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Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

With his latest film, “The Object’s Interlacing” (2020), Kader Attia presents a polyphonic reflection on the potential role of the object in epistemological processes and the politics of restitution. In this conversation, Attia talks with Nina Möntmann about the reflections on the object that are laid out in the film, the concept of repair that Attia has now followed for over two decades in his artistic work, and about that concept’s critical implication of the neoliberal value system. They also discuss the space La Colonie, founded by Attia in 2016 in Paris, which has since been transformed into several mobile and nomadic formats.

NINA MÖNTMANN: Kader, I would like to talk about three aspects of your artistic, curatorial, and instituting practice: the implications of the object and the politics of restitution, which you have been elaborating on extensively in your work and maybe most explicitly in your latest film, The Object’s Interlacing, from 2020; then your concept of repair, which you have been following for over two decades now in your artistic work; and, finally, La Colonie, the space you founded in 2016 in Paris, which closed in 2020 due to the economic situation caused by the pandemic but which has now been transformed into several mobile nomadic formats.

So, let’s begin by talking about the implications of objects and the politics of restitution: your film The Object’s Interlacing constitutes an impressive polyphonic debate on the function of objects and their role in processes of subjectivation of the individual, as well as in building collective identities. In the film you talk to lawyers, psychoanalysts, art historians, two museum directors in Dakar, and to the authors of the pivotal report The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr. [1] They are all talking about the status and the basic role of the object in people’s lives and in memories and on the epistemic function of the object, specifically the plundered object that has been taken away from past or lost civilizations, as well as from people’s everyday experiences. One central concern is the epistemology of the object, which has been created by a distanced Western view on the object, for example by anthropologists, art historians, or museum curators. Could you elaborate a bit on your view on the epistemology of the object, and what a decolonizing epistemology could encompass when it comes to processes dealing with objects?

KADER ATTIA: Thank you, Nina, for these questions. I mean, first, as you said, it’s very important to remember that I’ve been working on the concept of repair for almost twenty years now, and also that the first time in my life I was in touch with African art objects was in 1993. I didn’t discover these objects in books or in museums of ethnography. I really discovered them on-site, when I was in Congo (Brazzaville) for the first time, to work on a project of cooperation between the French Ministries of Education and Culture and the Congolese Ministry of Cultural Education. So, my first encounter with these ancient African art objects was very strong, and very intimate as well, because I arrived at night and I had to sleep in a village, in a house where there were many objects, such as Kongo-Vili foot bracelets, and I just discovered when I woke up the next day that I was surrounded by these objects. Since then, I’ve never stopped thinking about these objects – produced by extra-European cultures that were colonized, and even before they were colonized, were forced to submit to the slavery trade. So I have to say that, particularly in these times we are living in today, I’m always going back and forth between different interpretations of my environment, of our environment, let’s say. It could be the media environment, the natural environment or the psychological environment. From smaller aspects, on the one hand, to much more complex and, I would say, mechanical aspects on the other hand. So you can see the ancient African sculpture, mask, or tool as an art object, like the Surrealists and the modern Western artists did, as aesthetic statements, or as something else. But like Souleymane Bachir Diagne says in the film, “These objects are mutants.” “They have been moved to the Western world and now they have another history; they are incarnating something else.” You can see them in many ways, I mean through a sort of literacy, I would say. And even if, let’s say, you can elaborate a sort of fantasy of magical power or “in-betweenness” between the world of the visible and the world of the invisible, to get close to the role they were supposed to play in their original societies, to what they were incarnating as divinities, actually their main role in the communities, it can be a speculative concept from a position of privilege. What the Surrealists did, for instance, when they were developing their fascination with the dream, as a creation without artificial grammar, in order to escape the automatization that rules us deeply. But actually, at that time, in the interpretation of the so-called “primitive” societies’ psyche, which was obviously much more developed than the colonial literature was describing, most of the intellectuals were influenced by Lévy-Bruhl’s early colonial supremacist theories on “the other.” […]

