Kader Attia by Sergio Vega

The artist, who reproduced the city of Ghardaïa in couscous, examines architecture as a tool of control, repair as a form of resistance, and the imperative to invent new forms of care.

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Installation and performance view of Arab Spring, 2014, sixteen broken museum showcases, bricks, and stones. Photo by Oak Taylor-Smith. Images courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise noted.

Consciously choosing the crossroads between artistic activism and academic discourse, Kader Attia examines the relationships between Western and non-Western societies. Raised between France and Algeria, and later living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, and Venezuela, his work is both a reflection on his own life experiences and an exploration into how societies and individuals are shaped by the dynamics of cultural, territorial, and economic exploitation.

Attia’s poetic installations aspire to dismantle the boundaries that are systemically imposed on things, people, and ideas. He collects obliterated artifacts, objects, imagery, and ephemera charged with specific symbolism in order to recuperate and reveal their suppressed histories.

Attia’s process reinterprets colonial histories, reappropriating memories of loss while advocating for the need to repair the injustices that have been perpetrated on cultures, individuals, and societies.

Attia has theorized the notion of repair into uncharted territories: as a gesture, a function of life, and an overarching principle to be found in anthropology, architecture, evolutionary science, gender studies, and myth. When many had presumed postcolonial discourses were over, Attia found a space by the Gare du Nord, in the center of Paris, and established La Colonie, an open forum for current debates to foster the decolonization of knowledge and practices and to highlight the urgent need for social and cultural reparations.

Like many artists emerging from the margins, to subvert the colonialist order of modernity Attia is compelled to expose those histories which may be entirely unfamiliar to many viewers. Without staggering into the didactic, he manages to engage his audience through performance, gestures, and actions upon objects that evoke the life experiences of the collective and individual as relived by the artist. In that sense, Attia’s work is not only a quest for knowledge, but it also allows us to experience what it advocates.

—Sergio Vega

Sergio Vega On several occasions you and I have spoken about the complex histories of the various modernisms that took place in diverse geographic locations, within cultures considered marginal, derivative, or outside the Western canon. You have cited the example of how Le Corbusier appropriated elements of the M’zab architecture of Ghardaïa, the gorgeous city in the Algerian Desert, for his conception of modernism. This realization alone should be a good enough reason to incite a reexamination of the foundations of Western modern architecture. However, that enterprise may require to disclose the inner workings of modernism at the service of colonialism or to contemplate the modern itself mainly as a colonizing enterprise. Do you think the foundations of Western modernism should be rewritten?

Kader Attia Today, we are at a crucial moment of desiring to unlearn our certainties established by an epistemology of the so-called “winners”—the Western modern world. What we are living through is what the French philosopher Antoinette Rouvroy has called “algorithmic governmentality.” The hegemony of the market economy over our everyday life, for instance, asks us to be able to be self-critical of the fundaments of modernity. Because in these foundations, there are a lot of unsolved problems: systemic racism against Black and Brown people, oppression of women, gays, lesbians, and so on; all this discrimination has taken different forms in our societies.

The meaning of modernity is correlated to an endless progressive conversation, in which we need to constantly invent and deconstruct what we have invented, in order to give new forms to ideas, concepts, epistemology, and also technique. If we are not in this dynamic of building and dismantling, building and dismantling, we cannot evolve intellectually. I’m just one particle of dust in the universe of what could be a new epistemology of knowledge, of individuation for the whole of humanity. But what I’m sure of—and why I believe in the repair, inherent in reparation—is that by bringing forth new knowledge we could all share, and by bringing all individuals into this individualizing process that makes us a collective individual, we could create a form of therapy. I see the process of fixing as a part of the need for innovation, of inventing new forms of care. It’s not going to be easy, but because we are all in charge here, we have no choice.

SV In Untitled (Ghardaïa) you have worked with food and its signifying power. What can you tell us about the installation?

