Art and the Limits of ‘Awareness’ Politics

Reflections on Guantánamo, this year’s Berlin Biennale controversy, and the artworld’s tendency for shallow political consciousness

Although the US public has long grown weary of the violent aftermath of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the repercussions of its invasions continue to be felt by the people of those landscapes. Recently, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha – the oldest prisoner at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp (GTMO) – was released and returned to his home in Pakistan. He had been imprisoned there since 2003 on suspicion of connections to al-Qaida. Like the majority of the roughly 780 men who were held indefinitely at GTMO, he was never formally charged with a crime. Most who were detained at GTMO have now been released; each have been quietly ‘disappeared’ into the countries in which they were born or into a US-allied state. Dedicated journalists, organisations like Amnesty, and a small phalanx of pro bono lawyers were all that kept them from near-total erasure.

Throughout the so-called Global War on Terror, the US and its allies worked hard to make their crimes invisible. But then, in April 2004, CBS News broadcast an image leak revealing footage of US troops abusing detainees held in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. In June 2003, long before these reports shocked a global public, Amnesty International had raised the alarm about widespread allegations of prisoner abuse – the year the United States invaded Iraq and took over Abu Ghraib prison. That year, the American Civil Liberties Union had filed a freedom-of-information request for records relating to the abuse and torture of prisoners in US detention centres overseas. In February 2016, after over a decade of legal battles and stonewalling, the US Department of Defense released 198 photos, each ‘relating to prisoner abuse by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan’.

The released caches of low-resolution photographs plainly showed dead bodies of Iraqi prisoners lying on the concrete floors, some with flesh wounds, gunshot marks and blood seeping out. Others showed prisoners being tortured by US troops, who grinned and posed for the camera. Many prisoners were partially or completely naked; hands bound behind their backs with plastic ties; blindfolded with black hoods placed over their heads; filthy, with noticeable bruises and what looked like faeces smeared over their bodies, faces and hair. In many photographs, snarling dogs strained at their leashes, inches from cringing prisoners.

It is widely acknowledged that Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary under George W. Bush’s years in power, authorised interrogation methods that US personnel had used at GTMO, tactics they ‘exported’ to other US facilities – including Abu Ghraib. Speaking before Congress in 2005, former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski repeatedly argued that she was made a scapegoat for the crimes at Abu Ghraib, even though it was General Geoffrey Miller, commander of GTMO from 2002 to 2004, who pushed to ‘Gitmoize’ interrogations – that is, transform general conditions and methods of torture at Abu Ghraib to be more like those experimented upon on prisoners at GTMO. 

GTMO was a carefully controlled, closed space that the US military used to showcase to a global public their ‘material and symbolic apparatuses of power’, as legal scholar Scott McClintock wrote. In January 2002, the press were invited to take the first images of shackled and hooded men who were ‘renditioned’ – extrajudicially kidnapped and transported on secret military flights – and incarcerated behind barbed wire. The televised images of the ‘shock and awe’ bombings of Iraqi cities, together with this parade of anonymous, hooded prisoners at GTMO’s Camp X-Ray were not intended for transparency; ‘as the detainees become less visible, the apparatus of power becomes more visible’, McClintock suggests.

While the US maintained GTMO as a controlled, closed space, Abu Ghraib was stubbornly unruly. Stories – and grainy cell-phone photographs – leaked out. Those tortured at Abu Ghraib became a macabre spectacle, symbols of the horrors carried out by modern empires. 

At the Berlin Biennale earlier this year, Jean-Jacques Lebel’s work, Poison Soluble (2013) was exhibited at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum. Enlarged-to-life-size prints of original ‘color snapshots taken by the torturers’ at Abu Ghraib prison were interspersed with black-and-white press images of Iraqi towns destroyed by US Air Force bombings. On the Biennale’s website, Lebel’s argument for why these ‘authentic historical documents’ should be displayed was, through juxtaposition, to ‘provoke the viewer to meditate on the consequences of colonialism’. 

