlin Biennale curated by Kader Attia unfolds a decolonial agenda rooted in the artist’s engagement, emerging art scenes, the German capital’s heritage and extensive documentation. Contributing writer Rémy Jarry visits the Biennale and shares his highlights.
TEXT: Rémy Jarry
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Curated by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, the 12th edition of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art makes compelling articulations between colonisation and contemporary stakes. The artist succeeded in surrounding himself with complementary talents and meaningful venues to give substance to his notorious anti-colonialist commitment without repeating himself. Supported by a female-only curatorial team of disparate backgrounds, the biennale raises awareness about some blind spots of colonialism in an engaging manner, as the exclamatory form of its title—”Still Present!”—suggests.
The thorough commitment of the biennale fits very well the artistic ecosystem of its curator. Born in the suburbs of Paris in 1970, Attia grew up in France and Algeria, before spending several years in Congo and South America after graduating from the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Working between Berlin and Algiers since then, his in-depth experience of multi-ethnic societies coping with deprivation and violence has enabled him to demonstrate how individual and cultural identity is constructed within the context of colonial domination and conflict. His concept of “repair”, conceived as a process to overcome loss and wounds through cultural appropriation and social détournement, encapsulates the alternative strategies of resilience. Focusing on the relationships between Western and non-Western cultures, Attia also founded La Colonie, a social space running from 2016 to 2020 in Paris to discuss decolonisation. Closed due to COVID-19, it is expected to reopen in a nomadic format. In the meantime, the 12th Berlin Biennale stands as the extension of his artistic project, a participative manifesto for the agency of art against the ongoing self-destruction of our world. Very much instrumental in extending his statement to other cultural ecosystems and historical contexts, his curatorial team is built on a principle of complementarity with Marie Helene Pereira from Dakar, Senegal; Đỗ Tường Linh from Hanoi, Vietnam; Rasha Salti from Beirut, Lebanon; Ana Teixeira Pinto, born in Lisbon and based in Berlin, Germany; and Noam Segal from New York, United States.
A Fresh Look At The Blind Spots Of Colonialism
Thus, the biennale offers a fresh look at the blind spots of colonialism throughout modern history. Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige narrates the story of the Vedda (Sinhala: වැද්දා; Tamil: வேடர்), her own ancestors from Sri Lanka and earliest known aboriginal people of the island. Through installations mixing photography, video, and sculptures, she traces a largely overlooked chapter of colonisation. Self-Portrait as Restitution – from a Feminist Point of View (2020) powerfully embodies her artistic commitment and call for the restitution of her ancestors’ human remains kept in collections in Berlin, Basel and Paris. The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019), a four-channel video installation by Vietnamese artist Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn looks at the dual conflagration of French colonisation in both Western Africa and Indochina. We follow the stories of three families of former Senegalese soldiers (known as tirailleurs sénégalais in French) sent to Vietnam to suppress uprisings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of them married and had children with Vietnamese women. After the independence of Vietnam, they brought their families back to Senegal, sometimes without their wives, causing both cultural and racial traumas. Nguyễn’s other work, My Ailing Belief Can Cure Your Wretched Desires (2017), denounces the animal condition through the link between Chinese and French imperialism and the extinction of species in Vietnam through a catchy two-channel video rhythmed to a hip-hop vibe. Alongside, some works rooted in colonialism get a wider meaning such as Specimen (Permeate) (2022) by Mai Nguyễn-Long, an Australian artist of Vietnamese descent. Her installation of dismantled plastic dolls and organs in glass jars looks ambiguously like both hospital specimens and canned food. Recalling the effects of the devastation caused by Agent Orange on the families of Vietnamese and American soldiers, the artist also scopes all the environmental disasters caused by humans themselves. This extrapolation is also effective in Ballad of the East Sea (2022), by Vietnamese artist Đào Châu Hải, a large installation evoking the smooth undulations of waves but through the threatening shape of metal plates sharp like saws. From the tragic episode of the boat people to the ongoing maritime conflicts and gruesome condition of migrants and refugees, the work carries a ubiquitous meaning. These works also mirror the current artistic effervescence of the Vietnamese art scene with other national talents like Ngô Thành Bắc as well as other artists from the Vietnamese diaspora such as Florian Sông Nguyễn, Thùy-Hân Nguyễn-Chí, Tammy Nguyen and Maithu Bùi—all included in the current Berlin Biennale too.
