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Berlin Biennale: Iraqi artists denounce display of Abu Ghraib images next to their work

Artists withdraw from event saying organisers never informed them French artist's installation would also be on show
The 2013 artwork 'I Can See You' shows an outline of Iraqi artist Sajjad Abbas' own eye printed onto a massive banner originally placed on a building facing Baghdad's Green Zone (MEE/Ali Yass)
By Azhar Al-Rubaie in Basra, Iraq

The Berlin Biennale, often seen as a progressive platform for artists from around the world, has found itself at the centre of controversy after three Iraqi artists withdrew earlier this month from this year's event, arguing that curators at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum had "prioritised the display of wrongly imprisoned Iraqis".

Sajjad Abbas, Layth Kareem and Raed Mutar objected to their work being displayed alongside the installation of the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, entitled "Poison Soluble", showing digitised life-size photos of Abu Ghraib prisoners being tortured by US soldiers in the infamous Iraqi prison in 2004.

'The Biennale team was very slow to respond to our request to remove our work from the exhibition'

- Raed Mutar, Iraqi artist

Every two years, the Berlin Biennale brings together international artists, theoreticians and practitioners in a range of exhibitions and accompanying programmes. 

According to the event's website: “With its political profile, it stands for committed art that addresses the urgent questions of the present.”

However, the staging of the artworks side by side and the event's slowness to react to the artists' concerns has shattered that image.

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Mutar, a 34-year-old Baghdad-based artist, told Middle East Eye: “The Biennale team was very slow to respond to our request to remove our work from the exhibition.

"They shifted some of our artwork into another place, but my colleagues and I insisted on the removal of all the work from the display; they then acted after a couple of weeks of long negotiations.”

Rejecting a subsequent apology from the Biennale, the artists later said they would completely withdraw their works from the exhibition.

'Greasy material'

Mutar graduated from Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts, a faculty of the University of Baghdad, in 2012.

He did not travel to Berlin to attend the Biennale, but was in contact with fellow artists Abbas and Kareem, along with Rijin Sahakian, the curator of the three Iraqi artists at the event.

Before arriving in Berlin, Mutar's portraits had most recently been displayed in Lebanon and the United States.

It is untitled artwork, created for the public, with the artist believing that each viewer will have a different comprehension and analysis of it.

“My artwork portrays a person - actually it is me - sitting to give fluid therapy to a person orally, and wearing a mask, and there is a skull of an owl near the characters," Mutar told MEE.

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"In Iraq, the owl represents something bad or evil but it is not real.”

Mutar describes how Lebel’s Abu Ghraib images openly showed the genitals of victims, something he says should never have happened for use as an artwork.

"When the influence of other artists fades, they try to use certain Iraqi topics as ‘greasy material'," Mutar added.

"The images are like someone celebrating a group of animals, rather than treating them as humans.

“If the artist, Lebel, wanted to deliver a humanitarian message through his work, he should have at least done some research about the families of Abu Ghraib's victims and displayed their photos.

"That really would have helped them to regain justice from the US Army, as well as get psychological support from Biennale's visitors.”

'I was shocked'

Abbas, who finished his diploma at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Art in 2014, is a multi-skilled artist, who uses visual works, animation and video in his works.

“When I arrived at the museum and saw my artwork close to the images of Abu Ghraib, I was shocked and asked ‘what is happening here?’” said Abbas, 29.

Abbas’s work, created in 2013 and entitled “I Can See You,” shows an outline of his own eye printed onto a massive banner originally placed on a building facing the Green Zone in Baghdad, and emblazoned with the words of the title.

'I had not been told by the Biennale that my artwork would be close to Abu Ghraib images until I travelled to Berlin and saw it myself. It was a really painful scene'

- Sajjad Abbas, Iraqi artist

“My work shows my real eye printed on a big banner of clothes. I put it at the top of the Turkish Restaurant building in Baghdad facing the Green Zone, where the US embassy is located," said Abbas.

"It is a message that I was a witness to US crimes during the invasion of 2003.”

Abbas faced pressure from the Iraqi government in 2013 to remove the work from the restaurant, just four days after placing it there.

“I had not been told by the Biennale that my artwork would be close to Abu Ghraib images until I travelled to Berlin and saw it myself. It was a really painful scene, I cannot describe it,” said Abbas.

