Iraqi artists withdraw, decry Berlin Biennale sugarcoating Abu Ghraib
Three Iraqi artists withdraw from the Berlin Biennale due to an installation of blown up photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib that was deemed as insincere.
Three Iraqi artists, Raed Mutar, Sajjad Abbas, and Rijin Sahakian withdrew from the contemporary art exhibition held in Berlin, Germany due to the installation of blown up photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib, a US Army detention facility for captured Iraqis from 2003 to 2006 that is tied to CIA torture programs, much like Guantanamo Bay.
An exhibit of paternalistic behaviors
The artwork, a 2013 piece called Poison Soluble by French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, was labeled by Iraqi curator Rijin Sahakian as an “instrumentalization of our work and identities as Iraqi” in an open letter about the piece, adding: “In an exhibition that prioritizes the display of wrongly imprisoned Iraqis photographed in the act of being sexually and physically tortured, no, we do not find sincerity or transparency in this paternalistic response."
Two and a half weeks after Sahakian’s letter was published, the Berlin Biennale said in a statement that it had met his letter with “great dismay.”
“We apologize that the placement of the affected Iraqi artists’ works in close proximity to Jean-Jaques Lebel’s work caused them great pain,” the Berlin Biennale wrote in its statement.
“We underestimated the sensitivity of the situation. We also apologize for failing to discuss the placement with them in advance in this special case. Likewise, we apologize that the process of replacing the works took so long," the exhibition's management disclosed.
"Poison Soluble" paradox
Poison Soluble is a maze-like structure whose walls are composed of photographs of Abu Ghraib detainees being tortured, sexually abused, and violated by US soldiers in multiple ways. Of the images exhibited are shots of Iraqi villages that were left in rubble after the US Air Force destroyed them. In a statement released on the Berlin Biennale’s website, Lebel commented: “The aim of this project is to provoke the viewer to meditate on the consequences of colonialism.”
During its opening ceremony, the Berlin Biennale placed the art piece behind a curtain with a trigger warning that urged viewers who had “experienced racial trauma or abuse” not to enter it, however to no avail as its display was sufficient to create tension whether uncovered or not. Siddartha Mitter of The New York Times called the trigger warning “paternalistic and exclusionary.”
A representative of the German exhibition said that images of Poison Soluble were not being provided to the press to “counteract digital dissemination and decontextualization of the sensitive content.”
He further announced that the exhibition had deemed it significant to not disregard a piece that mirrors a "very recent imperialist crime" since doing so would entail not facing the imperialist history of a military occupation that "was brushed under the rug with the intention of prompting a swift forgetting. Because this is how imperialism fabricates its impunity.”
This is not the first run-in between German and Iraqi officials regarding art and culture - last month July, the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin received back 125 artifacts that were showcased at the Freie Universität Berlin (The Free University).
The Berlin Biennale is still due to take place until September 18, 2022, in the German capital.