REVIEW // Ali Cherri: If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Nadine Nour el Din

Ali Cherri, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), after Velázquez, shows A carved body shape made out of wood lying down in a glass cabinet shown in The National Gallery.
Ali Cherri, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), after Velázquez , 2022 , Installation comprised of a display case containing a 19th - century head carving in marble, a wooden reclining Venus sculpture, a mirror and red velvet fabric, 200 × 220 × 80 cm, The National Gallery, London. Photo: © The National Gallery, London

Ali Cherri: If you prick us, do we not bleed?
The National Gallery
16 March – 12 June 2022

A marble sculpted head of Venus lies on a mirror, one glass eye open, the other sealed shut as though wounded. Her gaze is reflected in the mirror, though slightly obscured, seemingly surveying her injury. A larger detached wooden body is slashed, forming dark crevices that follow its curving contours. These objects sit above red velvet fabric in a clear glass and wood case, through which Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c.1485) can be seen.

The subject of this work represents an iconoclastic incident in 1914, where suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Diego Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus multiple times.[1] Ali Cherri takes this incident as a starting point to explore histories of violence in the National Gallery’s archives and collection over the course of his residency.[2] Cherri’s The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), after Velasquez (2022) presents a sculptural assemblage of Velasquez’ Venus in its damaged state. Drawing on the proportions and perspective in which the goddess of love is seen reclining on her bed, Cherri combines the language of nineteenth-century classical sculpture with an enlarged, stylised form based on the Venus of Hohle Fels, a 45,000-year-old bone fetish found in Germany that is the earliest undisputed depiction of the human form.[3]

This cabinet forms one of five vitrines that comprise the exhibition If you prick us, do we not bleed? at the National Gallery by 2021 Artist in Residence Ali Cherri (b.1976). The Beirut-born artist invokes questions around violence, trauma, and healing, the results of his incisive research. The resulting body of work is presented as a series of mixed media installations akin to cabinets of curiosity in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, seen amongst celebrated art historical masterpieces that boast, in Cherri’s own words, ‘an iconography of wounds’.[4] The artist centres unfavourable narratives of violence at the museum, in what he describes as a ‘procession’ depicting a ‘community of wounded bodies’.[5]

In each work, the artist reconstructs an act of vandalism that took place at the National Gallery through a sculptural assemblage. Framed within a vitrine, they are at once contained and visible, facilitating a dialogue with their surroundings. In addition to Velasquez’s The Toilet of Venus, Cherri draws on the attacks against works by Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolas Poussin, Federico Barocci and Rembrandt.

The exhibition takes its title from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, drawn from Shylock’s impassioned monologue. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ also personifies the wounded paintings in question. Devised in close deliberation with the gallery, the artist considers how such acts of violence have been dealt with in the past, centring narratives that have historically neither been publicised nor addressed by the museum. Cherri cites press coverage of the attack of the Rokeby Venus referring to the cuts as ‘bruises’ and ‘wounds’, to Venus as a ‘victim’ and describing the damage as that to a woman’s body, noting that ‘they rushed the painting to the conservation department’.[6] The incident of violence transforms the painting into a living body that needs to be healed.

Creating sculptural configurations of each incident, Cherri personifies the inflicted wounds, drawing attention to the severity of each act of violence with the central assertion that violence cannot be undone. Each work takes one element of the incident as its starting point, a detail of the painting that becomes an area of healing or suffering. In The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’), after Leonardo (2022) Cherri offers a more literal interpretation of the attack. Here, the impact scar where a bullet punctured the painting is recreated, placed in the centre of the cabinet as an object of veneration. A stack of glass eyes, selected newspapers from 17 July 1987 (the date of the attack), and a copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing are placed around this scar like a talisman, to allow healing to happen.

This project builds on the artist’s wider practice that considers human suffering and trauma, exploring the politics of institutions and sites of power. This process is expressively articulated in Cherri’s visual essay in the exhibition catalogue, formed of scraps from his research and findings. The most striking aspect of this work is that it draws on a multi-faceted historical vocabulary of constituent parts to speak to a contemporary moment in a way that is both deeply personal and political. Cherri addresses the permanence of traumatic damage as well as the pervasive questions of what we can and cannot talk about, and the systems that govern these narratives.

Ali Cherri was recently awarded a Silver Lion for his work at the 59th Venice Biennale and his first feature film The Dam premiered in Cannes this year. This exhibition at the National Gallery is therefore both timely and significant. A second iteration takes place at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry from 12 August until 8 January 2023. This exhibition’s display in Coventry finds new meaning within the local history of destruction and repair in the Second World War. A work from the exhibition has been acquired for the Herbert Gallery’s permanent collection, selected for its iconography as well as its resonance with sculptural works and objects in the museum’s natural sciences collection.

As someone who has experienced trauma, I am conscious of the multiplicities of irreversible damage it can impart on the body, and I felt deeply moved by the care with which this subject has been addressed. The deliberate and poetic language through which these ideas are articulated allows the viewer to engage with the works in a way that is not forcibly retraumatising. For Cherri, the damage and trauma are irreversible, brought into question for accountability, remembrance, and atonement.[7] Though the wounds inflicted are explored through a healing lens, the artist maintains that they will inevitably remain. Introducing a conversation on ‘the politics of visibility’ at play, Cherri highlights the histories of traumas, transforming ‘wounds’ and ‘scars’ into sites of change and reinvention.


[1] Priyesh Mistry, ‘The Politics of Visibility’, in Linda Schofield (ed.), Ali Cherri: 2021 National Gallery Artist in Residence [exhib. cat.] (London: National Gallery Company, 2022), 20-31.
[2] Juliet Rix, ‘Ali Cherri – interview’, Studio International, (5 April 2022, accessed 10 August 2022,
[3] Ali Cherri, in conversation with the author (15 August 2022).
[4] Cabinets of curiosities, also referred to as Wunderkammer and ‘wonder rooms’, were small collections of extraordinary objects, first developed to categorise and tell stories about ‘wonders’ of the natural world. Displays often included body parts, birds, skeletons, and plants; Artist Ali Cherri in conversation with Curator Priyesh Mistry (artist talk), The National Gallery, London, 18 March 2022.
[5] Cherri (15 August 2022).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Mistry, 20-31.