Reason’s Oxymorons. By Chad Elias, in: Kader Attia, The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, 2018

Over the course of two decades Kader Attia has developed a multimedia practice that investigates the cultural, political, and social transformations unleashed by colonialism. Central to this enquiry is the idea of “repair,” a concept that the artist uses to connect otherwise disparate fields of human activity: anthropology, architecture, craft, medical science, and psychiatry. Consider his installation The Repair: From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2013), which juxtaposes wooden sculptures made by traditional sculptors in Senegal with archival photographs of wounded World War I soldiers, whose faces have been subjected to rudimentary cosmetic surgery. In a Western cultural framework, repair is often understood to entail returning something or someone to an intact state. This is embodied in the methods of plastic surgery where the aim is not only to repair facial injuries, but to efface the traces of physiological reconstruction. Thus, according to this logic, “the beauty of the act of repair is represented by the

of scars altogether.”1 By contrast, Attia relates his discovery of a Congolese sculpture whose original shell-shaped eye had been replaced by an ordinary button. In foregrounding the aesthetics of its own repair, this artifact inhabits an impure state between cultures. Here, repair does not mark a return to origins but a further evolution in the life of objects and the people who shape them.

Attia’s longstanding preoccupation with repair is also manifest in Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), a work that analyzes how different cultures both conceptualize and treat psychiatric disorders. Filmed over two years in Africa and in Europe, this eighteen- channel video installation consists of interviews
that the artist has conducted with psychoanalysts, ethnopsychiatrists, art therapists, ethnomusicologists, and traditional healers. Arranged in individual cubicles, the recorded dialogues examine the psychological injuries caused by genocide, migration, colonization, and capitalism. The value of this comparative approach is twofold: the issue of mental illness offers a highly useful lens for analyzing the inner dynamics of African societies, while also eliciting a critique of a Western psychiatric methods and principles—particularly the division it sets up between reason and unreason.

In Madness and Civilization; A History of Insanity 
in the Age of Reason (1961), philosopher Michel Foucault traces the invention of madness as an

object of medical categorization. Foucault argues that in the European Middle Ages, conditions like melancholia and delirium were associated with insight. The affliction is what “permits the sufferer to predict the future, to speak in an unknown language, to see beings ordinarily invisible.”2 In this world, insanity was still considered part of everyday life, and fools and lunatics walked the streets freely.

However, beginning in the seventeenth century madness would come to be defined as the anti- thesis of reason (déraison, unreason), and would progressively be pathologized. This period culminates with what Foucault calls the Great Confinement. With the institutionalization of the asylum in the nineteenth century, the mad and other social deviants are routinely incarcerated and forced to confess their ills. However, Foucault insists that the shift from premodern mysticism to modern rationality does rest on not a simple break or rupture in history. Rather, the notion of madness as a state of possession by the spirits will continue to haunt the discipline of psychiatry long into the twentieth century. This is particularly evident when the question of madness becomes entangled in European imperial projects.

In his interviews, Attia casts light both on the role
of traditional healers in mental health care in Africa and the adoption of Western psychiatric practices
in the wake of colonialism. At the same time, Reason’s Oxymorons interrogates the fraught relationship between psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious and the premodern religious beliefs that persist in many postcolonial nations. Sigmund Freud’s infamous description of female sexuality
as a ‘‘dark continent’’ and his theorization of the conflict between “primitive feelings” and the repressive demands of civilization in Totem and Taboo (1913) both rely on a conception of the Other that
is made possible by the European expropriation of African territories in the nineteenth century. Yet it would be reductive to see psychoanalysis as a mere instrument of the late colonial state. In the hands of radical thinkers, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was also enlisted as a tool to challenge the authority accorded to the bourgeois-rationalist ego. More to the point, the supposition of the unconscious as
a forbidden zone of irrational desire and libidinal violence became important in thinking about the repressed underside of the so-called “civilizing mission.”

One of the more notable locations featured in Attia’s Reason’s Oxymorons is the Fann Psychiatric Hospital in Dakkar. In the 1950s, French psychiatrist and military doctor Henri Collomb initiated experimental treatment methods there that aimed at the psycho- logical reintegration of an individual in his or her cul- tural milieu.3 Championed as a form of transcultural psychiatry, the Dakkar School sought to incorporate traditional healers into its day-to-day practice. Indeed, the “healing villages” established in post- independence Senegal positioned psychiatric medicine as a supplement rather than an alternative to local knowledge. The villages’ open-door policy also attempted to take advantage of what Collomb saw as a more accommodating and flexible approach to madness in African societies. In seeking to incorporate family and community participation into the treatments, these villages recognized the therapeutic value of socialization.

In a video filmed in Dakkar, Attia engages in an extended dialogue with Professor Momar Guèye, who is now head of the psychiatric clinic at the Fann Hospital. Noting the comparatively low rates of reported schizophrenia in Africa, Guèye connects this to the high tolerance for certain forms of behavior that might otherwise be considered pathological. He explains that in Senegal, “people with mental illnesses are not systematically hospitalized. They see that person not as a problem that needs to be confined but as someone we should learn to live with.” When asked if the rituals associated with spirit possession can be seen to prefigure Freud’s idea of the unconscious, Guèye responds that it perhaps parallels what people in Wolof society

call the “rab.” Although this term has proved very difficult to translate, it is commonly understood to refer to an ancestor spirit that watches over a family or village.4 Certain symptoms of mental illness are often attributed to the rab, but Guèye also connects the rab to the psychopathology of everyday life. Thus, he describes it as a “superior force that drives us all . . . something that makes us do things with- out us meaning to.”