KA I’m very interested in food politically because it has been neglected by the so-called left. I’m also interested in emotion. I think emotion involves more than one sense: it’s something you can smell, something you can taste. For me, couscous is like Proust’s madeleine. I think emotion is a grammar that can help us better understand the politics of a society. There are many things happening through the manipulation of people’s emotions, and that goes beyond creating fear or joy. Emotion can also be induced to resist a form of commodification. For instance, when I use couscous to build a sculpture, it’s a way of saying, “This is my culture.”

Le Corbusier went to Algeria several times but in architectural history there is a total denial of the city of Ghardaïa’s influence on him. I would love to see an exhibition one day that addresses properly how Ghardaïa inspired Le Corbusier’s work.

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Installation view of Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009, cooked couscous, wooden plinth, and digital prints on paper.

SV A thoroughly researched exhibition of the “other modernisms” is a must. Surprisingly it has not yet happened. For my research on the shamanistic aspects of Brazilian modernism, it would be crucial. It is so urgent to reconsider all of these concepts.

KA I think it’s an important debate. I created a reproduction of the city of Ghardaïa in couscous in order to explore the way this was part of a colonial extraction of values; not only material, but also cultural. The work, Untitled (Ghardaïa), is a sort of custom dinner in honor of Le Corbusier, offering it to him publicly so that everyone can know and share a couscous representing the city that he has, at some point, spoiled. Because we have to understand how the architecture of Ghardaïa was born. In the eleventh century, there was the first schism of Islam called Ibadism. The Ibadists in Algeria and Morocco all escaped into the Sahara desert and many of them died there. The lucky ones arrived at the oasis of Ghardaïa, then uninhabited. So, the Ibadists installed their fortress and stayed there until now. Because of their forced exodus, they had to deal with the desert conditions, which resulted in an incredible architecture. Extremely minimalistic, poetic, using what makes sense. For instance, the beams that support the houses were made of palm trees and stand until today. The water of the river that is drawn once a year is shared with the four or five communities that live there. Ghardaïa is made of five hills with five different names. They have more or less the same architecture, but they have their differences. Some buildings are made of clay, others were built with stones. The rulers of these cities signed an agreement to never go to war with each other, and they share the water with each family of the community.

For me, one of the crucial points in the decolonial discourse is the question of invisibility. That’s why I wanted to also create a consistent starting point on the legacy of colonialism, since the topic of architecture has not been examined, and why I wanted to recreate the city of Ghardaïa. When Le Corbusier went there in the early 1930s, he spent six weeks taking pictures, taking measurements, making sketches. When he got back to Paris and stayed there from 1930 to 1933—this is interesting to know—Luis Barragán was there, and they were very close. If you look carefully at Barragán’s Capuchinas convent and chapel in Mexico, it becomes evident that it is extremely similar to Ghardaïa’s architecture.

If we need to think about the fundaments of modernism, we need to have a clear and transparent idea of the history of its genealogies. Le Corbusier was clearly someone who wanted to build cities. Instead of buildings, houses, and villas which he turned to in order to make money, his main goal was to build cities. It was the same with Oscar Niemeyer. They were urbanists. That’s why Le Corbusier was fascinated by Ghardaïa, because it is a city built over centuries on the top of the hill. Each house is built against another one. There’s no house standing on its own pillars; you circulate the city by going through houses and tunnels. Le Corbusier was fascinated by houses and cities, because for him these were the real instrument to change people’s lives and minds. So here we are, with myself interested in understanding how architecture is a tool to control individuals and the collective.

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Installation view of Ghost, 2007, aluminium foil. Photo by Angelika Krinzinger.

SV To the annoyance of some of my friends who are still nostalgic for the utopian glamour of modernist architecture, I have consistently brought up the notion that the modernist project in Latin America was primarily a power grab for the upper classes that projected itself as the utopian style of a future for everyone, but in reality, only a few could truly attain it. With very few exceptions, housing for the disadvantaged sectors of society was never entirely carried out, most were model plans doomed to be abandoned. Even in those that were realized with the architect’s best intentions, the idea was not just to allow emancipation but to exercise control over the population. The best testimony of those failures are the massive shantytowns that surround most cities today—perhaps the true legacies of modernism. How was that process carried out in Algeria in comparison to social housing in France?

