MATTERS OF OBSESSION

The Rwanda Project: Chilean-born, New York-based conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar’s latest work at the Zeitz MOCAA

By Kathy Berman 6 April 2021

And Yet, 2019. Alfredo Jaar.

In his latest exhibition, a series of installations, Alfredo Jaar, the global giant of social justice and conceptual art, meditates on the binary positions of spectatorship to war, and the role of the media. It's a must-see, says Kathy Berman.

‘Genocide’ — the word is inextricably linked with Rwanda, an association imprinted on the consciousness and consciences of millions across the globe. No matter how many years pass, and how much the current political leadership works on erasing the horror of the past, those 100 days in 1994 remain a stain on contemporary global history. As do Bosnia Herzegovina, Syria, Yemen, the plight of the Uyghurs, the Rohingyas and other short-hand proper nouns for what is politely termed “Human Rights Violations”. 

How does an artist approach the atrocities of a contemporary genocide? How does the artist convey the emotion, the visceral brutality, in a digital age of infinite instant images? How does the artist steer clear of either obscene voyeurism or indifference and compassion fatigue? 

These are the complexities that the Chilean-born, New York-based, globally-lauded conceptual artist, Alfredo Jaar, tackles in The Rwanda Project, which has been installed at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town from November 2020 until 23 May 2021. 

For Jaar, the answer is “minimalistically; conceptually; cerebrally; in binary black and white”. It is free of searing, bleeding, war porn. And in so doing, the message is as searing. In the absence arises a deep spiritual presence; in the silence, a sonic scream. 

The body of work covers the period from 1994, when Jaar visited Rwanda, to 2019, and has travelled across the world. 

As one enters the exhibition halls, with the black walls, focused spotlights, white signage, illuminated glowing lightboxes, a feeling of reverence and silent contemplation overcomes the visitor. A large neon sign in glowing white and red punctuates the darkness, borrowing from a 1930s work by Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova:   

“So much to do today:
Kill memory,
Kill pain,
Turn heart into a stone,
And yet
Prepare to live again.”

Real Pictures. 1995. Alfredo Jaar.

Jaar, the global giant of social justice and conceptual art, layers his message. He meditates on the binary positions of indifference/spectatorship to war, and the role of the media, while using the tools of the media: news magazines, neon signs, graphic design, photographs – or non-photographs.

The key opening piece is a series of 17 light-boxes mounted across a black wall. Each box frames one Newsweek cover, marking every international Newsweek for the duration of the Genocide – from the OJ Simpson trial and the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Richard Nixon, to Mandela and Generation X. A factual caption below each image provides a parallel record, an interpolation by Jaar, of the atrocities perpetrated in Rwanda that week. 

Untitled (Newsweek) 1994. Alfredo Jaar.

The first cover of 11 April is headed How to Survive in a Scary (bear) Market. Jarre contextualises the image with the following facts “April 6, 1994: A plane carrying the President of Rwanda and Burundi is shot down above Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Their deaths spark widespread massacres, targeting Hutu moderates and the minority Tutsi population…”

Under the cover devoted to the America’s Cup of June 20, 1994, Jaar’s caption reads: “June 17, 1994: France announces its plan to send 2,500 troops to Rwanda as an interim peacekeeping force until the UN troops arrive. 700,000 deaths”.

The penultimate cover ruminates: To Walk on Mars. Scientists Can Get us there, But Do We Dare? Jaar’s caption underscores: “July 21, 1994: The United Nations Security Council reaches a final agreement to send an international force to Rwanda. One million people have been killed. Two million have fled the country. Another two million are displaced within Rwanda.”

The final image, the cover of 1 August 1994 is of a crying child, in front of a pile of bodies. The heading proclaiming: HELL ON EARTH. Racing Against Death in Rwanda. Jaar’s caption: “August 1, 1994: Newsweek magazine dedicates its first cover to Rwanda”.

Untitled (Newsweek). Alfredo Jaar.
Untitled (Newsweek). Alfredo Jaar.
Untitled (Newsweek). Alfredo Jaar.
Untitled (Newsweek). Alfredo Jaar.
Untitled (Newsweek). Alfredo Jaar.

