Kader Attia's "Schizophrenic Melancholia"



Kader Attia's "Schizophrenic Melancholia"

Catalog Entry

In this artifact, Kader Attia took centuries worth of iconic rituals and religious beliefs and wove them into a single sculpture. This brings his viewers all the way to Senegal, a country in Western Africa, where Ndeup rituals are practiced. One specific group in Western Africa continues these rituals today, and they are known as the Lebu ethinic group.

These Ndeup rituals have been executed for years and are said to be healing ceremonies, where the spirits of numerous illnesses are harvested and moved into a non-living host. The types of illnesses that can be cured include an array of psychological conditions, such as depression and trauma.

Andrew Soloman, a writer who had struggled with depression, decided to take a chance to undergo this ritual. He describes the beginning processes of the ritual within his book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression: “She takes my hand and looks at it closely, as though it has writing on it. Then she blows on it and has me place it on my forehead, before she begins to feel around my skull. She asks me about my sleeping habits and wonders if I have headaches, and then declares that we can appease the spirit by sacrificing one white chicken, one red cockerel and one white ram” (Solomon 166).

The use of sacrifices in rituals, specifically within religious groups around the world are quite common and has been practiced for centuries, stemming from the belief that killing animals will appease a higher power, thus taking away unwanted illnesses or circumstances. It is also done as a sign of worship and allegiance. Aside from sacrifices, which in some societies have a negative connotation, this process is still seen and treated as a celebration and healing process to the people of Senegal.

To celebrate, the Lebu people have group dances, with singing while soaking up the rays of sunshine, which tends to attract large groups and pulls the community together: “Five men begin to play the tama drums. There has already been about a dozen people hanging about and, as the sound of the drums spreads, more gather until there are perhaps 200, all come for the ndeup. The drums get louder and the rhythms more inexorable, and I can hear the voices of the five women singing as they dance around me in a tight circle” (Solomon, "The Longest Night").

As viewers we are obligated to see the connection this has to disabilities and the often silent environment surrounding them. This can be connected to disability via mental health. Though mental illnesses are sometimes not seen as disabilities because they do not have a physical embodiment, they still have the power of affecting quality life for not just those who are diagnosed, but their loved ones as well. Day in and day out mental illnesses like depression can take the joy out of activities that use to have significance in a person's life. It also can drain you of energy, making each day a struggle to even get out of bed and go to any obligations.

A few facts that prove just how serious depression can be are told by Andrew Solomon, within his “​Anatomy of Melancholy​” article, “I was not surprised later when I came across research showing that the particular kind of depression I had undergone has a higher morbidity rate than heart disease or any cancer. According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard and the World Health Organization, only respiratory infections, diarrhea, and newborn infections cost more years of useful life than major depression. It is projected that by the year 2020 depression could claim more years than war and AIDS put together."

The stigma around mental illness can be quite negative and invalidating. Without being able to physically see a change in one’s state, many who have never experienced mental illnesses often decide to brush them off and immediately label individuals as being "lazy" or "dramatic." This invalidating judgement can often begin to isolate those battling with depression to the point where they feel that they are being “dramatic” and need to pretend nothing is going on. It also creates an unhealthy culture, and not realistic in many aspects.

The people of Lebu do not carry these prejudices, and with their rituals they embrace that mental illnesses do exist and can be treated as if they are physical. Mental illnesses can be dealt with and treated in a variety of ways because illnesses like depression are based on your emotions and feelings. In the article “ Naked, Covered in Ram’s Blood, Drinking a Coke, and Feeling Pretty Good” by Soloman, he states, “if you have depression and you say that standing on your head and gargling for half an hour makes you feel better, then you are actually cured, because depression is an illness of how you feel. And if you feel really great after you do that, then you're not depressed anymore ” (Soloman, Andrew)

To look at the artifact itself, we can see that the structure is made out of sheep horns, which are gathered into a circular figure. This figure was constructed by Kader Attia, who witnessed a ndeup, and wanted to create a sculpture that embodies the connection between modern Western medicine and ritualistic practices. Western medicine is defined by the National Cancer Institute as a "system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery. Also called allopathic medicine, biomedicine, conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, and orthodox medicine” (“NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms"). The difference between these two approaches to mental illnesses are very apparent, and both must be taken seriously into consideration. They have such an importance because of the different ways they can affect some but not others, meaning that Western medicine may work to help with the mental health of specific candidates, yet other methods such as ndeups work better on others. There has been a clash between the two different groups of thought, when Western mental health workers imposed on Rwandan rituals: “We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better, there was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again, there was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy, there was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave” (“The Rwandan Prescription for Depression"). This again highlights the two very different perspectives and approaches on mental health these two groups have.

Overall, this artifact allows the viewers to get an insight on a non-Western type of healing practice as well as have the opportunity to create connections of disability with mental illnesses and learn just how severely depression and other mental illnesses can affect a person's daily life.


“NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms.” National Cancer Institute,www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/western-medicine.

“The Rwandan Prescription for Depression.” ​Under The Blue Door​, 18 Aug. 2014, ​https://underthebluedoor.org. 

Solomon, Andrew. “Anatomy of Melancholy.”
1998, andrewsolomon.com/articles/anatomy-of-melancholy/.

Solomon, Andrew. “The Longest Night.” ​Andrew Solomon​, andrewsolomon.com/articles/the-longest-night/.

Solomon, Andrew. “Naked, Covered in Ram's Blood, Drinking a Coke, and Feeling Pretty Good.”
Esquire,23 Oct. 2019, www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a27628/notes-on-an-exorcism/.

Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon. Scribner, 2001.

Artifact Owner

Kader Attia, “Museum of the Emotion,” on exhibit at Hayward Gallery, London in April 2019

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Marissa Ladderbush, Student, Fitchburg State University


Chris Morales, Student, Fitchburg State University


Kisha G. Tracy



“Kader Attia's "Schizophrenic Melancholia",” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed October 22, 2020, https://culturalheritagethroughimage.omeka.net/items/show/125.

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