For instance, the Vatican has had an ethnography collection for more than a century; for more than a century, many people have been taking care of it. Many curators have been showing the objects in it. Conservators have been repairing them. And these people have passed away since then, so, instead of entertaining the fantasy of the power that we collect in the objects, I think these objects are collecting us. And when you start to think like this, that we are just passing through, we are just going by, I think we open our minds to a much more humble relation to this legacy. And then, because of this humility, I would like to say that what is extremely important – and I spoke a lot with Savoy about this – is to understand that Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy talk about “the debate for restitution.” I remember Felwine always insists on this. He says: “It’s not the restitution. It’s the debate on restitution.” And I would add that because these objects are also watching us and listening to us, they need to be part of this conversation. These objects have to help bring us together around the conversation and make this conversation evolve with the evolution of the whole human society, without distinctions of cultures, genders, social classes, fields of work, etc. So my wish would be rather than focusing on this idea of “repair” that the West is now proposing to the colonized countries of yesterday, or the colonized countries that the Western world had occupied yesterday, to bring the objects back to them as a sign of reparation – which I think, like Christine Théodore and Malick Ndiaye say in my film, is not a reparation. I would rather imagine the world of this conversation opening up, to create an in-between space that would probably be academic, which means inventing a new organ of academic epistemology that would create a multitude of conversations on restitution, and a means to offer possibilities of research for all the people interested in this topic, which still needs to have its own epistemology. Because the “restitution” subject is much more complex than only a North/South legacy, between Africa and the West. You have Jewish objects that had been stolen during the Nazi time, you have German artworks and objects that are in St. Petersburg, taken by the Soviets after the Second World War. The Parthenon Marbles from Athens that are at the British Museum, the Nefertiti bust that is in Berlin, and so on – the list is endless…I think the question of restitution cannot be limited to only North–South. I’m also skeptical, again, like Christine and Malick in the film, among others, about the potentially neocolonial gesture in the “return” celebrated in the media, because we can also speak about why these Northern countries now, like France, are claiming to play the role of the restitution agent. It’s great that they are proposing to bring objects back, such as the Benin objects of King Behanzin, but we need to include the audience into a narrative that depicts all the aspects of this story, and to not reduce the act into a so-called repairing one, because it is not, and it can never repair what has been done in the colonial context of this extraction, as developed in our interview dialogue, by Serge Guezo, the great grandnephew of King Behanzin, and by Sylvain Sankalé, the great grandnephew of the French General Dodds, who sacked the palace of King Behanzin and got him to surrender. For me, the need is to take this opportunity to create a new organ in academia, as a decolonial thinking from which students from Africa – from Ivory Coast, from Senegal, from countries that don’t have their own heritage, their own cultural legacy – will be able to work. Because I met people like this. Like in Ivory Coast, professor Gilbert Kouassi Adack, an anthropologist, is running a group of fifteen PhD students each year. But the students are working from books on artefacts from Africa that were written in the 1960s, or from the ‘70s at the latest. They cannot see and touch objects from their heritage for real. And the few objects that are in the museum are often copies, or not enough to develop a significant corpus of research on different styles. So for me, this is what would be my wish: how can this help us to force the system that we are living in to set up the space for a restitution debate in academia, to make it accessible to everyone, from all countries, with the aim to learn to speak to each other, to listen to each other, and then to think together about the objects through exchange programs.

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

MÖNTMANN: I think this notion of an in-between space you’re describing is very helpful in thinking of or conceptualizing possible processes of repair. In your film, Felwine Sarr presents a very concrete way of restituting. His idea would be to restitute, to return objects to museums in their respective countries in Africa, but from there they would migrate – into communities, into villages – and they would be used in different contexts, instigating a variety of common processes. And I found this quite helpful as a technical idea of how to think about the physical existence as well as the mobile existence of objects. And another layer of restitution I was very interested in was introduced in your film by Awa Cheikh Diouf, the director of the Women’s Museum in Dakar. She mentions a feminist perspective of restitution by asserting that with people’s conversion to Christianity and Islam, the decision-making powers of women, and also their possibility to have their own possessions, has been lost. So, returning objects stemming from times before Christianization and Islamization could also offer a possibility for women to reappropriate those values related to their own power and strength. Because this kind of feminist layer, or this feminist perspective of restitution is very rarely heard of, I think it is important to add this to the conversation. How do you think one could work with this feminist perspective in more technical or practical terms?

