Art Review: Diane Arbus and Kader Attia, Hayward Gallery ‘Two Gems for the Price of One’


Well, these shows are fantastic. And surprising. I came for the photography of Diane Arbus yet left inspired and fascinated by the mind of Kader Attia. It’s hard to see the connections between these two artists and these two displays – perhaps it is simply two for the price of one – but the works in these galleries makes for both an enjoyable and challenging experience.

Diane Arbus spent most of her career in and around New York City and her photographs are almost all taken in and around this iconic city. Whether it’s people on the street or female impersonators in clubs, mannequins or circus performers, children or shoppers, these are snapshots taken of people who lived and worked – or were simply visiting – places such as Coney Island, Times Square or even the Lower East Side.

The post-war world wasn’t exactly short of street photographers – and NYC wasn’t exactly short of artists recording the city and its inhabitants – but there’s an unusual intimacy to Diane’s works. Her shots seem to, momentarily, remove the sitter from their context and situation. The hustle and bustle of the vast city removed and, instead, we get close images that seem to catch the subjects in moments of brief contemplation and introspection. Like the subjects of Edward Hopper paintings removed from the artworks and close cropped.

Two-thirds of the images on display have not been seen in the UK before. It’s a rare treat to see some of these, most of which are drawn from private collection or the artist’s own haul that was donated to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 by Diane’s daughters.

Diane died in 1971, only one year after Kader Attia was born. And where Diane rarely left her local city’s limits in her work, Kader draws on a vast range of experiences and influences. Born in France but with family in Algeria, Kader grew up in a world well aware of colonial legacies and racism. He also spent a number of years working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which only further and deepened his appreciation of African art and history – and his awareness of the extent to which it has been appropriated.

And all this analysis and consideration is wrapped up in artworks that explore the politics of Western museums, the overlooked African influence in modern art, and the extent to which state control and surveillance is embedded in the design and construction of social housing – housing allocation which of course includes the embedding of racism and other prejudices and discrimination.

But it’s not angry art that screams at you (even the artwork that places an African mask next to Munch’s scream) but rather clinical cutting work that stab right at the heart of colonial practices. And even what you think you know is undone. Kader’s mind is something else.

Take The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012, an installation that takes over an entire gallery that pulls apart the white man’s need to catalogue and frame African art and heritage within its own frame of understanding. Robbing the original works from their context and history and, instead, deciding and defining how they should be considered and categorised, erasing the trauma that was inflicted on communities when this art was taken from them.

It’s a fascinating work that resembles the vast storage rooms of western museums, piling artefacts with vintage photography, and comparing busts from Senegal, which show facial scarring as a form of choice, to images of war veterans with severe facial injurie. The piece challenges us in so many ways. It’s terrific.

There’s a few even earlier works on display – most notably Oil and Sugar, 2007, which is a cracking example of how Kader’s mind thinks and pulls apart the world around us. But it is his later works that left me stunned.

La Tour Robespierre, 2018, is a masterpiece and this is a hill I am prepared to die on. A video projection of a camera tour of the bainleues runs on loop – the bainleues the French post-war housing estates that are as much a sea of concrete as British ones. But under Kader’s eye, you realise the pattern. A horrible, foreboding pattern. Each home is actually a unit, nothing more. Identical to the one next to it – and to the one above it and below. Great towers of confined units. A social order imposed as a means of control of the population that lives within them. The footage is hypnotic and sobering.

Kader also sees no limit to the mediums that he can use to explore these ideas. A personal highlight was seeing him go from the big ideas to the personal and political with a collection of photographs on the personal lives and public protests of Parisian-based Algerian transgender sex workers. It’s a powerful collection of images and interviews that looks at the psychological violence states continue to inflict on the most vulnerable in our societies.

Kader’s mind just blows me away.

Hayward Gallery, London, to May 6, 2019.
Admission £15.50.

Image Credits:
1 Photographs by Diane Arbus
2 Installation photos of Kader Attia by me.

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