KA By the time France started to understand it could not hold Algeria anymore, it was too late. France had developed three cities in Algeria: Algiers, Constantine, and Oran. The rest of this huge country was not developed. If you look at postcards of Algeria from that time you’ll see, on one hand, these beautiful European cities, but on the other hand, a kind of orientalist representation of the countryside. In reality, people outside the cities were living miserably. When the French understood that, at the end of the 1940s, the Algerian revolution was on its way, starting officially in 1954. In the early 1950s, Algiers was surrounded by shantytowns, the situation was slowly boiling, and then they had to find a solution to this building crisis.

Fernand Pouillon, another very interesting architect, had suggested to the French government different projects of social housing to be constructed in the suburbs of Algiers (and sometimes inside Algiers) rapidly, sustainably, and inexpensively. There is an Algerian artist—Amina Menia—who excavated all the archives of that time. She shows that there was a hysteria for building at any price, quickly, to provide a habitation for all these people without houses. At the beginning, the social housing project had good intentions, except that it was meant to resegregate the population. There were bigger social houses for the white people, and small ones for who they used to call “Arabs,” but they were not only Arabs, they were also Berbers.

It was too late, however. The revolution ran from 1954 until 1962. It started in Algiers, but the real war was happening outside of it. In Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers, the story happens at the end of the war. From 1954 to 1958 or 1959, the majority of the fighting happened outside, and that’s why the West did not hear about the torture and the bombing of the villages until now. They didn’t know that France had bombed the east of Algeria and the desert like hell. The social housing issue illustrates how much colonization was also the laboratory of difference for today. The way they failed in Algeria is exactly the same way they failed in Europe with the postcolonial population. After the war, independent Algeria was so devastated that many people had no choice but to go to France, Belgium, England, Germany, Italy, Portugal, or Spain to find jobs to feed their families back in Algeria. It was very tough for them, but they had no other option apart from migrating, even though most of them barely spoke any French.

In the 1960s, France had a booming economy, and they needed cheap labor to make profits since the economy generated by the former colonies no longer existed. They had now a population to whom they could quickly teach things such as working in the assembly line. There was massive immigration from Algeria. And the French made the same mistake as at the end of the 1950s, in Algeria: failing to provide decent habitation, a home for all Algerians. And even when they eventually built social housing to replace the shantytowns, in which the Algerians were living, they located them very far from the city centers. In Europe, this means ghettoization.

In addition to this, French society had not realized that the children born out of this migrant story would become French. And then, by the end of the 1970s, the French woke up with French people who were not thinking like them. The situation results in a continuation of colonialism. Until today, French society has not come to accept that while these countries got their independence, the French also need to decolonize their thinking, their bureaucracy, their academia, and their systems of dealing with Brown and Black people’s, and other people’s, cultures. In these respects, architecture is very revealing, because today what we call social housing in France, and in many other places in the world, are really open-air jails.

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Detail of On n’emprisonne pas les idées, 2008, metal fences, concrete bases, and stones, at MAC/VAL, Vitry-sur-Seine, France. Photo by Aurélien Mole.

SV Your installations Ghost, Arab Spring, and On n’emprisonne pas les idées (Ideas Can’t Be Imprisoned), make me think about the missing bodies of the wars and the missing museum artifacts, about prayer, the anger and impotence of throwing rocks as the last resort, looting, and the notion of dispossession. What can you tell us about those works?

KA It’s another example of how much colonialism as a legacy has failed, and how we can also illustrate these failures with recent images. During the Arab Spring, I was shocked to learn that the National Museum in Cairo had been sacked by the demonstrators. The looting installation that I’m doing as a performance, where I break the glass vitrines imitating the actions of these crowds, shows a kind of paradox of creative destruction. Indeed, the anger that happens during this performance, particularly because I do it, makes you, the viewer, merge with my desire of representing an action that is another paradox: action and representation do not work together until you mirror them, like in performance.

