Kader Attia conceived the sublimely dangerous installation, Alpha Beta, at a time when knife crime in London hit headlines in tabloids and dailies in the United Kingdom and abroad. As is usual with institutional racism, most of the reporting of such incidents focused on ethnic minorities, and police were guilty of racial profiling in their ‘stop and search’ activities.
Alpha Beta consists of twenty-eight highly polished mild steel knives, shaped into the Arabic alphabet, each attached to the wall by a magnet. The viewer is invited to pull knives off the wall using industrial gloves provided to protect from the extremely sharp edges. It is when a knife/letter is held in your hands that the power of the work reveals itself – it generates contradictory feelings of bravado and fear, power and vulnerability, and provides that jolt of pleasure and horror that close contact with a deadly weapon so often evokes.
For Attia the work is an extension of his ongoing interest in and critique of the conflicting worldviews, ideologies and philosophies of the Occident and the Orient. Between the two lies a schism that informs our understanding of our colonial past, as much as it determines current world politics. In Oriental culture the knife is a symbol of purity and peace. The sharpness of the instrument used in ritual practice in Islam determines halaal. In Sikh culture, adult men carry the kirpan by religious and cultural creed as a symbol of non-violence and defence.
In a European context – and most certainly in a South African one – however, the symbolic potency of the knife resides in its evocations of power, violence and aggression. This is in part informed by contemporary hyperbole, as illustrated with the case of knife crime in the parks and boroughs of urban England. But knives also occupy a place in the rich tradition of heraldic symbology.
For an audience unfamiliar with Arabic, the work poses considerable difficulty – its impenetrability may generate the assumption that the Arabic script is an injunction, that it ‘means’ something. ‘What does it say?’ is the question most often asked. Perhaps it is the word of God, a quotation from the Koran. Attia walks a fine line by tricking the viewer into a simple reading of the work: the equation of Arabic with danger, and a triggering of the prejudice that those who speak the language are violent.
To produce this work, Attia chose a master craftsman located in Sheffield, the industrial city that earned its reputation for knife production in the fourteenth century, and a major steel producer and expansion centre during the Industrial Revolution. At once a symbolic and political gesture, Attia’s very making of the work takes it to its conceptual home, its birthplace.
And thus Attia produces a magnificent and eloquent collision between two opposing forces. The subversive power of Alpha Beta lies in its seductive beauty and its shiny surfaces, its play on danger and power, its toying with viewers’ insecurities and cultural stereotypes. And finally it seduces with its cold, clinically sharp edges that could draw blood.
First published in “Drawing Blood: Kader Attia”, Canvas Magazine, September/October 2010, pg 150