Three Artists Withdraw From Berlin Biennale Over “Commodification” of Iraqi Suffering

Three Iraqi artists have withdrawn their participation from the Berlin Biennale after criticizing the inclusion of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s “Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American occupation (Baghdad)” (2013) — an installation resembling a labyrinth plastered with digitally enlarged photographs of physical and sexual torture infamously committed at Abu Ghraib. In a note justifying their decision, the artists decried the “instrumentalization” of their “work and identities as Iraqi” by curators. 

Rijin Sahakian is a curator and artist who authored both the latest announcement of the artists’ withdrawal of work as well as an open letter in Artforum in late July outlining her grievances with the curation of Iraqi artists’ work. The 12th edition of the Biennale, which carries the theme “Still Present!,” aims to interrogate “connections between colonialism, fascism, and imperialism, and propose decolonial strategies for the future.” Sahakian began advising the Biennale in late 2021. She introduced the work of Iraqi artists Sajjad Abbas and Layth Kareem to organizers, lent a painting by Iraqi artist Raed Mutar to the Biennale, and wrote catalogue texts on their art. Each of their contributions to the show wrestled with Iraq and Iraqis in the aftermath of the American invasion and occupation.

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Given Sahakian’s extensive involvement leading up to the opening of the Biennale, she was surprised to find Lebel’s piece, featuring monumental representations of Iraqi victims in an abject state of humiliation, in the same room as the work of artists she had brought into the fold. Lebel’s work was not new; it was shown at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018.

“There was ample time to discuss the inclusion of the work in question prior to the exhibition opening in June,” Sahakian told Hyperallergic in an interview. “Instead, we were confronted with work and its collusion with our participation upon arrival at the museum.”

A trigger warning for Lebel’s work was installed after the show opened. (courtesy Ali Yass)

Sahakian privately raised her concerns with organizers. But dissatisfied with the lackluster response she received, she published an open letter co-signed by 15 artists — including Abbas, Kareem, and Mutar — lambasting the Biennale for making “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.” Sahakian urged the Biennale’s organizers to “reconsider their inclusion of the work” and “recognize the rights of Iraqi artists to be consulted and to be heard.”

“The main issue is that our bodies are not that cheap,” Ali Yass, an Iraqi artist who co-signed Sahakian’s letter, told Hyperallergic. Including Lebel’s work, to him, “reproduces that oppression.”

One member of the Biennale’s artistic team, Ana Teixeira Pinto, resigned from her post shortly after the show opened. A spokesperson for the Berlin Biennale confirmed that Pinto stepped down due to “content-related differences revolving around the presentation of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s work.”

On Monday, August 15, the Berlin Biennale formally apologized to the Iraqi artists for the pain caused by placing their works adjacent to Lebel’s and for being slow in their relocation of them. Their apology was accompanied by a screed written principally by Kader Attia along with the rest of the Biennale’s artistic team justifying the inclusion of “Soluble Poison.” Attia argued that it was “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.”

One of the venues of the 12th Berlin Beinalle, featuring Sajjad Abbas’ “I Can See You” (2013) (photo by, courtesy the Berlin Biennale)

“If we do not show these images again and again, then we are protecting those responsible for these crimes, even if it is easier to be convinced of the contrary in the dystopian comfort of the conservative contemporary art world,” Attia wrote.

Sahakian, Abbas, Kareem, and Mutar were swift in their response. By the following day, they had united in withdrawing their participation from the Biennale. “The curators make this claim by listing their decolonial credentials while at the same time lecturing us on how to understand our own history,” Sahakian wrote. “The curator’s artistic practice and personal family history taking precedence over the artistic practice, lived experience, and family histories of Iraqis speaks to the asymmetric power this biennial is intent on producing in its discourse and in its curatorial negligence.”

The Berlin Biennale said in a statement that they respected its artists’ decision to withdraw even as they “learned about it with great dismay.”

“We believe in dialogue and value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale very much,” the Biennale’s statement continued. “We are still interested in working through the controversy and will remain open to a dialogue. Therefore we would like to invite all parties involved for a public dialogue, because we think the issues at stakes are important.”

“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,” Sahakian concluded.


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