Repair: Architecture, Reappropriation, and The Body Repaired, Kader Attia, 2013

“From Antiquity, we have believed that we build, deconstruct, and rebuild, while all we do is repair.” — Serge Gruzinski

 1. Reappropriation

The core concern of my installation and slide show Open Your Eyes, which was included in the exhibition Performing Histories (1) at the Museum of Modern Art from September 2012 to March 2013, was the theme of “repair.”  As part of the evolution of this project out of my earlier work, a process which was presented earlier in 2012 as part of dOCUMENTA 13, I have been working on this concept of repair, or reparation, for some time. In order to explain the complex genesis of this theme in my work, I would like to share something of the hidden side of my work, that is, not just the finished artworks but the laboratory of my researches as well.

To begin with, I would like to focus on the related concept, which I have been developing over many years, of “reappropriation.” The genesis of this concept in my work was the observation of my environment, in particular the architectural environment, in the places where I lived, in both the Western world and the non-Western world, from the suburbs of Paris to Algiers and to Brazzaville, where I lived for three years.

Growing up between France and Algeria, shuttling between two worlds, led me to focus on different ways of thinking about the environment. Many things in this process nourished my researches surrounding the concept of reappropriation, but there is one thing my father told me when I was a child that is still in my mind. Knowing that I was sad and that I was tired of going back and forth between two places that were so very different, he said, “You know Kader, as an immigrant, there is one very important thing: when you leave a country, it is neither the country you leave nor the one you dream of reaching that matters; the most important thing is the journey you accomplish.” With this poetic statement in mind, I began to look at the world in a different light. I realized that two things could be separated, paradoxically, by what linked them together. Many years later, my father’s advice helped me to understand the passage in René Descartes’ essay Discourse on Method where he declares that if two things are different (like an apple and a hat, for instance) there might be nothing that they share except that very difference. Their difference, in itself, is an analogy that they share.

The word “reappropriation” was taken up in France, during the second half of the 19th century, by anarchist theorists such as Proudhon and Fourier. It use was inspired by the concept of property, which it aimed to redefine. “What is property? Property is theft,” Proudhon declared. Behind the agenda of this anarchist theorist was the idea of redefining the concept of property and shifting it from the single owner to the community as a whole. So the use of the word “reappropriation” arose from a social and political context, through the anarchist thinkers. Later I will discuss how artistic researches on reappropriation led to a natural, rather than cultural statement of the idea, but for the moment let’s focus on the socio-cultural contexts.

From socialism to anarchism, from modernism to colonialism, from Karl Marx to Franz Fanon, dispossession has always sown the seeds of reappropriation, and it still does so today.

I began to work on this concept of reappropriation some time ago, through a genealogy of modern architecture, especially regarding public housing projects. Since antiquity, architecture has been the concrete expression of power (see for instance the Egyptian pyramids or Persepolis), and the architecture of modern housing projects is perhaps the most obvious contemporary expression of the exercise of power. By pretending to provide the amenities of modern life to the inhabitants of these buildings, those who hold the reins of power in fact aim to control those inhabitants. During the entire 20th century, the issue of public housing has always been rooted in the utopian ideal of providing housing for all. As the dogma of modernism, this ideal was spread worldwide. As I traveled from Europe to North and Central Africa, from Algiers and Brazzaville to Paris, I carefully noted how modern architecture (especially architecture in concrete) was everywhere the same and everywhere totally inadequate.

The passion I have for architecture is linked to my fascination with history in general. I try to link different architectures, from different cultures and different times, together, and in the process I was led to an interesting discovery about one of the most hegemonic modernist architects: Louis Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, and his voyage de l’orient.

Western modernity has a cynical ability to remove, by appropriation, any trace of the identity of a non-Western culture, sometimes even by re-creating its own mythologies. Why? In order to control. As Edward Said demonstrated in Orientalism, the West has “orientalized” the East in order to control it. By emphasizing the idea that “progress” should be a synonym for “today” or “tomorrow,” but never of “yesterday,” the West has excluded tradition from their lives and cultures of non-Western peoples.

