From January 21 to April 16 Kader Attia’s Reflecting Memory will be on display at the Block Museum. Attia’s exploration of cultural differences, specifically concepts of trauma and repair, afforded him the 2016 Prix Marcel Duchamp at the Centre Pompidou. The work being shown at the Block is based in part on his research at Northwestern University’s Herskovits Library of African Studies as well as interviews with Northwestern faculty.
The internationally acclaimed French-Algerian artist sat down for a thought-provoking talk at the exhibition’s opening on the 21st. Northwestern faculty members Caroline Bledsoe and Peter Locke of the anthropology and global studies departments, respectively, participated in the conversation while art history PhD candidate Antawan I. Byrd moderated. Followed by a screening of Attia’s touted film essay, “Reflecting on Memory,” the conversation was an insightful kick-start to the exhibition.
Exhibition curators Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Janet Dees delivered brief introductions, addressing their experiences working with Attia as well as topics such as the timeliness of his show in the midst of political uncertainty within the United States. Afterward, Attia, Bledsoe, Locke and Byrd took the stage.
Byrd opened by discussing Attia’s experience researching within Northwestern’s Herskovitz Library. Attia explained how he was drawn to the library’s collection of artist books, their content and physicality.
“It took years to understand the data of a document is as interesting as its form,” he said. Attia referenced one artist book that had a photograph of Tanzanian slaves, who he was only able to see only in outline within the image. “This is [like] what I call the phantom limb, the thing that is there but you don’t see it,” said Attia as he explained the connection between the need for repair within a society to medical repair of the human body.
Locke followed by speaking about his work researching war-torn countries and consulting within humanitarian organizations. He found Attia’s theory equally applicable on this wide scale. “Instead of telling people how to heal perhaps, how can we accompany them as they find their way?” asked Locke. The audience laughed as Attia noted his answer to Locke’s point would be too lengthy for this forum. “I am skeptical of this kind of humanitarianism, especially NGOs. I think they addict the population to this help,” he said.
As the conversation went on, Attia told stories of his interactions with amputee victims, including a friend of his who was a DJ and lost his arm in an accident, causing Attia to ponder the human relationship to symmetry. The man had explained to Attia how he had been experiencing the phantom limb phenomenon for years, negating medical advice that the sensation would only last a short period of time.
The conversation wrapped up with a question and answer segment with the audience. Afterward, while some audience members filed out to view the exhibition for themselves, others stayed to watch Attia’s 40-minute film “Reflecting Memory” that is also part of the museum installation.
Among the plethora of thought provoking content provided within the film, one quote from an interviewee stood out: “By being able to repair, humans exit the animal kingdom as we know it.”
-Contributed by Abigail Kamen, Block Museum Communications Assistant (Medill 2018)