Face Laboratory: Kader Attia’s “Museum of Emotion” at London’s Hayward Gallery

For Kader Attia there are two kinds of repairs: the attempt to put something together, to heal, to reconstruct. And a form of repair that is actually an exchange, a replacement. For it should be as invisible as possible, should perfectly recreate the old state. Otherwise, a broken object is simply replaced by a new one and its history dispensed with. “It’s very important to me that we really remember,” says Attia, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. “And the West has often made the historical mistake of trying to hide its wounds, its injuries, its scars, of not dealing with them at all any more.” Attia, who was born in 1970 near Paris as the son of Algerian immigrants, has repeatedly investigated the violent history and cultural exchange between the African continent and Europe’s former colonial powers. In doing so, he shows wounds, ruptures, and traces of time – not only in colonized African countries, but also in Western culture.

Attia collects historical artifacts like an ethnologist or archeologist, but he transforms them into psychologically charged installations, photo series, videos, and collages. The Museum of Emotion, on view at Hayward Gallery in London, is his first British retrospective. The exhibition brings together important works form the last twenty years, almost all of which revolve around physical and symbolic repair, including a version of what is probably Attia’s most well-known workThe Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, which he showed in 2012 at documenta 13.

Many visitors were deeply affected and touched by this installation, which is akin to a surreal history laboratory. In a darkened, theatrically illuminated room display cases and industrial shelves present “primitive” African sculptures, found pieces, and documents from the epoch of World War I. They include natural history and history books that are screwed to the shelves, as well as decorative photograph frames that were made in Africa from empty bullet casings of European troops. There are also medical photographs of soldiers who went through hell on the front, for example in Verdun. The faces of these men were mutilated and disfigured by shots or grenades and “repaired” by surgeons.

They recall the screaming figures in Francis Bacon’s paintings, David Lynch’s elephant man, or archaic masks. Indeed, many of the large wooden masks on the shelves are not “tribal art,” are not ethnological collector’s items, but are contemporary artworks. Attia had them carved based on photos of people wounded in wars in Africa. It is precisely this transfer, this return or amalgamation of cultural meaning, that interests him. For during the period before World War I, when Europe’s colonial powers were still undefeated, modernist and Cubist artists were fascinated by “primitive” African sculpture, in which they sought the unadulterated and the “primeval.” Attia reduces these one-sided projections to absurdity.

Many of his works on view at the Hayward Gallery, including The Scream (2016) and Mirrors and Masks (2013), deal with the still underestimated influence of African culture on Western art history. The artist shows how museum forms of presentation and categorizations are used to control and suppress feelings. In his series of display cases titled Measure and Control (2013), Attia juxtaposes African masks and stuffed animals with Western optical devices in order to show how differently cultures perceive and represent nature.

Attia says that his installations and works “move back and forth between politics and poetry.” They always have a spiritual dimension, because they show that suffering caused by violence is universal, is something that doesn’t separate people but rather connects them. As masks, the soldiers’ faces in The Repair take on the aura of age-old, mystical divinities, yet also have something quintessentially human. The exhibition at Hayward Gallery shows that Attia focuses on people who are suppressed, marginalized, pushed to the fringes of society. They can be people who were mutilated in wars, illegal immigrants, or, as in his photo series La Piste d'atterrissage (Landing Strip, 2000–2002), Algerian transgender prostitutes he befriended in Paris. “Our world today cannot be understood without taking into account the psychological and emotional aspects of society,” he says. That may sound a little prosaic. But his work, which seeks a universal perspective rather than confrontation between the Western and non-Western world, illustrates this point very clearly: We can’t understand the world without compassion.

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion
Hayward Gallery, London
February 13 – May 6