Although many Western modernist architects have adopted traditional techniques of building, there has been scarcely any mention of the traditional Afro-Arab influences on both the aesthetics and functionality of Le Corbusier’s modernism. Le Corbusier encountered the M’Zab region of Algeria in 1931 and Ghardaïa in 1933. He didn’t go to these places by chance; even today you don’t go to Ghardaïa by chance. In 1922, a French ethnologist, Marcel Mercier, had published a book entitled La Civilisation urbaine au M’zab. When Le Corbusier was invited to give a series of lectures in Algiers, he probably carried Marcel Mercier’s book in his luggage or had already read it. In Algiers, he spent some time visiting the Kasbah, but that was not the only goal of his trip. After a few days in the capital, he left for Ghardaïa in the Sahara, some 600 kilometers distant. He spent five weeks in this city of sand, which had been built in an oasis by the Mozabites and which dates to the 11th century.

Like many peoples who live in places where the environment will barely sustain life, the Mozabites are secretive, both in their feelings and their thoughts. Le Corbusier called them “the Huguenots of the desert.” The way they construct their houses shows how important is it, for them, that everything that can be seen from the outside has to be minimal, elementary, and respectful of the environment; their wealth belongs inside. What Le Corbusier saw when he arrived in Ghardaïa is in fact aesthetically very close to what we have always thought of as his own style, and because of his dogmatic and hegemonic influence worldwide, Le Corbusier was able to globalize that aesthetics. (One of the most interesting examples is the work of Luis Barragán in Mexico, where, when I lived there many years ago, I felt right at home among his designs, especially in the amazing Convento de las Capuchinas Sacramentarias.)

If the influence of Algeria on Le Corbusier had been limited to the churches and bourgeois villas he built after his trip to Ghardaïa, it would have been nothing more than aesthetic mimicry. What his more interesting here, is that, after Algeria, Le Corbusier would reinvent public housing with designs such as the famous cité radieuse, which he declared, alluding to the fortified city in the M’zab, to be “a vertical Beni Isguen.” Le Corbusier, like many architects, was far more interested in building cities than in building villas. What he found in Ghardaïa was more than a modern aesthetics; it was a traditional harmony between a complex urbanism and a minimalist architecture. He found an intricate network of streets, all of which led to the main places of the city, the school, market, mosque, as well as the synagogue (Ghardaïa was a Judeo-Berber city, where Mozabites lived in perfect harmony with Jews). Even before he looked at the construction of houses of Ghardaïa, he was struck by the urban spatial organization. The lessons learned in Ghardaïa were applied in Le Corbusier’s first public housing project. That’s why he designated the corridors of the cité radieuse as “streets” (des rues). In fact, the corridors of the cité radieuse are wide enough to bike easily and quickly from one floor to another, using the lift, leaving home for school or the grocery store or the kindergarten— all the things that kids usually do.

After this appropriation, which was undertaken at the height of the colonial era, the next logical evolutionary step was the training of thousands of architects according to Le Corbusier’s dogmatic theory of the balanced relation between body and architecture, which he called le Modulor. His insight, which he derived from Ghardaïa and the Kasbah of Algiers, was that it is the body which shapes architecture, and not vice versa. Le Modulor contributed to the globalization of Le Corbusier’s appropriation in the form of public housing projects that sprang up around the world.

How could I, as an artist, use my cultural and artistic vocabulary and grammar to respond to this dispossession? I began, in Untitled (Ghardaïa) by evoking it through a metaphorical dinner, a 15-foot-diameter reproduction of Ghardaïa constructed out of couscous, which was displayed in front of portraits of Le Corbusier and another French modernist, Fernand Pouillon. But one doesn’t need to resort to such ironic strategies in order to embody the human instinct for reappropriation. It sometimes happens that reality stages it in front of your eyes. In antiquity, Algeria was a Roman colony, and it still has thousands of Roman ruins, some of them not far from my village in Algeria. After the country became a French colony, native Algerians were not allowed to visit these sites, a prohibition which in the end created, in the Algerian subconscious, a sense of separation from the country’s own heritage.

