Correspondent Report

On Distance, Objects and the Body

Thoughts after the Workshop with Kader Attia and Marion von Osten

On the 24th and 25th of March 2018, we met in Rabat to participate in the first event of the bauhaus imaginista project, in collaboration with Atelier de Recherche autour des Arts Visuels au Maroc (ARAV). We were attending a conference with Grant Watson and Marion von Osten, on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition, bauhaus imaginista: Learning From, Rabat, as well as a workshop organized by von Osten and the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, surrounded by Attia’s exhibition of archival materials documenting 1960s Moroccan art production and debates, originally published in Maghreb Art magazine, at Le Cube – independent art space in Rabat. This generation of Moroccan artists began an intense dialogue between art and popular culture with the aim of creating an artistic identity reflective of the reality of the country as it was during the first decades of independence.

María's notes from the workshop with artist Kader Attia.

On the hand of the people

During the workshop, Attia reflected on the role of capitalism in the production of objects, and the contestatory quality of handmade objects as a countervailing force in opposition to mass produced goods and culture, with their promise of perfection. Craft and handmade production, he said, facilitate a constant movement of reinvention and randomness. The intense generational exchange with the “popular” that had taken place in the 1960s instantiated a connection between intellectuals and producers operating at the margins of modernization, industrialization, and development—as handmade craft production follows a logic external to the colonial order. I agree with Third Cinema theorist Teshome Gabriel’s definition of the popular as a place where everything is conserved, but which officialdom insists on erasing.1 This notional space of the popular also has the potential of reorganising canonical parameters in the continuous processes of becoming impossible to control. Its agency appears in its process of reinvention, renegotiation and re-elaboration of processes of objectification that possess the potential to destabilise discourses surrounding official status and symbolic value.

The humiliated body

Attia´s point of departure was the recovery of the body. Immigrant bodies are objectified within the Western discourses of supremacy. Racist national rhetoric renders these bodies impossible and humiliated, while also, by extension, humiliating the culture immigrants bring with them. Creating ideological conditions where bodily objectification might flourish is a fixation in the West. Western epistemological conditions are constructed out of fixities and separations, which is why Homi Bhabha insists on viewing the stereotype as a compulsive necessity of reaffirmation and repetition, where certitudes and fixed identities expose a hidden anxiety about the uncertain and indeterminant character of the colonial encounter. Something overruns these categories that are not amenable to fixity, thus the stereotype becomes a compulsive method to stabilize the colonial uncertain.2 The stereotype is also directly linked to distance—one of the main concepts that arose in the workshop, during which line of thought was elaborated connecting the psychic distance produced by the stereotype to the distance maintained through the use of vitrines in museological display. Each of these—the stereotyped person and the remote, untouchable object—corresponds to the distance produced by the ocular-centrism of Western culture, one consequence of two-point perspective, the preeminent visual technology of the Renaissance. Distance and perspective both allowed for the legitimacy of a singular point-of-view to enter into cultural circulation.

The obscene distance

The ethnological museum project may believe it has shorn itself of its racist past, but racism is still evident in museological display, reified in the enforced distance between object and beholder. This racism is also performed in museological discourse, and one might well ask which institutional strategies situate collections of objects most completely between a colonial past that resonates within the neocolonial present? For me, it is crucial to recount the history of this distance, as it was one of the human science’s main tools in inventing otherness. And one of the main torments of anthropological fieldwork methodology was to establish the notion of an adequate distance: what precisely was the “proper” relational distance between the researcher and their object of study? Today’s detached look is the most obscene part of Western epistemology, displacing the essential task of analysing, speaking about, and embodying the colonial experience. Distance from the nineteenth century until the present is in alliance with fear, but rather than this fear signifying an anxiety about difference, I would say it is the fear of our own emotions that betrays the self-imposed limitations of reason to accept Occidental atrocities. One of the direct consequences of the institutionalization of the West’s endemic fear is an oppressed body constructed in its fear of Western violence, systematic rejection, and deportation. This type of fear is continually on the ascendant.

In her conversation with the artist on the previous day of the workshop, the art historian Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa highlighted the fictitious character of both ethnography and art history. I would add that both disciplines are conceptually linked by a shared fault in their propensity for substituting the site of elocution for the object of study, exercised in the course of performing their theoretical mediations. This is directly linked to the way the western humanistic disciplines invented their objects. After all, ethnographic artefacts were invented by ethnography itself, thus placing the practitioner in an eternal (dramatic) aporia with their object of study. Attia´s film Signs of Reappropriation as Repair projected during the conference showed a sequence of interviews where the art historian Gilbert Kouassi from Ivory Coast explains how African objects—once they were placed in museum galleries and became part of European colonial collections—ceased being what they originally were: they are African no more.

Back to the body

Ian Hacking spoke about the “looping effect” concept where institutions create names for categories that inevitably generate two responses: on one hand, creating new subjectivities— “our sciences create kinds of people that in a certain sense did not exist before”—alongside a second response that resists this “artificial” creation. This second response produces gesture of resistance that, once absorbed by institutions, create new unexpected responses in an eternal loop.

This is also the case when the oppressed culture appropriates the culture of the colonizer Attia’s work Signs of Reappropriation as Repair is based on an archive of Berber jewellery that used French or Belgium objects and coins as beads. Money, as an agent of colonization and circulation changed its symbolic value once it became part of another cosmology of signs. So, the authority of these objects is re-valuated and reconfigured within popular culture and craft-making. Due to this, Attia considers such jewellery as objects of resistance and subversion, whose meaning and function go beyond merely being a reaction to power. They are not just re-active but active as well. In order to confront the old Western tendency of ethnographic museums to detach the object from its historical, sociological and geographic context, Attia does not propose a mere re-contextualization in the fiction of history but assigns them a new attachment to the body which necessarily means reactivating relationships with objects on a physical level so as to understand their agency.

  • 1 Teshome H. Gabriel: Third Cinema in the Third World: The aesthetics of liberation, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor (Michigan) 1982, p. 54.
  • 2 Homi Bhabha: “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” in: Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1995.
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