More than 340 people, including artists Ali Cherri and Michael Rakowitz, signed an open letter in support of Iraqi artists who opposed an exhibition of their works at the Berlin Biennale near an exhibition focusing on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
The artists Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem protested against the display of their works at the Hamburger Bahnhof without their consent, where photographs of the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel are also exhibited. Another artist, Sajjad Abbas, requested that his video and banner of him, I can see you (2013), be removed from the gallery; these works are now exhibited in another location.
A spokesperson for the Berlin Biennale says: “Mutar and Abbas’ works have been exhibited close to Lebel’s work. Now they are shown in different venues (Akademie der Künste Pariser Platz and KW Institute for Contemporary Art). Layth Kareem’s work is still presented in a video cabinet in a different room in the same place. “
Curator Rijin Sahakian initiated the letter originally published in ArtForum. He writes: “La Biennale made the decision to commodify the photos of Iraqi bodies illegally imprisoned and brutalized under occupation, showing them without the consent of the victims and without any input from the Iraqi artists participating in the Biennale, whose work was installed adjacent to without their knowledge. “
Lebel zoomed in on images of tortured prisoners in the prison that were taken by US soldiers and leaked in 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, for his installation titled Soluble poison (2013). In a statement on the Biennale website, Lebel claims to have “printed and enlarged the color snapshots taken by the torturers, interspersed with black and white print images of Iraqi cities devastated or completely wiped out by the American air force”.
Lebel’s photographs are exhibited in a “labyrinthine installation. In the exhibition, the installation is, and always has been, behind a curtain with a sign in front of it informing visitors that images of violence can be seen on a large scale and can trigger retraumatizing reactions, ”adds the spokesperson for the Biennale.
Kareem’s video from 2014 The city limits examines the psychological effect of bombing and destruction while painting Mutar Without title (2012) reflects on the time spent sharing a studio with two artist friends in Baghdad. Sahakian explains how the exhibition was initially organized. “I see Abbas, Kareem and Mutar, sharp and radical work and a curtain. The second half of Abbas’s work is on the other side; I have to go through the curtain to see the rest of his installation. As I do this, I am presented with an installation by Lebel [Poison Soluble]. It is made up of life-size printed images: the charred skin, limbs and hooded faces of the abused and murdered Iraqi men in Abu Ghraib, ”he writes.
Sahakian outlines his role at the Biennale in the open letter, saying: “I had presented the work of Abbas and Kareem at the Biennale, lent a painting by artist Raed Mutar to the exhibition and contributed catalog texts to their work. I met each of these artists for the first time in Baghdad, where they lived and created the works selected between 2011 and 2014 ”.
Kareem publicly denounced the exhibition in a conversation held as part of the Biennale’s public program. Sahakian, who also took part in the speech, writes in the open letter: “Our final exchange is about his video work, created with friends and other Baghdad residents who share their experience of living with the constant specter of violence, in contrast with the Abu Ghraib, which reproduces the asymmetrical power inherent in photos without respect or repercussions. “
The letter continues: “Kareem responds by calmly informing the public that he has family members who have been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. He points out what’s missing in the bright yellow notice at his entrance: ‘They haven’t given their permission. I can’t accept this.’ A few minutes later, Kader Attia, the Biennale’s chief curator, is on stage, providing a rationale for the inclusion of the work: “We should understand that the photos must be seen for political change to take place.”
Earlier this year, Attia said Arab news: “With these works we look at the space between attackers and victims. All crimes unite victims and perpetrators, psychoanalysts know it ”.