This artistic renewal also goes along with the meaningful selection of media by artists. Traditionally associated with royal factories and castle interiors, tapestry has been used in Line Up (2016–20) and Downw0rd Dog (2021–22), two works by Afro-American artist Noel W. Anderson depicting the distorted images of the nocturnal arrest of Black men by policemen. Such a textile twist can be seen in Please Pattern (2022), an installation-performance by Moroccan artist Myriam El Haïk that features hanged Berber rugs and a piano, a symbol of elite culture. Ultimately, each of those works epitomises Attia’s concept of “repair” in their own way.
Roots In Berlin’s Modern Heritage
In parallel, the Biennale subtly roots itself in the modern heritage of Berlin. The troubled history of the German capital city over the 20th century empowers the discourse of the art event. In a practical way, this starts with the selection of the specific venues, such as the Stasi Headquarter, the former Ministry of State Security during the GDR era in East Berlin turned into an educational site about dictatorship and resistance for democracy. Seven works are shown there reflecting on the past activities of the surveillance and persecution of citizens as well as foreign espionage operations. Likewise, the Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City, a project space established in 2020 in the exact location where the decision of the colonial partitioning of Africa took place at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, counts among the six venues of the Biennale. That’s where Turkey-born feminist artist Nil Yalter organised a postering workshop as part of Exile Is a Hard Job (1983/2022), her multimedia installation about the discrimination of migrants shown at KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
Other encounters have added to these site-specific resonances, such as the recently concluded exhibition “Nation, Narration, Narcosis: Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories” at Hamburger Bahnhof (Museum Für Gegenwart) curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers, Grace Samboh, Gridthiya Gaweewong and June Yap. The exhibition addresses art’s relationship to political protest, historical trauma, and social narratives from the 19th century to the present time, in line with the Biennale’s idea that art can potentially reshape society, politics, and its focus on the art scenes from the Global South. So are the prominent “social sculptures” of Joseph Beuys from the permanent collection of the contemporary art museum. We ignore how much this setup has been anticipated by the organisers of the Biennale, but it remains that the curatorial team has paid particular attention to connecting the selected works to each other. Dispatched over six locations, they foster synergies thanks to an expanding rhizomatic network. This momentum has been further relayed by Berlin’s ecosystem distinguished by its high concentration of studios of artists from diverse origins, progressive society, and diverse communities.
Documenting The Art
The other significant achievement of the biennale stands in its propensity to document and contextualise the artworks. This commitment has critical importance for some of the exhibits such as Large Collective Antifascist Painting (1960). The work, whose original title is Grand tableau antifasciste collectif, is a four by five metere painting and collage on canvas initiated by French avant-garde artist Jean-Jacques Lebel and completed by five other artists: Antonio Recalcati, Enrico Baj, Erró, Gianni Dova, and Roberto Crippa. The contextualisation of such a work is crucial since it’s related to the torture and rape of Djamila Boupacha, a young Algerian activist of the National Liberation Front (FLN) wrongly accused of a bomb attack in Algiers in 1960 by the French authorities. Several books about the life of this national heroine as well as a wide range of supportive materials such as the historical record of the Manifesto of the 121: Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War (also pasted by Lebel on the canvas) have been displayed to frame one of the darkest episodes of French history. The censorship and confiscation of the work by the police shortly after its completion in Italy in 1961 is also referenced: it has been publicly shown more than three decades later and in Algiers in 2008, where Boupacha herself was able to see it. Thus, we understand the historical importance of such a monument of colonial history, comparable to the unspeakable horror of war depicted by Picasso in Guernica (1937).
This propensity also appears through the documentary nature of some of the artworks such as The Gorgans (1995–2015) and Dikhav – The Banks of the River (2017), a series of photographs and a documentary film by French artist Mathieu Pernot. about a Romani family living in the south of France. This long-run art project establishes an emotional connection with the viewer, departing from the usual status of outcasts of the Romani families wherever they live in Europe. Such a deep insight into their lives also enables the viewer to establish some parallels with the fate of other stateless minorities such as the Vedda in Sri Lanka, the Hmong and the Karen in Southeast Asia or the indigenous people of America and Australia.
This commitment to documenting also shines through in the artist’s curatorial statement and the engaging cartels systematically pinpointing the touchpoints with the theme of the Biennale. Less expected, the curating has also included the infographics of David Chavalarias, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and author of Toxic Data, a scientific investigation published in 2022 about the manipulation of public opinion by social media. Ultimately, there is something very much “documenta-like” in this 12th Berlin Biennale along with an enlightening path to debunk not only the resilient forms of colonisation but also the pitfalls of neocolonialism. A performative commitment to make postcolonialism truly decolonial!
12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: Still Present!
11 June – 18 September 2022
Various locations, Berlin
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