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‘Reason’s oxymorons’ at Kemper: Art, therapy and healing in the francophone world

| Senior Scene Editor

“Reason’s Oxymorons,” the title of an art exhibition by Kader Attia, is itself an oxymoronic phrase: It stands to reason that a logical mind would not contain the irreconcilable contradictions necessary to construct such a concept. But that, perhaps, is the point of Attia’s audio-visual installation, on display through the rest of the semester at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

The installation looks like a gloomy middle American office plan at first glance, with a maze of grey dividers separating the space into 18 adjacent, mostly-isolated cubicles. Inside each cubicle, a different video plays on loop—compiled from the hours and hours of interviews that Attia conducted during his research for this project. Few of the videos are in English, but most of them are subtitled. For many Washington University students, this linguistic separation places the piece immediately in a foreign context.

Attia’s exhibition seeks to reconcile, or at least juxtapose, the perceptions and treatments of mental illness in European and non-European cultures. The videos range in topics from “Illness” to “Trance” to “Reason and Politics” to “Ancestors’ Neurosis.”

I was initially surprised but pleased to find that most of the videos I viewed (which only consisted of a small sampling of the exhibit—it would take over five hours to watch all of the videos in full) were in French. After studying abroad in Madagascar, a French-speaking country, last semester and taking related coursework about French colonialism in African nations, I connected the themes that subjects in these videos spoke about to what I’d learned at Wash. U. previously. The videos’ francophone interviewees are advanced degree-holding mental health professionals within France itself and practitioners of traditional medicine in former French colonies—as well as those afflicted by various mental maladies.

French colonialism in African countries has a recognizably bloody history but less acknowledged is the intellectual brutality that took place, which stretches still into the present day as neocolonialism. France’s association policies claimed to uphold African nations’ traditional institutions, just as the French subverted colonists by forcing them to conform to French customs and practices. The French government justified assimilation policies as sensible constituents of colonization, but the real and lasting effects on the people colonized are more oxymoronic than reasonable. France demanded respect and integration from colonists, and in return, the French continually disrespected and oppressed colonists.

One image in in the “Totem and Fetish” segment of Attia’s exhibition especially stuck with me. A man dances fervently, while ringed by a cheering crowd, his rapidly shuffling feet kicking up a cloud of dull-bronze clay dust that obscures their motion. He is attired in a pair of vibrantly multicolored trousers and a faded red T-shirt, the Coca-Cola logo displayed prominently on his chest.

The prolonged state of persecution that France forced on its former colonies is compounded by a lack of contrition on the part of France itself. In a 2007 speech, Nicolas Sarkozy, then-president of France, proclaimed that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered into history,” and that France “did not exploit anybody” on the continent. Constituents of former French colonies in Africa have been left with lingering, collective cultural trauma, and their pain won’t be treated, or even properly categorized, by its perpetrator.

This effect is called gaslighting by American psychologists; I’m not aware of an equivalent term used by the French counterparts, like the experts interviewed for Attia’s series. In this particular case of reality, emotionally scarred subjects must make do—and make better—with their own, non-assimilation-sanctioned therapeutic techniques, like many of those demonstrated in Attia’s videos.

The “Art as Therapy” component of Attia’s installation revolved in part around a musical instrument that I understood to be a stringed bow, played with one end in the artist’s mouth, given by one person the name “kgangala.” Plucking the bow results in low, sonorous vibrations that can barely be heard, if at all, by nearby listeners. Instead, the tune resonates inside instrumentalists’ mouths, filling their mind with music that’s personal to their individual headspaces. Apparently many women in the community in which this interview was conducted seek solitude to play the kgangala: Unlike many instruments that derive their significance from a communal context, playing the mouth bow is a private gift from each woman to herself. It is a form of self-therapy, not a therapeutic technique introduced to the community by distinguished French psychologists but healing in spite of this.

Attia’s “Reason’s Oxymorons” is a deeply affecting and authentic look at mental health and mental illness. Attia’s films visualize the processes of healing and pain, the kind that are not usually discernible in others by sight or sound alone and in contexts that are unfamiliar to many Wash. U. students. This obstacle should not drive students away from the exhibit, though but toward it, instead: Experiencing these issues through a different lens can help us better understand the world through our own. Especially in light of the unfortunate prevalence of mental health concerns in our community, Attia’s exhibit really resonates in its current setting on the Danforth Campus.

“Reason’s Oxymorons” is on display now until Jan. 8, 2018, in the Garen Gallery of Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.