But I have to say that even though my performance was fueled by the sacking of the Cairo museum, this “reproduction” is my personal gesture. I’m not just continuing a counterreaction to one of the many forms of control over our history and our minds—in this case, to the typical modern furniture used in exhibitions, call them vitrines if you want. For me, it’s a way to remobilize a conversation that would lead us to the elements, because creation is a form of entropy. We are ruled by this dissipation of energy in the universe, and we cannot escape that. We will all disappear, everything will disappear. This action of breaking the windows does not aim at accelerating this entropy, but rather to propose a form of therapy. Because to repair also means to destroy. It just depends on the way you position yourself as a postcolonized subject.

SV So, is this somatic, physical dimension of the performance a way for the body to empty out the authority of the institution? Is it a battle of the body against the vitrine?

KA I’m speaking against the symbolic order of the classification, of the modern form of presentation, the vitrine, but at the same time, I’m trying to understand, to capture the energy of the crowd that would destroy this legacy. Why would a crowd of people break into a museum? This question leads us to Gustave Le Bon’s Psychologie des Foules, on the psychology of crowds. I think of Wilhelm Reich as well, because it is connected to fascism, lexicology, The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

At the end of the day, I didn’t even see the Cairo vitrines myself—they are at the museum—I saw them on social media. And probably they were used by the media as a critique of the riots, as a form of denouncing them: “Look at what these people are doing!” Another cliché about the Arab people. While they are being destructive, the West constantly does amalgams to define the Arab, as if all Arabs were violent.

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Installation view of Culture, Another Nature Repaired, 2017–2020, teak wood and metal stands, dimensions variable, at Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich. Photos by Franca Candrian, © 2020 ProLitteris, Zurich.

SV This brings us to a conversation we previously had about the Paris Commune. And later about when you were stranded in Lebanon during the violence in early 2020. We communicated through social media, and I was wondering how you were doing there. When governments continue with the abuse of power for an undetermined time, are they actually aware of their failure? They abuse and abuse, but when things reach a limit, people will fight back. Propaganda and repression work up to a point, but when the abuse is just intolerable there is a response.

You addressed that limit in the project, On n’emprisonne pas les idées. After being thrown, the stones stuck in the wires of the fence, testing the line that the oppressor draws. But then, you bring it into a poetic realm of sublimation with a dance performance.

KA This installation reenacts one of the moments that struck me most in recent years in the northern district of Paris: refugees were banned from accessing some parts of the urban space that they could use as shelters, and thus were condemned to live in the street and on the sidewalks. It highlights the issue of a temporary architecture at a time when borders are becoming mobile.

On the one hand, at all times the dominant and particularly violent power forbids what seems to be the ABCs of democracy: the right to settle wherever one wants. On the other hand, this installation divides the space into two unequal parts—two thirds versus one third. The barrier is studded with stones like after an urban battle. It maintains the record of the rumbling, including the rage, and all the symbols of struggle: a counterpower is necessary to any society, while on the other side the protected power persists in this great void.

In a series of impromptu performances, dancers activate the installation and interact with this temporary architecture. This shows how the human body, while contained by authoritarian architectural infrastructures, is always looking for alternative ways to free itself from the shackles and to cross precisely these walls and borders. Filmed by surveillance cameras, the performance is broadcasted on a screen located outside the exhibition hall.

SV In my video installation Genesis According to Parrots, the birds relate the events of the Garden of Eden. Their narration mixes biblical texts with the history of the colonization of the Americas. In their story, the colonizer acts as God and presents himself as a model to be emulated. The parrot, as the colonized, returns a bad copy, a de-semblance of the colonizer, thus the colonizer fails to see himself in the other, ending up with a broken mirror. Does this colonial scenario of the broken mirror relate in some way to your argument about repair?

KA The decolonial argument is an endless conversation for me. I used to think that probably the earliest signs of counter-reaction to colonial occupation—occupation of the land, occupation of your mind, your culture, your imagery—were defined by one word: reappropriation. I am fascinated by what Algerian jewelers have created using French coins in the tradition of Berber jewelry. If you look carefully, sometimes you find one or two francs, or several francs, or coins from other European nations with traditional Berber body decorations on the rulers of the occupying nations—Napoleon, the Republic, King George, or Queen Elizabeth. In Algeria, the side of the coin with the number was the part people could see, the head of the ruler was always turned toward the body.

