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Berlin Biennale curator Kader Attia on art, resistance and decolonisation

Berlin’s summer art scene will be dominated by the 12th Berlin Biennale. We talked to its curator Kader Attia about art, resistance and decolonisation.

Tammy Nguyen’s installation at the 12th Berlin Biennale. Photo: dotgain.info

What can visitors expect from the 12th edition of the Berlin Biennale?

The biennale focuses on ‘blind spots’ in the postcolonial conversation when dealing with the legacy of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and fascism. Ever since I was appointed curator nearly two years ago, I have been interested in finding ways we could map the world that we are living in today in terms of what I call ‘injuries’ inherited from the past: from slavery, colonialism and from all forms of imperialist repressions. The biennale will show what art can bring into this conversation as a form of resistance and bring new strategies to decolonialise. Perhaps most importantly, it will also show how artists offer the possibility to reinvent the world.

Colonialism and its aftermath have been the main focus of your work as an artist. In Paris, you set up the project space La Colonie which puts on workshops around topics like art restitution, cultural appropriation and institutional racism. Have you noticed a change in attitudes since its founding in 2016?

It’s changing because of the work we’re doing. Ten years ago, when you mentioned the term ‘whiteness’ or ‘white’, you were immediately attacked for being racist. At the same time you could say Black, you could say Asian, you could say Arab. There is always an established terminology to name the ‘other’, the non-white. This ‘other’ is a racist fiction, and I think it illustrates what I call “regimes of invisibility”. In the biennale, we’re not going to speak with the sense that this is the world we are living in and to accept it but explore what we can do to address these issues. To ask, what kinds of strategies are there to improve the world we’re living in? As well as highlighting how imperial repressions that still exist today have been buried in the ground of history.

Artists offer the possibility to reinvent the world

Can you elaborate on “buried in the ground of history”?

I mean invisible, and invisible technologies are the worst. You can see it in the invention of white supremacy and in how we just take for granted things like algorithmic governance. Algorithms predict social and behavioural outcomes and end up exaggerating racial discrimination. This continued inequality doesn’t just provoke a clash between white and non-white people but slowly transforms society into individuals capable of selfishness and violence. It makes me scared that we are fragmenting society into hundreds of millions of despots.

The biennale is coming a year after the opening of the Humboldt Forum, which was built as a permanent exhibition space to show non-European art and will therefore show objects and artworks acquired – in some cases looted – under colonialism. It cost a staggering €677 million to rebuild. Would that money have been better spent on paying reparations to countries that were colonised?

The Humboldt Forum incarnates the complexity of the debate on restitution because, on the one hand, it’s showing objects that belong to formerly colonised countries – though I would argue they are still colonised – but on the other hand, they have reconstitute a palace that they felt was lost, rebuilding the imperial grandeur of the Prussians! So Germany has the right to return to what it had, but the others do not have the right to get back their own heritage? That illustrates very much who has the power and how [imbalanced] that decision-making power is.

Mai Nguyen-Long’s installation. Photo: dotgain.info

What do you mean when you say that these countries are still ‘colonised’?

The West could not have arrived at the power that it has today without colonialism and slavery. The economic extraction of values from the Global South to the North cannot be reversed: we can’t bring back the bodies in the transatlantic slave trade, we can’t replace what has been drilled from the ground. But what we can do is open discursive spaces and provide room to listen. There is a kind of urgency by working on the biennale, and it’s completely linked to the legacy of modern capitalism.

Germany has the right to return to what it had, but the others do not have the right to get back their own heritage?

How will the biennale be opening up to voices outside the mainstream?

As an artist, something I’ve always cared about in my own work is the audience. I was just speaking this morning with an artist who is participating at the biennale, Maithu Bùi, who is Vietnamese and has grown up here in Germany. I’ve lived in Berlin for more than 10 years now and I’ve always been fascinated by the Vietnamese community who were invited here during the DDR period. But why is the Vietnamese community invisible on the artistic scene? Why have they never been shown at a biennale before? This biennale will give space to their voices and give that community a chance to be represented.

The artistic team behind Berlin’s 12 Biennale. Photo: Silke Briel

One of the so-called ‘blind spots’ you’ve identified in postcolonial thinking is fascism. How will the biennale tackle this issue?

The world is the way it is today because it carries all the wounds accumulated during the history of Western modernity. I want to show the interdependence between colonialism and fascism and at the biennale, we are proposing a different generation of artists to show us how they worked collectively for the cause against fascism: for instance, the hugely important painting ‘Grand Tableau Anti-fasciste Collectif’ (1960), by a French collective that included Jean-Jacques Lebel and Erró. This iconic painting was literally seized by the Italian police when it was exhibited in Milan. They kept it in their office getting mouldy for 25 years.

The biennale also focuses on climate change and how a new ‘decolonial ecology’ can be shaped. What do you see as the links between colonialism and climate change?

The transformation of the environment during slavery and colonialism is also one of the blind spots of the Western environmental discourse. We have artists from the Caribbean, West Papua and Africa who address the impact of colonialism, how it changed and destroyed ecology and the environment. I’m also very excited about the Israeli artist Dana Levy who is showing a very interesting film explaining the environmental impact of destroying olive trees in Palestine that have been there for 2000 years, just to clear the landscape to prevent snipers from hiding. The question of the environment is another way to bring in activists from the Global South who want to reset the narratives that deny colonial legacies.

  • 12th Berlin Biennale: Still Present! Through Sep 18. Various locations incl. Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Akademie der Künste (both venues), KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City, Stasi Headquarters Campus for Democracy.