Berlin Biennale Responds as Artists Pull Work over Images of Abu Ghraib Torture

After several Iraqi artists removed their work from the 12th Berlin Biennale in protest of the exhibition’s display of works featuring images of torture taking place at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the Biennale’s curator, Kader Attia, and his team today issued a statement on the matter. “We believe in dialogue and value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale very much,” wrote the group. “We are still interested in working through the controversy and will remain open to a dialogue. We think the issues at stake are highly important and would therefore like to invite the parties involved to speak about them in a public discussion.”

Sajjad Abbas, Layth Kareem, and Rayad Mutar on August 16 asked that their work be removed from the Biennale following the July 29 publication in Artforum online of a letter written by curator and artist Rijin Sahakian and cosigned by more than four hundred artists, among them the three Biennale participants who ultimately pulled their work. Abbas, Kareem, Mutar, and Sahakian, supported by their peers, took issue with the placement of their work in proximity with Jean-Jacques Lebel’s 2013 Poison soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad (Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Baghdad), which comprises life-size images of Iraqi prisoners who were tortured and murdered by American troops at Abu Ghraib in the wake of the US-led occupation of Iraq. Though the work is accompanied by a trigger warning, visitors had to navigate it to see work by the Iraqi artists.

“This edition of the Biennale is said to be centered on decolonial engagement, to offer ‘repair… as a form of agency’ and ‘a starting point . .  for critical conversation, in order to find ways together to care for the now,’” Sahakian wrote, referring to the Biennale’s curatorial statement. “Yet the Biennale made the decision to commodify photos of unlawfully imprisoned and brutalized Iraqi bodies under occupation, displaying them without the consent of the victims and without any input from the Biennale’s participating Iraqi artists, whose work was adjacently installed without their knowledge. Who is given agency in this form of ‘repair’?” 

Attia and his team offered a response in Artforum which can be viewed in full immediately underneath Sahakian’s letter, in which he asserted that the Biennale’s curatorial team “deemed it important not to indulge the impulse to turn a blind eye to a very recent imperialist crime—a crime conducted under military occupation that was quickly brushed under the rug with the intention of prompting a swift forgetting,” noting that “this is how imperialism fabricates its impunity.”

The Biennale’s organizers that same day apologized for the placement of the Iraqi artists’ work and admitted that they had dragged their feet on moving the works elsewhere in the exhibition, as they ultimately did the contributions of Abbas and Mutar. Sahakian and the artists called the apology “paternalistic” and insincere, noting, “We have not been moved to accept the instrumentalization of our work and identities as Iraqi.” Abbas, Kareem, and Mutar then demanded the removal of their work from the Biennale altogether.

“We respect the artists’ decision, although we regret it very much,” wrote the Biennale’s organizers today, promising, “More information on this will follow soon.”


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