ATTIA: In my opinion, this is also about what I call “the elaboration of the conversation on restitution.” I’ve always found the missing part of the feminist voices in terms of restitution quite frustrating because if you look at most of the objects in our confirmed history, the majority of divinities that are represented in sculptures are female divinities. This is very important. For instance, the figure of the mother and child, which you find in Congo and in many other countries as well, is always a symbol of power. I also discovered in my research together with the anthropologist Gilbert Kouassi Adack and Silvie Memel-Kassi, who is the director of the Musée des Civilisations in Abidjan, that the very, very heavy and wide muscular legs of the female figures from the West African region, where they are working, were actually a sign of power. Because it means that the woman figure, who has these very short but massive legs, is strong enough to stand on its own. I also went to the Musée de la Femme Henriette-Bathily, in Dakar, many times to do research, where its director, Awa Cheikh Diouf, explained to me very interesting feminist aspects regarding the debate on restitution. I met Awa Cheikh Diouf in the symposium that Felwine Sarr organized on the subject of restitution in Dakar. One day, a conversation with her was particularly interesting because she spoke about aspects of the debate on restitution that sounded almost excluded from it. If this is correct, the current debate is clearly evacuating the feminist conversation, which I think is a mistake. So that’s why I have included her voice in the film The Object’s Interlacing because I wanted this film to be a first brick in the library we need to build through the debate on restitution. I found this conversation so important, first, because it brought an unspoken aspect, and second, because it came from the director of an African museum, who speaks from her position as a Senegalese historian, who repairs our perception of Senegalese societies, where the matriarchate has existed before Islam, and before Christianity (and also parallel to them), and where these art objects, spoiled during modern colonial times, have left an injury that only a decolonial thinking can reveal. Because the problem of the act of restitution for me is definitely a neocolonial conversation, which is reproducing all the sorts of authoritarian discourses that already existed during colonial times: it’s a male, patriarchal discourse of so-called care, but it has a political strategy. When Macron says, “We’ll bring you the objects back,” it is still framed by the same colonial power relationships. I’m very skeptical about the simplicity of this form of repair. I mean, we are talking about lives that have been deported, cultures that have been destroyed, lands that have been extracted, from which all that has value has been extracted, and, last but not least, the energy from bodies that has been extracted. And then, putting the focus on cultural symbols, I think, as we say in French: “C’est l’arbre qui cache la forêt,” meaning, you can’t see the forest for the trees. I think first we need to include all the invisible trees in this question of restitution, so that we understand how much this dispossession has damaged cultures. The destruction of matriarchal societies is one of them. So there will be much needed work for historians to do here, working with oral historians such as traditional healers and storytellers, like griots in West Africa. Sometimes these communities have completely disappeared, but in some places they are still active!

Felwine Sarr is saying that, as you mentioned, if we bring back objects into museums, then museums will have to use them together with communities, with local communities who can use them. In Ivory Coast and in Senegal, I’ve been in contact with deals like this between the museum as an institution and village communities. But this is really rare – many of these objects belong to communities that have lost their language and culture to activate them. Though it doesn’t mean that these objects can stay in the West and that they do not belong to this culture. This is their history.

But to continue with the feminist conversation inside the debate of restitution, to answer your question, I think it is one example of the need for the evolution of the conversation on restitution. So that it’s not a conversation that will stay stable and then vanish. Like Savoy explained in the film: the debate on restitution in France and Germany was very popular at the end of the 1970s, and then suddenly, we don’t know how, this discussion disappeared. So I think the work for people like us in the activist cultural and historical sector is to keep the construction of this conversation relevant, to reconstruct it constantly.

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

MÖNTMANN: I wonder what the agency of repair could be in that context. “Repair” is an important concept in your work, which you understand as a way to deal with injuries, to live with scars, to function again, but without forgetting past injuries. So I have two questions relating to that: Could you elaborate a little bit on the ideas behind your concept of repair, as well as on its, say, operational capabilities or agency, the agency of repair in a context of individual as well as of collective liberation? And how would you describe the use of the concept of repair in curatorial and instituting practices? Could it be a concept for future museum practice as well?

ATTIA: Repair is a very polysemous concept. I’ve been working on it for the last twenty years. I started to observe broken objects and injured bodies, and from this sort of polarization of the treatment of injuries I developed my concept of repair. I’m still working on it, because this agency is spreading in so many different fields of research. As for museums, I would not say that museums are repairing, but I would definitely think that museums are tools for care. It’s easy to think about this today, with the pandemic. We have seen that museums and art centers and cultural places worldwide have been closed because of the lockdown. For me, it reveals how much the political apparatus, the political machine, is neglecting this notion of care of the society. Because the pandemic has put the physical health aspect of this disease as the main agenda for our societies. Of course it is a physical disease, but the effects of this pandemic are not only physical: they are also mental. This situation affects mental health in a deep – and I am sorry to say – much more complex and long-lasting way than physically. An anti-depression vaccine doesn’t exist…