Even more puzzling: the lead curator of the biennale Kader Attia’s decision to position Lebel’s work alongside the works of Iraqi artists Sajjad Abbas, Layth Kareem and Raed Mutar. Perhaps that juxtaposition was supposed to ‘give voice’ to Iraqis and present an additional conduit for ‘meditating’ on colonial violence. But displaying criminal evidence of war crimes only elicits horror and aversion, drowning out the possibility of other voices being heard.

After viewing the exhibition, Rijin Sahakian, who had lent a work by Mutar to the exhibition, wrote a scathing open letter. According to Sahakian, the Iraqi artists’ works ‘unequivocally address the act of consuming their undoing-as-human, and the impossibility of ever communicating what that feels like’. What curatorial argument could adequately frame why blown-up images of abuse and murder should be re-presented when they were already in circulation? How could displaying criminal evidence of war crimes – enlarged so that the bodies of those tortured and their torturers are of a similar size as that of visitors – possibly be an effective methodology to create conditions for change? There’s a curtain and a warning of the disturbing content of Lebel’s work; however, as Sahakian pointed out, the works by young Baghdad-based artists were displayed around and beyond Lebel’s – the Iraqi artists ‘could not view their own work, or that of their peers, without having to navigate through a space the organizers acknowledge could “trigger negative or retraumatizing reactions”’. Because the second half of Abbas’s work is on the other side of the curtain, audiences were forced to view Lebel’s images to complete Abbas’s installation. ‘I should have known better than to trust an art world that finds culture in our flesh’, Sahakian wrote. 

The main photo-story in Vogue Italia’s September 2006 issue – customarily the most important of the year – was ‘State of Emergency’, photographed by Steven Meisel. It staged scenes of violence, subjugation and humiliation, each presented as opportunities for erotic possibilities. In a variety of urban settings, expressionless officials in shapeless uniforms forcefully accost mannequin-like women wearing expensive designer clothing. Meisel seemed to embrace tropes of subjugation and brutality that reflected the scenes of torture evident in photographs taken in Abu Ghraib, or violations reflected in news stories and images in circulation at the time – all relating to the so-called Global War on Terror: abductions by secret service personnel, ‘extraordinary renditions’ to prison islands, cowering ‘prisoners’ in various ‘stress positions’, and armed soldiers accompanied by snarling dogs. In ‘State of Emergency’, the individuality of the authoritative figures was subsumed, if not completely obscured, while the models – though being brutalised – were typically attractive. This authoritarian brutality as an erotic commercial aesthetic can be nothing other than commodified violence, proliferating a message that the subjectivity of others needs to be violently removed for us to carry on with consumption. And this reflects how we might think about the War on Terror and its ongoing depictions: the removal of Orientalised others’ subjectivity to maintain the geopolitical West’s levels of consumption, social mobility and territorial access to which it had become accustomed. The visual vocabulary of torture, humiliation and brute force was in the zeitgeist – at a time when the newly minted US Transport and Security Administration (TSA), under conditions of heightened national security, seemed to operate with abusive and authoritarian impunity. Meisel and Vogue Italia’s editors found ‘culture’ in countless unnamed brown persons’ violated flesh. 

Now, on the surface, neither the Berlin Biennale curators nor Lebel (whose work came a decade after Amnesty’s first alarm) appear to be capitalising on torture and the destruction of Iraq, or commodifying violence to make a ‘sale’. When Kareem revealed during a panel discussion that members of his family were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, and that their permission for public use of images depicting their torture was never sought, Attia stepped in to defend the context that he thought justified Lebel – and the Biennale’s – use of the images. According to Attia, it was a ‘provocative prompt to confront the violence of American colonialism and imperialism across the world (not only in Iraq) that continues through the cultural industries, and its dominion over the imaginary, the media, and of course physical occupation’. A representative of the exhibition added that the curatorial team understood that not including Lebel’s work would be tantamount to ‘brush[ing] under the rug’ a ‘very recent imperialist crime’, and that forgetting is how ‘imperialism fabricates its impunity’.

Following criticism and demands from the Iraqi artists that their work be removed from the space, Attia and Berlin Biennale published their own letter. Even though they claimed not to ‘deny [their] accountability’, they referred to a ‘misunderstanding’ of where their intentions came from. Those intentions seemed to centre around the idea that ‘decolonisation’ and political change would happen through displaying horrific things empires have done. 

