Research, Art Merge in Block Museum Exhibit

March 13, 2017

A voice inside the Alsdorf Gallery at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art provides entrée to the works of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia.

“We need to remember, not to deny.”

The sentiment is one of many that comprise an extended video essay on trauma and repair heard throughout the presentation of newly commissioned works, which also include three collages and a sculpture.

The pieces in “Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory” are based in part on Attia’s exploration of Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, as well as his conversations with faculty during three short but intense 2016 visits to the University.

Internationally renowned for his research-based examinations, Attia has had his work displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim Museum.

“Why should an art museum be concerning itself with such a theme?” asked Lisa Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum of Art, during a January 21 event ahead of the exhibit’s opening. “Is not the role of a museum to provide a space for such critical reflection? For art to become a part of, as much as to reflect, our shared experiences? The museum provides the mirror — or better still — enables the artist to do so.”

As a foundation for producing the exhibition, Attia pored over the Herskovits holdings, working with curators there to explore hundreds of books, photographs, and other resources. The Herskovits is recognized as the world’s largest separate Africana collection. Its scope is as wide as the continent of Africa itself; its subject matter ranges from art, history, literature, music, and religion to communications, management, and cooking.

“The works that make up the exhibition are born out of a multifaceted inquiry that has unfolded over several years,” says Janet Dees, the Block’s curator. “They are among the most recent manifestations of Attia’s ongoing intellectual and artistic project.”

During the January event, Attia recalled a number of pieces he reviewed at the library, including photographs of slaves in Tanzania.

“What is absolutely fascinating with these documents is that you don’t see anything [to immediately signify that the people depicted are slaves]. You just see the dresses of these slaves,” he recalled. “You only know they are slaves because of the caption that was written in 1865 by someone that says ‘this is a slave market.’”

An event held March 2 at the Herskovits Library took a deeper look at how Attia's project emerged, offering participants a chance to see publications and photographs from the collection that informed his research.

Members of AfriSem, a consortium of graduate students from various disciplines focused on African Studies, used these and other materials to discuss their own research processes in history, comparative literature, performance studies, and African American studies.

“Hopefully attendees left the event realizing that a collection of this breadth and depth can inspire artists, researchers, and scholars in a variety of ways,” says Esmeralda Kale, Herskovits curator. “Despite the differences in disciplines, there are commonalities in the themes running through the work of the graduate student presenters and that of Attia’s work on display.”

Attia’s exhibit at the Block Museum is free and open to the public. It runs through April 16.