The insights produced by psychoanalysis made it possible to question the individual as a sovereign, autonomous entity who is completely in control
of his or her actions and thoughts. As I have suggested, this decentering of the ego drew on anthropological studies of the so-called magical or irrational thought of “the native.” However, there remains deep resistance to analyzing the workings of the psyche outside of a scientific framework. In a racialized hierarchy of knowledge, non-Western subjects are still cast as “second-class citizens in psychological modernity, poorly understood and crudely enculturated.”5 This presents a serious obstacle to the global translatability of curative analytical work based on the social life of the unconscious. Moreover, while the discipline of transcultural psychiatry was progressive in its attention to questions of culture, its crossing of boundaries threw up some unexpected contradictions. As Megan Vaughan observes, the Senegalese psychiatrists and nurses who took over at the Fann Clinic in the late 1970s “were deeply ambivalent about Collomb’s collaboration with traditional healers” and equally wary of “delving into the spirit world.” Ironically, the French doctors could draw on local therapeutic practices without necessarily risking their professional reputations, but their African counterparts were not afforded the same freedom.

The question of madness takes on a different inflection when seen alongside Attia’s parallel research on art therapy. Here, the artist considers the legacy of Art Brut, a term devised by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to refer to the art produced by untrained, isolated, and in some cases mentally disturbed individuals. In his essay “In Honor of Savage Values,” Dubuffet challenges the tendency to pathologize the work of these unschooled artists. This connects with his larger critique of the demonization of madness in European culture. While Christendom views it as a sickness, “in many other civilizations, madness is on the contrary a highly honored value.”6 Taking inspiration from ethno- graphic art collections, Dubuffet opened up a dis- cursive framework in which the work of institutionalized patients would be appreciated not as objects manifesting a psychiatric diagnosis but as an open- ended aesthetic act that challenged cultural norms. In Reason’s Oxymorons, one of Attia’s respondents, Dr. Francis Théodore, a physician who heads the Ethnopsychiatry Department at Ville-Évrard Hospital in Paris, conjectures that many of the practitioners of Art Brut spent years in psychiatric hospitals. He concludes that art making in this context equipped subjects with a way to externalize and give form to inner obsessions that might otherwise be all consuming. Along the same lines, Théodore explains that for patients who suffer from psychosis and who typically have trouble determining what is real and what is imaginary, art can function as a crucial mediating object between inner states (for example, delusions or hallucinations) and external reality. When the topic turns to delirium, the psychiatrist notes that “there are day hospitals where patients can paint, but not as long-term projects.” As he goes onto conclude: “patients are no longer given the time to go completely mad.” Here Théodore echoes Dubuffet’s arguments against the inhibiting effects of institutionalized psychiatry.

Reason’s Oxymorons also explores what Warwick Anderson designates as “the globalization of the modern psychoanalytic subject.”7 The growth of ethnopsychiatric clinics in hubs of south-to-north migration such as Paris and London suggests a move beyond the dichotomies imposed by a colonial structure of knowledge/power. They also offer a crucial means for addressing the traumas produced by contemporary forms of mass displacement, deracination, and culture shock. Attia interviews several therapists who work with diasporic Meghrebian and sub-Saharan African communities in Europe. One of these, Abdelhak Elghezouani, is a Swiss Moroccan psychologist who works with newly arrived migrants from North Africa. Many
of his patients exhibit symptoms that do not correlate in any simple causal way to the mental injuries inflicted by exposure to war or oppression. Elghezouani gives the example of refugees who have fled violence but who only develop physical or psychological illnesses after receiving asylum in Switzerland. As manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these maladies cannot be traced back to an original trauma experienced prior to or during departure from their home country. Rather, the sufferers’ condition is the result of the stress that they experience upon arrival. In the case of migrants arriving in Switzerland, Elghezouani contends that the stress caused by acculturation relates to a growing cultural, civilizational, and social divide in the world.

In larger terms, Reason’s Oxymorons points to the gap between the rhetoric of market liberalization and democratic participation, and the growing inequalities that stem from the global financial crisis and the destabilization of developing nations in the global south. The attendant influx of stateless people from war-torn nations like Syria has given rise
to an infrastructure of borders, checkpoints, and camps that functions to screen out “undesirables.” Attia’s use of the office cubicle—a potent symbol
of atomized labor and the corporate exploitation of the mind—would seem to replicate this system of segregation. Indeed, viewers who enter the installation are forced to negotiate a maze of parallel
and perpendicular lines that restrict movement and obstruct interpersonal exchange. Yet the same assembled interviews offer an alternative to the divisive logic of contemporary geopolitics. The African patients who inhabit two worlds simultaneously—accepting modern medicine (for example, to treat epilepsy) while continuing to see a traditional healer—move between what many in the West would see as heterogeneous or even incompatible realities. By calling attention to these forms of boundary crossing, Reason’s Oxymorons stages more than a bipolar confrontation between Us and Them. Rather, this work suggests that “universalities” might exist in imperfect acts of cultural translation. This too is a matter of repair.


  1. Kader Attia, “Scarifications, the Self-Skin’s Architecture,” 2015, -architecture-2/.
  2. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (London: Routledge, reprint 2006), 98.
  3. The Clinique neuro-psychiatrique de Fann opened in 1956. Senegal attained independence from France in 1960. For a useful account of the Fann Clinic, see René Collignon, “Some Aspects of Mental Illness in French-Speaking Africa,” in The Culture of Mental Illness and Psychiatric Practice in Africa, ed. Emmanuel Akyeampong et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 163–85.
  4. Margaret Lock and Vinh-Kim Nguyen, An Anthropology of Biomedicine (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 292.
  5. Warwick Anderson et al., Unconscious Dominions: Psycho- analysis, Colonial Trauma and Global Sovereignties (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 9.
  6. Jean Dubuffet, “In Honor of Savage Values,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 56 (Autumn 2004): 264.
  7. Anderson et al., Unconscious Dominions,