“What is so weird was that my work ‘I Can See You’ was at the back, and my video and Mutar’s work at the front of the display, with Lebel’s work in the middle, which means you have to go through his work to see my artwork banner, and it is a one-way path, so you are forced to see all the images of Abu Ghraib torture.

“Kader Attia, the Biennale curator, said that Lebel’s goal is to be a witness to the US invasion to Iraq, while my artwork is also a clear sign to the occupation, but in a way without using the victims’ photos in an abusive manner.”

"‘I Can See you’ is a voice I raised to all people that I am witness to all government, policies and what is beyond

"It tells the life I lived under the US invasion and after, and to say we were, and are, still here.”

In contrast, Abbas says, rather than being a force of "repair" as claimed by Lebel, his installation is in fact "destructive".

The Biennale agreed to pass on questions from MEE to Lebel regarding the criticism of his work but there had been no reply at the time of publication.


Curator Sahakian, a writer who was born in Baghdad, told MEE: "From November 2021 I advised the Biennale on [the Iraqi] artists' works, contributed catalogue texts, and facilitated the lending of Raed Mutar's painting for the exhibition. 

"At no point prior to the opening were the artists or I informed of the work in question (Lebel's), nor that Sajjad Abbas and Raed Mutar's works would be installed in relation to it." 

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Last month, Sahakian published an open letter - entitled "Beyond Repair: Regarding Torture at the Berlin Biennale" - denouncing Lebel’s installation and the event's decision to exhibit the Iraqi artists' work next to it.

As of 20 August, around 500 people, mostly artists and academics, had co-signed Sahakian's letter in support of the Iraqi artists’ stance.

“Before we walked into the museum, we were happy 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 appeal for artists," said Sahakian. 

"But we, and every Iraqi we met who saw the work in question, were deeply disturbed, and felt betrayed by this inclusion.

“I see the white female [US] soldier grinning over an arrangement of bodies piled together, and I am eye-level with a faceless person forced to hold his genitals. 

"I see a corpse, the dead still waiting. Still waiting to give their permission the first time, the thousandth time, and this time is no exception.

“I’m forced to see them once again, simply to view the second half of Abbas’s splintered work.”

Biennale response

A spokesperson for the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which runs from 11 June to 18 September, told MEE: “We respect the artists’ decision, although we regret it very much. 

"The works by Raed Mutar and Sajjad Abbas had already been relocated to new exhibition venues in close consultation with the artists. All three works are now no longer on display.

'We believe in dialogue and very much value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale'

- Berlin Biennale spokesperson

“As soon as they voiced their feelings, the Berlin Biennale, Kader Attia [the event's curator], and the artistic team made intensive efforts to engage in a personal exchange with the artists in order to find solutions with them. 

"We believe in dialogue and very much value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale.”

Many attendees who visited the Biennale, along with Iraqis in the diaspora who heard about it, say they were traumatised by Lebel's installation.

Ali Yass, 30, a Berlin-based Iraqi who is a painter and filmmaker, was reluctant to go to the Biennale but decided to do so at the last minute after his friends encouraged him.

“When I entered the show hall, I was happy seeing the Iraqi artists’ work around me, but I got shocked by seeing the French artist’s images illustrating the victims of Abu Ghraib prisoners,” he told MEE.

“The Biennale was supposed to repair by art what had been caused by wars. The Abu Ghraib images recall the pain to us once again.

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"In addition to taking advantage of young Iraqi artists, they were, and still are, recirculating the same acts of violence through the use of these images."

After visiting the exhibition, Yass helped organise the launch of the website which published Sahakian's letter of protest.

“Can Lebel use any other worldwide known massacre in such a way? Of course he could not," said Yass.

"However, they thought that Iraqi artists would remain silent, but he [Lebel] is unlucky that he is exhibiting with artists who are aware of their positions and political capacity.

“There was no condemnation by Lebel of Abu Ghraib, on the contrary, he reproduced the pain again.”

Sahakian said: "I see the eye [in the 'I Can See You' exhibit] and turn to Abbas. All I can say is that I am sorry. That I should have known better than to trust an art world that finds culture in our flesh.

“We stand firmly against this unconsidered reproduction of the invader’s crimes.”

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