But referencing noble intentions for ‘political change’ appears, at best, to be the loophole that the Biennale’s curators used to greenlight blatant exploitation, instrumentalising the trauma inflicted on Iraqi people. No person in those images agreed to have their violated bodies on public display, or as a tool to ‘decolonise’ the art world. Exploitative and demeaning, the images and accounts peddle the same racist and reductive narratives about Arabs and the ‘Orient’ – and the white saviour logic that art capitalism depends on to valorise its exhibitions.

It is now routine to see some exhibition, publication or conference with the word ‘decolonising’ in the title. You can be fairly certain that little will be done about the existing structures or conditions that produce whatever violent practices are being instrumentalised as the framework for the event. Rather, the (unspoken) goal of such exercises of ‘decolonising’ is to draw attention to, and build the subjectivities and careers of, its organisers; the ‘awareness’ being raised is of the event, and of their persons. For audiences, passively consuming trauma under the banner of activism – and as part of the methodology of decolonial practice – leads neither to structural change nor justice. 

Attempts to ‘raise awareness’ so often follow news of atrocities, flooding visual fields with re-presented material. The practice depends on the belief that if we know horrible things exist, this knowledge will shift our perception and move us to some form of productive action. But the ‘we’ and ‘our’ in this sentence usually refer to a specific audience, often white and located in the geopolitical West. The acts of torture evidenced in the Abu Ghraib photographs are carried out by those who a white public in the geopolitical West would recognise as kinfolk (or skin-folk, as differentiated by the Black vernacular expression). They did not feel the brunt of the bombs, extra-judicial killings and torture in Iraq or Afghanistan. They have likely not felt the brunt of the TSA agents’ incompetent authoritarianism, or the surveillance and terror that ‘anti-terror’ legislation brought for brown communities of brown immigrants who only had to appear Muslim to be targeted. (Of course, many of those brown people now live in the West because imperial ventures destroyed their local economies.) They can afford to look away.

White publics are born into the idea that they have the privilege of bodily autonomy. It is possible for them to believe that a few ‘bad apples’ in the armed forces violated the bodies of those they see as other – and that those others’ flesh was brutalised, that their lives ended in excruciating pain and anonymity, in pools of blood and shit. Meanwhile, Black and brown publics have an entirely different relationship with images of authoritarian brutality. This is the ‘us’ with whom I identify. I did not need an artist to re-present images from Abu Ghraib to remind me of the US and its allies’ industrial capacity for torture and destruction. It is difficult to imagine in reverse: that bodies of white persons, naked or in various states of undress, being brutally tortured would be similarly displayed to ‘raise awareness’. To view images of torture, represented as cultural capital, Black and brown persons are required to subsume our emotional and psychological attachments to self. It is, as Zoé Samudzi writes in her 2020 essay ‘The Sculptural Politics of Cacao’, a ‘subsumption… of the native gaze and sensibility… [to make ourselves] legible to Western audiences’.

The Biennale was preceded by decades of writing about the questionable ethics of looking at images of brutalised persons, especially those that any given dominant culture sees as its other. It would have served the Biennale’s curatorial team, and the artist, Lebel, to have read these works. Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and Judith Butler’s ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’ (2007) have been accompanied by innumerable critiques of the shaky logic that photographers, platforms, well-meaning aid organizations, donors, and audiences employ to produce and consume spectacles of injured, violated, and dead Black and brown persons – and valorize it. Photographs may have the capacity to challenge our views, even transform us. Sontag argued they mostly have an immediate emotional impact, but lack a context that creates conditions to help us build an interpretation or compel us to act. Butler added: ‘Whether and how we respond to the suffering of others, how we formulate moral criticisms, how we articulate political analyses, depend upon a certain field of perceptible reality already being established’; if photographs are to ‘become effective in informing or moving us politically, it is only because the photograph is received within a context of a relevant political consciousness’. Without that crucial ‘political consciousness’, we remain spectators, feeling aversion and horror, creating further distance between ourselves and the violent conditions in what we see – and othering already-othered persons in the photographs.

