The greatest anti-war art inhistory, whether it’s Goya’s The Third of May 1808 or Picasso’s Guernica, portray killing and suffering that happen in the moment of depiction. The cries and anguish we see are momentary glimpses of war-mongers’ depravity. What Kader Attia does with J’accuse is altogether different but no less effective. J’accuse features rows of large wooden heads that are disfigured — some grotesquely so, and some that look like corpses. But the faces are all based on the faces of World War I soldiers who survived war and had to live with their disfigurements, which plastic surgery could not erase. To emphasize this connection, Attia screens his artwork with the 1938 French anti-war film J’accuse!, which has wounded war veterans play themselves.
So with Attia’s J’accuse, which BAMPFA exhibits from Sept. 18 to Nov. 17, the ravages of war are ongoing — alive in the faces of veterans whose heads are on metal plinths. The setup is disturbing, macabre, and — because of the accompanying film by Abel Gance — multidimensional.
“I wanted to connect the audience with the consciousness of the horror of war, which Abel Gance also wanted to do,” Attia, who grew up in France and Algeria, tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from Berlin. “I didn’t want to make it abstract, or create some feeling that you have to fantasize the notion of loss, of injury, of hell. But I wanted to give [the faces] the dignity that they deserved. That’s why they’re high [from the ground], and monumental. I didn’t want to build an artwork that victimized the victim.”
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Attia made the busts in J’accuse with the help of craftsmen from Senegal, who used trees whose ages roughly corresponded to the ages of the depicted soldiers. Like Algeria, Senegal is a former French colony that was reshaped culturally — often at a terrible cost. Algeria gained its independence in 1962, after an eight-year war that killed an estimated 1.5 million Algerians and thousands of French troops.
Attia created J’accuse in 2016, and it has since been exhibited at MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney. The artwork’s arrival in the Bay Area, at a time when Donald Trump and his hawkish advisors are continuing to talk of war with Iran and other countries, has Attia both on edge and more convinced that J’accuse is in the right place at the right time.
More than being anti-war art, J’accuse encourages art-goers to consider how to heal from tragedy, Attia says. His decision to pair his busts with Gance’s film ratchets up the artwork’s drama since the 1938 film is a tour de force, with its lead actor, Victor Francen, imploring the wounded soldiers to rise from their graves in a climactic scene full of thunder, lightning, and other daunting weather. In another scene, Francen famously says, in response to a man who says the French must reluctantly get behind war, “No! In order to live, we must . . . . we must love.”
“My work,” says Attia, “raises questions and reminds us that war is not a myth, is not an illusion, is not something happening very far away from you.”
“Kader Attia: Matrix 274,”
Sept. 18-Nov. 17, BAMPFA,
Five Other Exhibits We’re Excited About This Fall
“Africa State of Mind,”
Sept. 4-Nov. 15, MoAD, moadsf.org
African photographers depict and interpret their continent in new, illuminating ways.
Sept. 22-December 2022, Treasure Island, signalsf.com.
Artist Tom Loughlin repurposes a signal light and steel from the Bay Bridge’s former eastern span.
“Richard Mosse: Incoming,”
Oct. 26-Feb. 17, SFMOMA,
Using a heat-vision camera, Richard Mosse documented mass movements of migrants that occurred in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
“How to Fall in Love in a Brothel,”
Nov. 2-Dec. 21, Catharine Clark Gallery, cclarkgallery.com.
An interactive installation about family histories, global migration, and more by Sunhui Chang, Ellen Sebastian Chang, and Maya Gurantz.
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963–1983,”
Nov. 9-March 15, de Young Museum, deyoung.famsf.org.
The monumental exhibit organized by London’s Tate Modern comes to San Francisco.