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Berlin Biennale 2022: Exploring colonial trauma

The 12th Berlin Biennale examines the unhealed wounds left by Western colonialism.

Photo: © Đào Châu Hài, photo: Nguyen Anh Tuan

Previous editions of the Berlin Bienniale have at times found themselves out of kilter with world events. Like the 9th edition in 2016, whose detached, satirical tone was impossible to reconcile with the wave of refugees seeking sanctuary across Europe. Since then, the organisers appear to have learnt their lesson; the upcoming 12th edition faces up to one of the most charged issues of the day: colonialism and its legacies.

Its curator, French artist born to Algerian parents Kader Attia, has made the crimes of Western civilisation and the lingering effects of colonialism his main focus for over two decades. “My starting point is that the injuries of colonialism and capitalism have not been repaired,” Attia says. “When you engage with colonial slavery, and the massive trauma inflicted on people, you then quickly observe how it has been buried deep in the ground of history.”

Although we think of colonialism as something that’s happened in the past, it continues to shape many aspects of life in the global south and in the racist mindset of the former colonial powers. Germany’s violent colonial history has long been overshadowed by the atrocities of the Nazi era. In recent years, the opening of the controversial Humboldt Forum in Berlin has reopened the debate and efforts – largely driven by grass roots initiatives – have been made to bring the subject of colonialism and its legacy back into the public domain.

Germany’s violent colonial history has long been overshadowed by the atrocities of the Nazi era.

Attia’s Biennale will focus on four main pillars, so called “blind spots” in the contemporary Western thinking: “The relation between colonialism and fascism, the importance of caring about the environment through decolonial reflection, the colonial legacy and questions of restitution and finally, feminism through the colonial perspective.”

Rather than choose artists that fit into these categories, Attia has focused on artists whose “works map the world that we are living in today in terms of what I call injuries inherited from the past,” he says, “to look at forms of imperialist repression to discover how art can provide a form of resistance.”

This latest edition will be held at Hamburger Bahnhof, KW in Mitte, both venues of the Akademie der Künste, the Stasi Headquarters and Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City. For Attia, what’s important is that we continually interrogate and question the impact of colonialism. “The West would never have achieved the power and wealth that it has today without colonialism and slavery,” he says, “so for me, the task is so huge – but we have to start somewhere.”

KW, AdK, Stasi Headquarters Jun 11 – Sep 18, Hamburger Bahnhof & Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City