Let’s return to Samudzi. In ‘White Witness and the Contemporary Lynching’ (2020), she states that, when it comes to viewing video footage of ‘black people being murdered by the police and other, nonstate killers’, the question ‘Should we watch?’ is not the necessarily the right one. Instead we should ask about why people – white people in particular – ‘continue to make cases for watching them’. Passive viewing, for Samudzi, does not sufficiently motivate its audience toward a ‘crisis of racial consciousness’, feeding in its place a ‘piercingly mundane echolalia that flows seamlessly into the tapestry of American inequality’; enduring the brutal imagery becomes a ‘badge of honor, an assumption of apparently anti-racist political responsibility’.

Art capitalism – the global circuit of exhibitions, biennales, favoured curators and artists – legitimises its place in high culture by capitalising on whatever occupies their target public’s imaginary, and re-presenting it in some stylised manner. Raising awareness and exposure of injustices are the sleights of hand that help elide what is happening behind the curtain. We know these rituals rarely dismantle structures of oppression. But deploying buzzwords or fashionable phrases fortifies the cloak of self-importance in which the artworld surrounds itself. 

And behind the glamourous cloak is this naked truth: the artworld often reproduces the same forms of violence that it claims to draw attention to. In re-using the photographs to promote ideas of decolonisation, anti-colonialism, political change, the artist and curators of the Berlin Biennale only reiterate an old message: the Oriental other does not deserve the dignity and privacy given to white bodies, and does not have autonomy over their body. They remain stultified and immobilised in that original space of torture, where their personhood was undone.

Without creating the conditions for images of torture to be ‘received within a context of a relevant political consciousness’, as Butler wrote, there is only passive viewership. In the years following the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, I taught classes on ‘post 9/11 literature’. To the syllabi, I incorporated critiques of US imperialism; podcasts revealing the shaky ground on which claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction were built; interviews with US armed forces who specialised in torture; documentary films investigating GTMO; theoretical articles; and crucially, US Supreme Court documents – including oral arguments, where Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is recorded saying: ‘Guantanamo, everyone agrees, is an animal, there is no other like it’. This is how a framework was constructed: for imagining this location of legitimised torture as an aberration, as outside the norms of US operations; and for justifying the creation of a ‘legal limbo’ on Guantánamo. Several students in my classes had family members in Iraq and Afghanistan. One had a friend whose husband worked in GTMO. Others had family members who had perished on 9/11. I was not in the US on a stable visa, and so it was not easy to be present in class with this material – facing my students’ reluctance and my colleagues’ liberal passivity, which, to me, signalled their lack of any real support. My students may have privately Googled those images, but I never showed images of torture from Abu Ghraib. It would have been glib, and an ineffective jackhammer. Instead, we researched and spoke about contemporary Iraqi thinkers, writers, photographers and artists. We read investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who first reported news of torture at Abu Ghraib, so that we could see that there have always been Americans who dissented. I don’t know how far my students carried those lessons. It didn’t build my career. This is not flashy work that can be put on walls or on a CV. 

Whenever there is legitimate critique, artworld pearl-clutchers fall back on alarmist claims about freedom of expression being lost and artists being cancelled. But institutions’ repetitive dependance on co-option and violation in order to ‘decolonise’ or educate the public about injustices – then writhing about like affronted saints when the obvious is pointed out – is a farcical cycle. Abbas’, Kareem’s, Mutar’s, and other Iraqi artists’ work, on their own, would have presented a more viable, productive, and complex response. Instead, Abbas, Kareem and Mutar ended up withdrawing their work from the Biennale. There is no place to begin a dialogue if one has to keep repeating what should be self-evident, and receives so much push back for asking that one’s personhood and experiences not be instrumentalised. That demeaning labour requires those who are violated to bear the burden of educating resistant representatives of institutions – people with far more power – about why claims of innocence and good intentions are, in fact, intrinsic to how violation works. 

In the absence of audiences’ political consciousness, gawking serves, as Samuzi argues, ‘as a reinscription of white supremacy: a reification of the boundary between the white self and the black [and brown] ‘others’ through a passive bystander witnessing and the enforcement of race through public violence.’ In these instances, it is the powerful Western subject (be they of non-Western origins, or claim attachments to lands that were formally colonised) that – through re-instrumentalising images of torture – get to solidify their subjectivity, and become more human.

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