I was also infected by this virus, so I know what it means physically and how serious the symptoms of such disease can be. I’m also thinking about these millions of people who could not survive it. This pandemic is a disaster. So why are the living traces of this disease on human subjects not taken care of seriously? That’s why I care so much about mental health, both as an artist and as someone who cares about the need for a balance between all environments. The psychological environment is crucial for a society to make progress. If people are depressed and scared, then they don’t give a shit about others, they become selfish and uninterested in the future. So they don’t care about politics regarding the others, ecology regarding the others, etc. Why do the majority of governments not care so much about the psychological balance of their societies? Why have museums been closed during the lockdown, although they are huge spaces, generally with few people inside? (I’m speaking about the majority of art centers, not the top 5 percent of big museums). At some point, museums are taking care of mental health, no matter whether you like the artworks or not. Visiting them creates another another relation to time. And probably one of the major reasons for our poor psychological health today is the anxiety produced by our society that, since the Second World War, has basically been reducing our brains’ idle time in our everyday life, and expanding and accelerating time taken by capitalism’s extraction of value.

MÖNTMANN: Exactly.

ATTIA: In the 1960s or ‘50s, when you were back home after work, you had either the radio to listen to or the newspaper to read, or maybe played cards or just did nothing. But today your attention is constantly hijacked by all these alerts, all these messages, all these things that you can do.

We need to understand that care today also means finding a way to press the “pause” button in this crazy speed we’re living in. And I think museums, and more precisely, I would say artworks, are “slowing-down machines.” Artworks, by themselves, by definition, are slowing time. An artwork is taking care of its viewers. It is producing care by the duration in which it involves the attention of its viewers or users, in a temporal dimension that allows a depth that the digital dimension has never been programmed for – the digital raison d’être, on the contrary, is a synthetic speed. I think that museums are important because they provide another duration which helps you to care about a decompressed time and therefore about the world outside you. The museum is actually taking care of your attention rather than appropriating it. Of course, like Marshall McLuhan said, an artwork is also generating attention, but it can sometimes be a place where you meet yourself, or a part of yourself you didn’t know, through the eyes of someone else. It’s a fair mirror, whereas the digital governance is a “Dorian Gray” mirror, in which your algorithmic double is becoming younger every day, younger than you. At this point I think art and art spaces take care of us, and, for some people, they can provide forms of untold therapies, but not a repair, because repair is also the irreparable.

MÖNTMANN: And they are setting up a dialogue between an object and yourself.

ATTIA: Yes, I think definitely by setting up this dialogue it turns on another temporality, a space in which you, as a subject, consciously pay attention. We also have to remember that in contemporary art, until I participated in Documenta 13 in 2012, there were not that many proposals in contemporary art including masks and other traditional ancient non-Western artefacts. This is very important to say in order to remember that there was a time when to invite such things into a work meant to reorient the trajectory of time, by slowing it down. It was a time when showing older art from other cultures was uncanny, old-fashioned, and perceived only as an aesthetic presence. The decolonial conversation had not yet been initiated. The only artists I remember from that time, back in the 1980s and ‘90s, were Fred Wilson, David Hammons, and the Congolese painter Cheri Samba, for his representation of the ancient African art in Zurich, among a few others. There were not as many African masks and objects in Western contemporary art as there are today. Which raises one question: Is the current trend of over-representation an acceleration of the misrepresentation or, on the contrary, the end again, but accelerated?

I think it’s important to understand that these objects are collecting us – we are not collecting them. It also means that they are taking care of us. And because they take care of us, we definitely need to take care of them. The notion of care of the other is a correlative notion, it’s not a selfish one, it’s not “I care about you because, narcissistically, I want to be the one who cares.” No, it’s a correlative thinking dynamic. And that’s why I’m very skeptical about the discourse and debate on restitution that would just be unidirectional, and we should learn carefully how and when to dialogue with these objects, as artists, curators, museum directors, etc. I think we need to think about a sort of mirror, to see the backside of the objects, constantly, and then a dialogue, a conversation.

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

MÖNTMANN: In that sense, providing care would also interfere with the neoliberal value system. Based on the well-known correlation of the rise of colonialism and capitalism, I wonder: Do you think that the concept of repair could also be a suitable approach to rewrite the neoliberal value system of art, and above all, to create a wider societal perspective?

