Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)
12 Apr 2017 to 30 Jul 2017
French Algerian artist Kader Attia (born 1970) works across diverse media including collage, photography, video, sculpture and installation. This survey exhibition encompassed over a decade of the artist’s practice, focussing on major installations that were contextualised by video and sculptural works.
Attia explores ideas around cultural exchange and the complex relationship between non-Western cultures and Europe, after decolonisation, through his art. Attia began his career working in the Congo, an African region deeply affected by decades of war and trauma. Assisting teachers and aid workers, he also developed his own private body of photography there. On his return to France, he continued to build his art practice while working with activist groups that supported migrant communities, including displaced Algerian transvestites who faced persecution in their home country.
‘Injury and repair’ have long been central themes in Attia’s art, offering a means to examine the impact of history and its legacy today. These ideas were expressed in this exhibition through objects and installations that juxtapose broken objects including African masks with visible repairs, Classical statuary and documentary imagery of World War 1 veterans with facial injury and surgical reconstruction. A large wall work comprising broken pieces of stained glass introduced the MCA’s south galleries. Viewed upon entry through a gaping hole in the gallery wall, it was revealed as a colourful array of fragments, like history unmade.
Emptiness and the void are further themes within Attia’s practice. Ghost (2007/2017) comprised an installation of aluminium-foil casts of kneeling women in prayer. Approached from behind, the figures turn out to be empty shells once viewed in reverse. In Asesinos! Asesinos! (2014) over one hundred household doors are split into halves and presented in a vast, upright formation of A-frames. They recalled bodies in a crowd that surge forward in protest, a sensation enhanced by the work’s title – ‘Murderers! Murderers!’ – and the silent megaphones mounted on top of them.
Attia’s installation The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil (2013) in the MCA’s north gallery is a towering construction of prefabricated steel shelving, upon which book and journal illustrations reveal a narrative of ‘otherness’, racial stereotyping and cliché in the West, from the 19th century into the present. The adjacent work J’Accuse (2016) featured axe-formed wooden busts and legs on upright metal stands. They faced towards a video extract from French filmmaker Abel Gance’s 1938 film of the same title, like silent witnesses. Gance made his film twice over – firstly, in 1919, in response to the horrors of the First World War; and in 1938, in anticipation of the Second World War.
Kader Attia was the recipient of the 2016 Prix Marcel Duchamp, France’s most prestigious art award. Central to his presentation at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris was the 48-minute film Reflecting Memory (2016), which formed a highlight of the MCA exhibition. Exploring themes of injury and the ‘phantom limb’ through interviews with psychiatrists, surgeons, trauma specialists and survivors, it opened up ideas around trauma and its unseen repercussions, for both the individual and wider society.
Reflecting on history and the ‘bigger picture’ Attia proposes that the more we understand, the better we can participate in society. The human body and its repair are universal themes, encompassing physical as well as psychological and philosophical concerns. Tracing a lineage of wounded objects and bodies through different cultures, Attia’s art acknowledges the powerful forces of history and the importance of remembering, through gesture and action.
Curated by MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent, this was the first solo presentation of Kader Attia’s work in the Southern Hemisphere.
The exhibition was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, from 12 April – 30 July, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, from 30 September – 19 November 2017