In Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad called the imperial project in the Belgian Congo a ‘weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly’. As incendiary is the novel is, it remains a colonialist’s account. Historically, there are few records from the perspective of the invaded: the letters Nzinga Mbemba (Affonso) wrote to the King of Portugal in the 16th century and the newly published accounts of Cudjo Lewis, 87 years after Zora Neale Hurtson transcribed them, are two rare counter-examples. Hence, we often find ourselves engaging with the Conrads of the past, with the aggressors instead of the aggrieved. Kader Attia has devoted his career to complicating that circumstance, regularly employing ethnographic artifacts and records that reveal as much about the violence inflicted on colonized bodies as they do about the processes of colonialism itself. He also reminds us that its legacy continues, by including testimonies from the inheritors of its aftermath. His exhibition at MAC VAL, ‘Les Racines poussent aussi dans le béton’ (Roots Also Grow in Concrete), explores how architecture inflicts violence on the post-colonial body, through an arrangement of career-spanning works.
‘Les Racines’ is a multimedia journey through a kind of labyrinth in which each room contains a different body of work. A series of 2018 untitled collages of Maghrebian and modernist architecture begin the tour, followed by a sculptural installation, Untitled (Couscous) (2009), comprising the eponymous grain spilled on the floor and shaped into what looks like an abstract North African city plan. A room filled with wooden posts, from which the exhibition takes its title, leads into another with a video projection, Les Heritages du corps: le corps post-colonial (The Heritage of Bodies: The Postcolonial Body, 2018), which documents non-white cultural workers discussing police brutality. Later, On n’emprisonne pas les idées (We Don’t Imprison Ideas, 2018), an installation that resembles prison fences, opens onto a small maze of hallways containing photographs of trans Algerian sex workers, titled after the women portrayed: Christine des îles, Olivia de Bilda, Mounira l’aranaise and Kinuna l’agéroise (all 2018). After a few more rooms filled with installations and video projections, Attia’s series of mirror-covered scavenged refrigerators arranged like apartment towers in the banlieue, Untitled (Skyline) (2007–12), leads to The End and the Beginning (2012), a lightbox diptych of North African architectural ruins. Forms and mediums flicker but, for the most part, the works are all concerned with architecture and the post-colonial body.
The exhibition could be described as an essay in objects, with each consecutive room functioning like a paragraph. Similar to the cine-essays of Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda, Attia uses the museum – in which things and images are juxtaposed – to create a kind of nonlinear polemic. It is particularly reminiscent of Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), by Ghislain Cloquet, Marker and Resnais, a surrealistic montage that denounced the role art played in colonialism. Yet, if there is one weakness to this compelling exhibition, it’s that works from all stages of Attia’s career are included, so that, at times, the show fluctuates between being a retrospective and an exhibition-essay, with certain pieces, such as the beautiful video projection Sugar and Oil (2007), feeling forced into the argument.
Through videos that provide testimony of police brutality on black bodies to work about prisons and collages of colonial planning and architecture, Attia exposes something of the savagery of the projects and rapaciousness of the West, but also how their aftershocks continue to affect descendants of the colonized. There is a pointed literalness to the site-specificity of ‘Les Racines’: Vitry-sur-Seine, like much of the Parisian banlieue, accommodates large immigrant populations from former French colonies, many of whom live in the public housing towers around the museum. This is the lived legacy that Attia addresses in his work.
Kader Attia: Les racines poussent aussi dans le béton runs at MAC VAL, Vitry-sur-Seine until 16 September.
Main image: Kader Attia, On n’emprisonne pas les idées (detail), 2018, riot fences, stones, 3.5 × 2 m each. Courtesy: © ADAGP, Paris; photograph: © Aurélien Mole