It’s an incredible merging of artisanry and ready-made, since coins also symbolize capitalism. It cannibalizes the symbol of the colonial occupant and at the same time permits the occupant’s influence. Therefore, it’s a sign of the genesis of repair. When what we used to call the indigenous population in Algeria crafted—and cannibalized—these standardized objects so they made sense in their own culture, they were laying the pavement for the revolution. But they didn’t know this revolution would take a century to happen. The mind not only has resilience to struggle against catastrophe, but it immediately counterreacts. We talk about decolonial strategies today, but this was a decolonial practice. I was always fascinated by jewelry, and for my mother that was weird. One day she told me, “Did you know that during the war, your grandmother went around to old women to ask them for the jewelry they had worn for their weddings?” In very poor places, the family had to give jewelry to the bride, so in case the husband died, she had something left to educate and feed her children. After months of collecting buckets of silver Berber jewelry, my grandmother gave them to the soldiers, who brought them into Tunis and melted them into silver sticks to buy Kalashnikov rifles.

SV Oh, wow.

KA So, you see how the repair is actually a long process of, I would say, resistance. But a silent resistance.

SV Your work invites reflection on the condition of dispossession: of being defaced, emptied out, robbed by colonization. Left with only the scars of that disfigurement, and the need of repair as reemergence from the margins through recycling and reinvention. You have also provided a philosophical framework for the notion of repair that is linked to nature. You proposed to contemplate repair instead of evolution as the working mode of the natural order. These ideas resulted in works like Eternal Now; Les Racines poussent aussi dans le béton (Roots Also Grow in Concrete); and Traditional Repair, Immaterial Injury.

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Installation view of Eternal Now, 2018, wooden beams from traditional Korean houses, metal staples, and metal plinths, at the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, Gwangju, Korea. Commissioned by the 2018 Gwangju Biennial.

KA I started thinking about repair by observing my environment. Slowly, I became interested in moving away, or forward, from theory as a rational or quantified approach to a concept. I started to dream, to imagine that when we repair something broken in our daily lives, we are probably moved by an agency that is before us and beyond us. I was amazed by this notion of the agency of repair. I started to look through the eyes of scientists, in conversations between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the theory of the evolution of species. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species states that the species surviving are the ones that can adapt to the shifts in the environment. But at the same time, it’s not like the species are adapting themselves. It’s more a kind of unexpected variant evolving within the species that is able to adapt to the shifts in its ecosystem. The whole rest of the species will disappear.

Why the surprise over these Coronavirus variants? Variants have always existed everywhere. It’s the nature of the repair. We should think twice about this destructive virus and consider that maybe it is what nature has produced to repair something we are damaging. Sometimes it is important to step back from blind rationalization, particularly in politics and theory where we cannot talk about repair in the same way as when talking about nature. At the natural level there are no politics, or ideologies; there’s no ideology-fueled racism from a dominant structure inventing inferiority for another group. In nature, when a predator kills an animal, it’s not an act against the animal, it’s an instinct; the instinct to eat.

SV Of course.

KA Observing nature while contemplating repair doesn’t mean—and I really want to be clear on this—that I’m proposing an analogy between a natural order of things and a human agency that is mimicking nature. I think mankind is a mistake on this chess game. Wallace disagreed with Darwin’s statement that the animal most adaptable to environmental shifts is the human being because of its intelligence and therefore, humankind has changed the environment. So, it’s adapting to what it’s changing.

If I remember correctly, Wallace said that when human evolution reached the stage of the Neanderthals, they were already independent. (S)He was already intelligent, able to live in nature; (s)he could grab fruit and (s)he could hunt. (S)He had no reason to destroy the environment: at that stage of evolution, (s)he could have survived forever in the savanna! Darwin and Wallace had this conversation at the beginning of the Anthropocene with the Industrial Revolution in the background. Wallace was not a mystic, but he saw no sense in the fact that the species uniquely adaptable to environmental change was actually destroying the environment.

