Three Iraqi artists withdraw from the Berlin Biennale in protest against a work depicting prisoners at Abu Ghraib

Three Iraqi artists have pulled out of the Berlin Biennale to protest a work that includes photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison.

The removal came just a day after the organizers of the high-profile exhibit issued an apology for their presentation of the controversial installation.

But the artists, Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem, were not appeased by the gesture, saying in a statement co-written with Iraqi curator Rijin Sahakian that “we were not pressured into accepting the instrumentalization our work and our identities as Iraqis”. .”

“In an exhibit that prioritizes the exposure of wrongfully imprisoned Iraqis photographed being sexually and physically tortured, no, we find neither sincerity nor transparency in this paternalistic response,” their statement concludes.

At the center of the controversy is Soluble poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Bagdad (Solvable Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Bagdad)a 2013 work by French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel that reproduces photos taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison a year after the United States invaded Iraq.

In a “maze-like installation,” Lebel “printed and enlarged the color snapshots taken by the torturers, intercutting them with black-and-white press images of Iraqi cities devastated or completely obliterated by the US Air Force” , a statement on the website of the Berlin Biennale explains.

(ARTnews reported that the Biennale team does not share images of Soluble Poison with the aim of “countering the digital dissemination and decontextualization of sensitive content”.)

Sajjad Abbas, I see you (2013). Photo by Ben Davis.

On July 29, Sahakian published a open letter decrying the work of Lebel and the decision of the organizers of the Biennale to show it.

“This edition of the Biennale is meant to be centered on decolonial engagement, to offer ‘reparation…as a form of agency’ and ‘a starting point…for critical conversation, to find ways together. ways to care for the present,'” Sahakian wrote, quoting the exhibition’s curatorial statement.

“Yet the Biennale made the decision to commodify photos of Iraqi bodies illegally imprisoned and brutalized under the occupation, displaying them without the consent of the victims and without any input from the Iraqi artists participating in the Biennale, whose work was installed next to them without their knowledge. To whom is entrusted this form of “reparation”? »

Sahakian said that after a month-long negotiation, Abbas had his work moved from the Hamburger Bahnhof, where Lebel’s installation is on display, to another building, and that Mutar also requested that his contribution be shown elsewhere. Sahakian also said that at least one member of the Berlin Biennale curatorial team, Ana Teixeira Pinto, resigned in opposition to Lebel’s work.

Sahakian’s letter has amassed over 300 signatures, including those of artists Candice Breitz, Adam Broomberg and Michael Rakowitz.

Raed Mutar, Untitled, at the Berlin Biennale

Raed Mutar, Untitled (2012). Photo by Ben Davis.

On August 15, the organizing team of the Berlin Biennale published a response to Sahakian’s letterapologizing that “the placement of the works of the Iraqi artists concerned near the work of Jean-Jaques Lebel has caused them great pain”.

“We underestimated the sensitivity of the situation,” they said. “We also apologize that we did not discuss the placement with them in advance in this particular case. Likewise, we apologize that the process of replacing the works took so long. They did not say if the Lebel facility would be removed from view.

On the same day, French artist Kader Attia, who leads the curatorial team for this year’s Berlin Biennale, released a lengthy statement in art forum. In it, he explained that the curatorial team “felt it important not to give in to the impulse to turn a blind eye to a very recent imperialist crime – a crime committed under military occupation that was quickly glossed over with the intent to cause rapid oblivion.”

“This is how imperialism manufactures its impunity,” Attian wrote.

Representatives of the Berlin Biennale did not immediately respond to Artnet News’ request for comment.

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