It took me several years to get past what was, in the beginning, a vindictive statement shaped by my own response to colonialism and my struggle for social ethics. My researches led me to uncover another important step in reappropriation. The 1950s and ‘60s were decades of colonial revolutions, and architects and curators in from Europe and the US began to pay attention to vernacular architecture in exhibitions like MOMA’s Architecture without Architects, which was curated by Bernard Rudofsky in 1964. A new generation of architects, including Roland Simounet, who was one of Le Corbusier’s students, were more fascinated by the laborers who were working at their building sites than they were by the architecture. Simounet had been born in Algeria and had grown up there. One day, after the director of the building sites complained that the native Algerian workers were removing leftover scraps of corrugated iron, wooden beams, and pieces of concrete bricks, Simounet followed them to the place where they were living. There he discovered a shantytown. The urban organization of this huge shantytown, constructed parallel to his public housing buildings, reminded him immediately of the traditional Afro-Arab Medina. His observations revealed something highly significant to the process of reappropriation. When he asked different people to take the measurements of this shantytown’s houses, the proportions were exactly the ones theorized by Le Corbusier in le Modulor. This coincidence led him to continue his investigations, and after measuring several houses, he discovered that they all displayed the proportion between the human body and the wall that had been set forth in le Modulor. Built from cast-off materials, the houses were striking examples of the subconscious reappropriation of one’s own culture through the use of leftover scraps of another, the modern Western one.

What Roland Simounet achieved, by looking inside these houses, was exactly the opposite of what Western colonialist thinking at the time was doing to non-Western cultures, which was to examine those cultures with the aim of appropriating their knowledge, rather than in order to understand them. With some rare exceptions, like the group of architects known as Team 10 as well as radical artists and architects like Ugo La Pietra in Italy, who also used reappropriation as a concept to reinvent new structures of life from used material, the average modernist observed the non-Western Other but could not conceive of that Other as a subject.

In my Kasbah project, the viewer has no choice but to walk on the installation, which fills the entire space. It’s impossible to get inside any of the houses, and no sound comes from underneath except for the cracking of the corrugated roofs under the viewer’s feet. The sharpness of some parts, where the roofs are higher than elsewhere, forces the viewer to reappropriate what becomes once again the core matter of architecture: the body. As in a Carl Andre piece, it is people themselves who become the most significant elements.

2. Repair

The dogma of modernism has continued to develop, and now encompasses postmodernism as well. Despite severe amnesia, the ways in which African traditional art has been appropriated by modern artists have long been known. In 2009, an exhibition called Picasso and the Masters was presented at the Grand Palais in Paris. Its aim was the document the influence on Picasso’s work of artists from Caravaggio to El Greco, including Cezanne, of course, and even Cy Twombly. In this huge and pseudo-exhaustive exhibition there was not one single African mask. When we know how strongly Picasso was influenced by Songye sculpture from Congo, this is simply unbelievable. Nor was Picasso the only one to be influenced, as one can see from the case of Paul Klee and Ashanti sculpture. Reappropriation will always be an ongoing phenomenon as long as such blind spots remain, and as long as traditional African art and non-Western art are seen in Western thinking as representing an object, rather than a subject of reflection.

It’s easy to understand why much modern art discourse has minimized the Western appropriation of non-Western art. What’s even more fascinating, however, is how this colonial appropriation has been simultaneously juxtaposed with non-Western reappropriations. While modern artists and architects were appropriating the aesthetics of the non-Western cultures, the non-Western mind was taking back its own identity as a subject, rather than as the object of Western colonial hegemony. As the end of the era of colonial empires drew to a close, more and more forms of reappropriation emerged.

These signs of reappropriation are signs of resistance against a modern world that has utterly failed to understand the underlying motivations of the non-Western subject. A case in point can be found in the vast body of items, from Africa especially but also from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, that were hidden away in museum storage through the entire 20th century because they showed signs of having been repaired by other non-Western hands after they were created. The more the repair was visible, the more the item was seen as defective and categorized as a mistake. Anthropologists and ethnologists could not classify — or didn’t want to classify — these unexpected items, which fit into none of the categories of modern thought and violated what I call “the myth of the perfect.” Countless thousands of these items were stored and never shown, and many remain forgotten in institutional collections to this day.

Historians have often described the First World War as the last war of the 19th century. For one reason, because its groundwork was laid during the 1871 war between Prussia and France and at the Berlin conference in 1891, where Otto Von Bismarck got the short end of the stick in the carving up of Africa by the European colonial powers. In the end, Germany got Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, and other colonies in China and Polynesia; Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands were given control over various minor parts of the world; and France and Britain got all the rest.