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La Mer Morte, 2015, blue second-hand clothes, dimensions variable. installation view at Kunsthaus Zürich, 2020, teak wood, and metal stands. Photos by Franca Candrian, © 2020 ProLitteris, Zurich.

SV Let’s talk about another topic related to your complex and multifaceted practice. We all have witnessed the erosion of public situations and spaces for debate on equal footing and we see how detrimental that was to artistic practice. What can you tell us about La Colonie, the meeting space you founded in Paris, which unfortunately had to close its doors last summer?

KA La Colonie was like a dream that became reality. Any idea, before thought, is a dream. Ever since I graduated from the University of Paris VIII, what was missing was a space for free speech. Really free speech. At La Colonie we welcomed anarchists, les gilets jaunes [yellow vests], feminists, Black feminists, art feminists, gays, transgender people, and more. We even published a book on the history of prostitution during colonial times.

Today it is difficult for individuals to exist within the collective and stay true to themselves. It’s important to connect with others and share ideas, language, emotions. No matter if we agree or not, we need to share and do this bouncing around that philosophers used to call individuation. The problem of our time is that the majority of people are slowly drawn into an algorithmic governance by staying connected only on social media, something the pandemic has exacerbated.

La Colonie was about giving another chance to the physicality of individuation, to being together. It was important that it was also a bar, a place where you just came for a drink, even if you were not interested in the question of restitution of artifacts to Africa, or the Arab Spring, you could still attend the conference, have a drink, then maybe meet someone … This is something we lack in the contemporary art world. Without such places, there’s no conversation.

SV If I get invited to a biennial, the first thing I do is to look at the list of artists and see if I will meet friends there. I’m sure it’s happened to you. Because if not, when will we talk to each other?

KA That’s why I had the idea to create a place for emotion, which is not only watching a film or attending a performance, but to take care of our need to listen to others or just feel the atmosphere. La Colonie arrived in a landscape where decolonial discourse was still completely marginalized in France. In Latin America, with Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel, the decolonial debate came through academia, from within the university. In France, it came through the streets, brought by activists. It’s not the same thing.

In Germany, Belgium, and Spain decolonial discourse also started on the street. I was in Spain with activists, fighting for refugees’ rights. I made a film about police violence against activists called Héroes Heridos.

SV There has been pushback on the postcolonial perspective. The skeptics seem to feel uneasy about the affirmation of identity from those approaches. If I understand correctly, this is based on the lack of recognition of cultural differences as something critically significant. Cultural differences are seen as flavorings, or different icings on the cake, but the cake is the same. Although there is some acknowledgement of how destructive white Eurocentric hegemony has been, they say that if decolonization will result in other races and cultures acquiring another sort of hegemonic standing, then we may as well keep what we have. In other words, maybe getting rid of identity and hegemony altogether is a good idea, but just changing the flavors is not. What are your thoughts on that topic?

KA I have no intention of replicating the system under which we’ve been living. I’m very much aware of the risk of replicating the hierarchy of colonial thinking inside feminist, LGBTQ+, and other movements that emerge. We have to be very careful about that. The most important thing is that we have a common enemy—fascism and neoliberalism. After the colonial—because there will be an after—a possible “repaired Left” will hopefully exist. The danger here is to actually digress and recycle the old effects of fascism, in short a return to the original state, the notions of purity and separationism rather than autonomy.

I’ve always had one foot in activism and one foot in theory. I’ve been working with and listening to activists for many years. Unfortunately, when a movement comes into the university and becomes institutionalized, its

Sergio Vega is a multimedia artist born in Argentina and living in the US. His work is currently featured in Amazonia, an exhibition curated by Berta Sichel at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville. In March of 2022, he will present his latest works about the history of the Paris Commune of 1871 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Eluard in Saint-Denis.

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Originally published in

BOMB 156, Summer 2021

Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.

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