ATTIA: It’s an interesting question, but at the same time, I would say that it’s before and beyond capitalism, even if capitalism has this endless capacity to recycle everything, I think the repair is uncontrollable. Repair is an agency: we are moved by repair, and the rest of existence is quasi-causally a process of repair. I mean, any surgeon will say “Look at you, if you cut yourself, the skin repairs itself automatically.” We don’t pay attention to it anymore, because each time this natural system of evolution controls itself, but the process that the body engages in is an extraordinarily complex one. The brain sends antibodies to protect the injury. Meanwhile the cells are starting to stitch the injury, and it’s a very complex factory. So, I think the notion of repair is the contrary of capitalism because, for me, capitalism is a process of extractions of value, from the bottom to the top in an entropic way. Because it basically consumes the energy of the bottom to transform it into profit. Repair is the reverse. Repair is the recycling process of energy to something else, and keeping the trace of this temporality as a memory. Also, in capitalism you have an ephemeral, a temporal consciousness of profit, and a certainty of superiority of the political or physical reparation, rather than in repair, the care of time, as an eternal series of flux: of injuries, repair, injuries, repair, etc… This is what defines the agency of repair as an endless movement between repair and injury. Because you find it everywhere, really everywhere.

I started our conversation by saying that we need to see the object from different perspectives. The literacy of debates on colonialism, dispossession, destruction, and also religious hegemony, be it Christianity, Islam, etc. But it is very important to be able to go back and forth from the particular to the universal. I mean, the bigger picture related to the universe, not the moralistic Western statement used as a pretext in colonialism. No, I am thinking about the cosmos that has fascinated so many human societies, from the Egyptians to the Mayas, the Dogons, and to Leonard Susskind. It’s important to link the notion of repair with other fields of research: biology, geology, quantum physics…of course political discourse, feminism, ecology, and so on.

MÖNTMANN: I would finally like to talk a little bit about La Colonie, the space you founded in Paris in 2016 and which was closed down in 2020 due to the economic situation caused by the pandemic. I experienced La Colonie as a very progressive space in terms of reflecting what the role of a cultural space in society could be today. Although it’s not necessary to define La Colonie as an institution, I think it could offer a model for rethinking the role of a cultural institution in postcolonial migrant societies. Also, since it was generating its own income with a well-frequented bar as an integral part of the space, the dependency on any public or private funding, or the expectations of funders, was reduced to zero.

After its closure, La Colonie is now continuing as a mobile nomadic project, currently pitching its tents at BAK in Utrecht and La Dynamo de Banlieues Bleues in Paris. Could you talk a little bit about what, for you, the function of a small-scale cultural space in contrast to a museum could be in society today, and what you want to achieve with La Colonie?

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

Université de la Rentrée, Présence Africaine, La Colonie, October 2019

ATTIA: I think the question is whether a museum can be a place for repair. Again, of course, the more I work on repair the more I think that most of the time what we claim to repair is irreparable, but I think the fact that we do maintain the conversation on the reason for repair, the dispossession, the injuries – they could be physical or psychological or political – means that we care about repairing these things. And La Colonie for me has been the place where this could happen, and because of its smaller scale, I would say technically we were faster than large-scale institutions. Because when you work in an institution and you want to organize a debate on media, on ethics of the media for instance, you face a huge amount of bureaucracy and protocols that make it complex to organize a very simple event, and then it can take you years to organize just a one-day symposium. This is very much linked to the times we are living in today. With La Colonie I’ve discovered that when you want to do something, you can do it very quickly. And this is the great aspect of having a small space. Then, ethically, I would say there is also another aspect that answers your previous question. I really think that the majority of repair processes are Sisyphean processes. But at the same time, it’s better than nothing. And what I found interesting with La Colonie is the freedom of speech that we have. That we’ve been able to start to liberate the speech on decoloniality in France. We let people take the microphone and participate in the debate, and we were having a lot of locals coming in to sit and listen and engage. But really physically entering a space together with others from different fields – academic, activist, theorist, etc. – for a much-needed conversation. And this is probably what I would call a possible therapy for this computational governance in which we are living today. Because people are becoming a virtual society. People are online constantly. And the pandemic has enhanced this. So, La Colonie for me was a space to take care of the common ground by being together in the same space, already before the pandemic. Whether we were fifteen or six hundred, there was this individuation process – to quote Gilbert Simondon, where every individual stays a specific individual, but together they compose a collective individual at the very same time. And this is how the world became the world. I mean, the agora has always been what has cemented the human culture and the human agency for evolution. And I have to say that I’m very scared today, because this pandemic was quite unexpected, and because this pandemic has not only completely retransformed the scale of democracy, but authoritarian regimes are now also using it for maintaining states of emergency. But there is also the fact that, like the writer and poet Annie Le Brun says in France, it actually imposed the computational governance in such a smooth way that nobody resists.

