The bright-yellow poster for artist Kader Attia’s retrospective exhibition The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre cheekily hints of an absurdity: Its image features a stuffed cheetah looking curiously out at the viewer, posed next to a primitively carved wooden feline mask.
The poster makes a subtle reference to the colonialists’ habit of collecting wildlife specimens and accoutrements of cultures including costume, religious paraphernalia and housewares that wind up in museums. The poster, and the sculpture it refers to, mocks the colonial powers that once exhibited foreign cultures as objects of curiosity rather than items of religious and cultural importance.
Attia, who was born in France and now claims both Algiers and Berlin as home, started an art space in Paris in 2016 that focused on “decolonialisation not only of peoples but also of knowledge, attitudes and practices.” His work, which also focuses on repairing the cultural and psychological damage of colonial history, has earned him France’s most prestigious art award, the Prix Marcel Duchamp, in 2016.
Thousands of objects in museums today, argues Attia, have been brutally decontextualized and rendered devoid of meaning. The cheetah’s majesty makes the placement of the wooden mask with it silly. The piece reflects the visually and intellectually superficial acts of putting stuffed animals and masks, without context, in ethnography museums. Attia asks: What was the point or knowledge gained?
A Personal Experience of Colonial History
Born in 1970 to Algerian parents, Attia spent summer holidays in Algeria’s capital and the Aurès Mountains. It was the constant travel and movement, he states in the exhibition brochure, that formed his sensitivities to the “physical, geographical and intellectual” gaps between the places he regularly visited and lived in.
The Museum of Emotion manifests many of these themes by reevaluating shoddy representation of minorities and outsiders in ethnography museums and the western art history canon where objects were scientifically classified and placed in vitrines. Like the African tribal masks collected by French colonialists and displayed in Paris museums not as art but mere objects, Attia’s retrospective is an admonishment to shame history. With wit and genius, he layers statement upon statement in his work. Such African masks once intended to showcase the “primitive” nature of indigenous people is what prompted Picasso to reconsider portraiture and propose a cubist style of painting, ultimately revolutionizing art.