At the beginning of the war, the use of modern weaponry contrasted with the crudeness of 19th-century battle tactics, in which soldiers were absolutely naked in the middle of the Hell around them. The wounded who managed to survive were saved in the face of terrible conditions, repaired in the middle of the battlefield, generally by young doctors or nurses who were totally overwhelmed. The repair of their scarred and ravaged faces posed an enormous challenge to modern European modern science. In France, the doctor Hippolyte Maurestin brought several of his nurses into the middle of the carnage, including Suzanne Noel, who later introduced and developed plastic surgery in Paris, and who was also a founder of the Parisian branch of the first feminist club, the Soroptimists. The evolution of the repair of these faces follows quite exactly the process of repair carried out on the traditional African masks or sculptures. Plastic surgery on human faces involved artists, painters, and sculptors as well as doctors. They were supposed to recreate the missing parts of faces, when the injuries were so major that significant portions of the face were missing.

Through examination of different portraits from the First World War, I found that the roughness of the early repairs was strikingly similar to the repairs performed on African artifacts, while in the later repairs, this roughness slowly disappeared, resulting in a kind of idealized “perfect face.” But while in the Western world the act of repair aimed at simply restoring an original shape, in traditional cultures the repairs aimed further, towards the creation of a new aesthetics. For the West, repair was an illusion of reappropriation of the self, but for non-Western cultures the repair creates a new reality.

In my investigations regarding the human body as repaired in Western culture and of repaired objects in non-Western cultures, I discovered that non-Western cultures were and still are carrying out transformations of the human body. What is the aim of these rituals? In most of the groups I have been studying, even if they are the subjects of different cultures, the aim is the same as it is for the repaired items. Even as they reflect the different social goals of various ethnic groups, scarification practices, lip transformations, and skull transformations formulate a re-enactment of the history of nature. All of these transformations generate an aesthetic sign that is shared by the group as an aesthetic identity, as an indication that the individual belongs to the group. The aesthetic sophistication that is produced can be seen as beauty, but in fact is close to what I call repair: the repair of nature’s failure. In its order of things, nature has not accomplished what non-Western cultures have conceptualized in the form of beauty codes. In terms of human body aesthetics, nature fails endlessly. Culture needs to show its power over nature, the power to repair, which amounts to our oldest fantasy, the control of nature.

The similarities between the transformed faces of the casualties of war on the one hand and the masks of the Makonde of Tanzania, to give one example, on the other, raise provocative questions. What if those war-ravaged and broken faces had spent their lives in non-Western cultures? What would happen if the Western world didn’t categorize both the broken faces of the soldiers and the transformations of the non-Western art objects as monstrosities? Would aesthetic analogues have emerged among the masks, copying the broken faces of the Westerners?

Transformations of the body have been carried out by ethnic groups around the world. What the modern West saw as a cliché of wildness was in fact a network of aesthetic signs of value, indicating a common aesthetics. For the Western world, however, these modifications of the human form were classified as painful wild mutilations, and shown as circus attractions or in freak shows. Endlessly, the modern Western mind summoned up clichés to control the Other. The Other was the wild, but not only the wild. The Other could be any minority: women in a society dominated by men, gays in a straight conformist society, black people in a racist society, and so on. The hegemony of modern Western white thought, based on so-called democracy, imposed a dictatorship of the group through its Myth of the Perfect.

The mystique of the Other was so strong that when European skull transformations were discovered by some anthropologists during the 19th century, no one was interested. What the modern subconscious classified as belonging to the so-called “wildness” of the colonial subject was in fact a more than normal practice in several areas of France, especially in the vicinity of Toulouse. What the images of these transformations have to say is very important. They show the degree to which, at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, European scientists simply looked past the evidence of the existence of such practices in France, and the link to the real genealogy of its inhabitants. Why? Because, on the one hand, of the blindness demanded by the Myth of the Perfect, and on the other, by the need to classify similar practices in non-Occidental cultures as fetishism and exoticism, and to view them as signs of underdeveloped minds that would have to be civilized.


I remember the beautiful moment in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a group of australopithecines are fighting. One of them, cleverer than the others, wields a bone against one of his fellows, and in so doing discovers the hidden power of that tool. His discovery makes him hysterical, and he then throws the big bone up into the sky. At this moment the image fades into another one, which depicts a space ship floating in space, its shape echoing that of the bone. From the beginning of the human species, nothing has changed. We are ruled by the same impulse towards survival as any other system of life. From the subatomic scale to the macrogalactic one, everything is an endless repaired system, one that aims at perfection without ever reaching it.