MÖNTMANN: One final question, now turning to museums again: How would you assess the current debate on decolonizing museums? Which is again, as you already mentioned, a very Eurocentric one, but also opening up possibilities, options, and self-criticism to a certain extent. How would you assess this debate?

ATTIA: For me the debate on decolonizing the museum is part of this evolutional decolonial conversation I was telling you about earlier. If I look back twenty years ago, even the word “decolonial” was not used. It was present in North America but not in Europe. As I remember, it arrived in France in 2008 in a demonstration called “The March for Dignity.” There, the first slogans using “decolonial” popped up. And since then in Germany, in France, in Belgium, in Spain, of course in the UK, and in many other countries the decolonial conversation emerged, just after 2010. And when we opened La Colonie in 2016, it had its sort of blooming moment, where we were quite…not celebrated, but it was very easy to be decolonial and to everyone it was very attractive. But actually today, particularly in France, a case I know very well, it’s the reverse. Decolonial thinkers are almost criminalized. And this is something I was expecting. I always knew that the radicalization of decolonial discourse, particularly when it has a political project, will not be accepted by the establishment. And that’s why you have a lot of academics, in France for instance, who are fighting against decolonial thinking and against decolonial thinkers, claiming that they are separatists, or that they are very close to antisemitism, etc. Paola Bacchetta, an academic from Berkeley, a feminist scholar, told me: “You know, most of the time, when a movement becomes institutionalized, it loses its strength because it becomes a field of scholars. To be able to keep it strong and relevant you need to work, and you need to constantly dismantle and assemble, dismantling and assembling it from the inside, perpetually reinventing the discourse.” I would say that everything that comes from the street, like the decolonial thinking in Europe, scares the academy, particularly when it has a political discourse. So, when the decolonial discourse, coming basically from the street, has become institutionalized into another name of decolonizing the museum, I’m actually wondering whether this is not a sort of recycling process of what should be an activist movement. Decolonizing the museum was extremely interesting for me when activists were disturbing exhibition openings, for instance, really occupying the space, reappropriating the attention granted to an opening by intervening in the event. And it has to remain like this. I think decolonizing the museum and most of the movement around it has to keep one foot in the street. They have to keep one foot in activism. And it’s not easy, but I think the most dangerous outcome of a movement is to become institutionalized. We need to find a way to prevent that. And the project La Colonie was caring about this. I’ve always been caring about the fact that we need to juxtapose activists and theorists in our symposiums and debates. Because otherwise you reproduce the university in an alternative space. A hierarchy of voices where the top is disconnected from what it considers the bottom.

MÖNTMANN: Maybe it’s about the immediacy as well.

ATTIA: The immediacy, yes, exactly, the immediate experience. Because the experience of action brings unexpected perspectives of thinking. They are demonstrating, when they are supporting refugees, they are going where the refugees are, they are beaten up by the police, they spend hours in the “Kafkaesque” police administration to free a refugee. They have a relation with another reality than the one theorists from academia have. I’m not saying that they are not needed, I think it’s another dimension of reflection. But what would be great, this is my dream, and that’s why I also created La Colonie and am still running it: How can we bridge both forms of thinking? Because activism is also another form of thinking.

MÖNTMANN: Exactly. So I think a small-scale institution can be, exactly as you say, a platform to do this, and it’s very difficult to insert such a platform into an institution of a larger scale. So, let’s see what you do with the Berlin Biennale then.

ATTIA: Yeah, exactly, we will see.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version of the interview was first published as a video podcast at boasblogs:

Kader Attia is a French-Algerian artist who explores the wide-ranging effects of Western cultural hegemony and colonialism. Central to his inquiry are the concepts of injury and repair, which he uses to connect diverse bodies of knowledge, including architecture, music, psychoanalysis, medical science, and traditional healing and spiritual beliefs.

Nina Möntmann is a professor of art theory at the University of Cologne, curator, writer, and Principal Investigator at the Global South Study Center (GSSC). She has been a professor of art theory and the history of ideas at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm and curator at NIFCA, the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art in Helsinki. She is currently working on the book Decentering the Museum: Contemporary-Art Institutions and Colonial Legacy, London (Lund Humphries) 2022.

Image credit: Alix Hugonnier


[1]Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics (Paris: Ministère de la Culture, November 2018),