Kader Attia’s breakthrough work, Ghost (2007), began as a cast of his mother. Childhood memories of seeing her in prayer prompted the artist to wrap her in layers of aluminium foil as she knelt. He then repeated the process until he had a crowd of 40 figures, arranged neatly in a grid. Viewers approach the figures from behind, mimicking the perspective from which Attia would have encountered the long, narrow spaces that often served as mosques in the Paris of his childhood. Only when they reach the other end of the installation do they realise that the figures’ burka-like hoods each conceal not a face, but rather a haunting void.
Despite its beginnings as a personal gesture of filial love, Ghost is mostly about wider, weightier ideas, among them the perception of religion, the search for a sense of belonging, and the promises and pitfalls of multiculturalism. These complex themes have long fascinated Attia: his first sculpture, titled The Dream Machine (2003), showed a figure staring at a vending machine stocked with purportedly halal versions of items – pork products, alcohol, a visa card – that are either forbidden in the Islamic faith or intertwined with ideas of modernity. Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, ‘it was an ironic way of showing how racialised communities also mirror what the dominant society is producing or consuming,’ recalls Attia. ‘There’s this idea that non-white people have to become white inside, all the while staying the basis of society, the slaves of capitalism.’ He considers the work to be an early form of a critique he can make about today’s gig economy: ‘Uber says its drivers are not employees, but rather their own CEOs. And I think this sort of neoliberal rhetoric is very dangerous, because it shows that colonisation continues. The extraction of values from the racialised body continues.’
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