AT THE 12TH BERLIN BIENNALE, Images of Iraqi victims of torture and sexual abuse were blown up and arranged into a maze of crude traps. The walls of this maze reproduce the photos taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison and leaked in 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq. This edition of the Biennale aims to focus on decolonial engagement to “repair . . . as a form of agency” and “a starting point . . . for critical conversation, to find ways together to take care of the now.” Nevertheless, the Biennial made the decision to merchandise photos of illegally detained and brutally treated Iraqi occupation corpses and display them without the consent of the victims and without any contribution from the an Iraqi artists participating in the Biennale, whose works were installed next to them without their knowledge. Who is granted agency in this form of “repair”? Certainly not the Iraqi victims in the photos, nor the Iraqi artists who participated in the Biennial, nor the Iraqi viewers traumatized yet again by this callous re-enactment of one of America’s most notorious war crimes.
At the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, one of the Biennale’s venues, I enter a room with Sajjad Abbas and Layth Kareem, two of the three Iraqi artists exhibiting in this edition. I had presented the work of Abbas and Kareem at the Biennial, loaned a painting by the artist Raed Mutar for the exhibition, and contributed catalog texts to their work. I first met each of these artists in Baghdad, where they lived and created the selected works between 2011 and 2014, the period immediately after the American occupation forces left. In public interventions, videos, and paintings, the artists unequivocally address the act of consuming their doom as a human being and the impossibility of ever communicating what that feels like.
I look at Abbas, Kareem and Mutar’s cutting, sweeping works and a curtain. The second half of Abbas’ work is on the other side; I have to go through the curtain to see the rest of his installation. An installation by Jean-Jacques Lebel with the title is presented to me Poison soluble. It consists of life-size printed images: the charred skin, limbs and hooded faces of the Iraqi men who were mistreated and murdered at Abu Ghraib.
I can see the white female soldier grinning across the juxtaposition of bodies, and I’m eye to eye with a faceless person forced to hold his genitals. I see a corpse, the dead are still waiting. They’re still waiting to give their permission the first time, the thousandth time, and this time is no exception. I am compelled to watch them again just to see the second half of Abbas’ fragmented work.
Abbas stands at the exit of this cruel labyrinth I can see you, 2013, an outline of his own eye printed on a giant banner originally affixed to a building overlooking the Green Zone in Baghdad and decorated with the words of the title. It casts harsh judgment on the US military, its billion-dollar embassy, contractors, illegitimate governments and corporate dealers who, to this day, conquer, plunder and desiccate every piece of flesh and soil they can squeeze anything out of – blood, Money, satisfaction – out. Abbas’ eye, and the physical, political risks he took to mount it, embodies a fierce insistence on agency and accountability. It’s the antithesis of the hideous, voyeuristic behind-the-curtain scenes. I see the eye and turn to Abbas. All I can say is I’m sorry. I should have known better than to trust an art world that finds culture in our flesh.
To the right of Mutar’s painting and below the first part of Abbas’ work was a trigger warning intended for those entering Poison soluble. Those who posted this warning chose to place work by young Baghdad-based artists around and outside the Lebel installation. These artists were invited to an exhibition where they couldn’t see their own work or that of their colleagues without having to navigate a space that the organizers said could “trigger negative or retraumatizing reactions.”
Nothing in the work indicates missing information, anything we haven’t seen yet. The images that flooded the global media two decades ago only highlighted the United States’ ability to make the world hate and abuse the Iraqi body. Images of leashes, electrocution, and mass rape reinforce the longstanding portrayal of the Arab, the Iraqi, as an animal that is both expendable and in need of control and combat. This work did nothing but enforce and expand on these tactics.
Kareem and I participate in a talk as part of the Biennale’s public program. Our final exchange looks at his video work – created with friends and other Baghdad residents who share their experiences of living with the constant specter of violence – in contrast to Abu Ghraib’s work, which explores the asymmetrical power inherent in the photos, reproduced without respect or retroactive effect. Kareem responds by calmly informing the audience that he has family members who were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. He points to what’s missing from the bright yellow trigger warning at the entrance: “You didn’t give your permission. I can’t accept that.” A few minutes later, Kader Attia, the Biennale’s senior curator, is on the stage and justifies the start of the work: We should understand that the photos have to be seen for political changes to take place.
But Kareem, I and the whole world have already seen those photos. At the peak of its proliferation in the early years of the coalition occupation of Iraq, there were no consequences, political or otherwise, outside of Iraq. The images remain online and in the public register of “iconic” photographs. In Berlin, they’re just bigger and even more decontextualized. They are explained in the warning as “calling for cooperation with anti-racist and anti-war movements”. However, there is just as little basis for political action in this presentation of the images as there is an understanding of the immeasurable, enduring pain they cause. The images of the Iraqi women being raped and tortured in the same prison have never been released. Perhaps those images would have turned out to be too obscene and drawn public attention to the cast in a way that would have mattered. If the photos of these Iraqis had been available, would they have been allowed to serve as a “solicitation”? Is it still worth the price of using Iraq’s catastrophe and victims as political art?
The artists – Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem – each have an art practice shaped by their own very real experiences of resisting this violence. And yet their work was used by a curatorial authority that did not see them as partners in the exhibition or as Iraqi citizens who would never agree to share space with what was being done at Abu Ghraib. No respect was shown to the subjects of these paintings, nor to the Iraqi artists whose works were used in a torture spectacle, and whose trust in the Biennale was betrayed. The exhibition’s Iraqi artists’ association with Iraqis subjected to physical and sexual torment turned their artworks into filthy window displays for the battered bodies of their fellow citizens.
The result undermines the intent of their original work, as well as the scale of the atrocities, and provides just further proof that the struggle to value Iraqi life in politics and culture continues. The result of all this is a familiar sadness. When included in exhibitions, do Iraqi artists need to ask if the curatorial premise requires torture victims to be nearby?
Before entering the museum, we were pleased to share our work in Berlin, where many diaspora Iraqis now live and where we have long heard of the German capital’s support and attraction for artists. But we, and every Iraqi we met who saw the work in question, were deeply disturbed and felt betrayed by this recording. Through this insistence on insensitivity to and devaluation of lived Iraqi experiences. Experiences of a coalition of nations that committed decades of globally sanctioned violence against civilians, resulting in over a million deaths and millions more displaced. The discussion of these images and the legacy of warfare in Iraq extends well beyond this one event, but after much thought and reflection, our participation requires this answer to the Biennial’s question of how to “take care of the now”.
We know that at least one curator, Ana Teixeira Pinto, left the Berlin Biennale team because she objected to the Abu Ghraib exhibition. Sayyad Abbas managed to have his piece removed from this museum after a month of negotiations. It will be shown publicly in another building across the city. Raed Mutar has asked for his artwork to be postponed as well. None of this has been enough for the Biennale’s leadership to reconsider including the works or to recognize Iraqi artists’ right to consultation and hearing. But the voices of Iraqis exist, and as artist Layth Kareem said, he is one of them. We also. And we firmly oppose this thoughtless reproduction of the invaders’ crimes.
Bassim Al Shaker
Amir El Saffar