The exhibition serves as a sort of graphic timeline, a historic record, an a-historical record and the visual silence of global media, in which Jaar highlights the indifference. Not even obliteration, deletion or erasure, just the absence of priority, deliberate non-recordal. The work is ironically titled Untitled (Newsweek).

(Writer’s note: As a member of the foreign press corps, I have vivid memories of my colleagues’ journeys to Rwanda immediately following South Africa’s first democratic election and Mandela’s inauguration. A brief archival search indicates Rwandan headlines in other media throughout that period. Not every global media outlet was utterly oblivious to the unfolding tragedy. But this Newsweek archive is a chilling and cynical collection.) 

Rwanda Rwanda. 1994. Alfredo Jaar.

A large white work /sign /wayfinder marks the end of the first hall: In Rwanda, Rwanda, the word RWANDA is rendered in capital letters in a modern bold sans serif font, and repeated across the surface in a bold visual pattern; in the tradition of global design best-practice, where proper nouns, names, are reified as repetitive commercial consumptive icons, brands in International Typographic Style: Macys, Bloomingdales, and now, Rwanda. 

The second darkened hall formalistically echoes the Berlin Holocaust memorial – an interior memorial. With Real Pictures, the visitor is confronted by black plinth-like structures. Of equal height, evenly positioned, each illuminated plinth is demarcated by a separate spotlight, each bearing descriptive paragraphs. There are no images and each plinth represents a moment in time. But instead of a photograph and caption, we are faced with the captions alone, while our minds fill in the images. 

Real Pictures. 1995. Alfredo Jaar.

The absence of image means the absence of presence; the eradication of the image means the eradication of the person that the image would have signified if it were there. But the person is no longer there, millions of people are no longer there. And neither is the iconic representation, only words frozen in time as images, as artworks in themselves, graphic cyphers.

An accompanying catalogue notes that each plinth is made up of boxes, and contains thousands of images that the artist (photographer) had taken during his trip to Rwanda in 1994. The images are hidden from view. 

The Silence of Nduwayezu. 1997. Alfredo Jaar.
The Silence of Nduwayezu. 1997. Alfredo Jaar.
The Silence of Nduwayezu. 1997. Alfredo Jaar.

The next installation is again a work of profound conceptual genius. The Silence of Nduwayezu memetically reproduces the eyes of a haunted young boy who the artist had encountered during his visit to Rwanda. The young boy had witnessed the killing of his parents; he had been rendered silent. One million photographic slides of Nduwayezu’s eyes are piled on a massive lightbox, and sculpted into an anthropomorphic shrouded form; magnifying loupes are strategically positioned to facilitate the professional examination of each slide.

We Wish to Inform You that We Did not Know. 2010. Alfredo Jaar.
We Wish to Inform You that We Did not Know. 2010. Alfredo Jaar.
We Wish to Inform You that We Did not Know. 2010. Alfredo Jaar.
We Wish to Inform You that We Did not Know. 2010. Alfredo Jaar.
We Wish to Inform You that We Did not Know. 2010. Alfredo Jaar.

If the abstraction has not yet conveyed the horror, the final room with a compilation of news footage from the time hammers the message home. Skulls, piles of bloodied clothes, and scrolling names of the dead are interspersed with heraldic images of political leaders. The work is titled We Wish to Inform You that We Didn’t Know. Created in 2010, this work borrows its title from a speech delivered by then US president Bill Clinton at Kigali airport in 1998. DM/ ML 

This is the first of two reviews by Kathy Berman of two exhibitions being held in Cape Town in April and May, drawing on Rwanda as a theme. The second review will be on the work of a Rwandan refugee to South Africa, designer Eli Gold of MasaMara whose kaleidoscopic print fabric and fashion design embodies the spirit of resilience and Pan African unity. A child of a Hutu and Tutsi union, he was two years old at the time of the Genocide, when his family was forced to flee their home, and 12 when he arrived in South Africa, after a solo journey overland to join his older brother in Cape Town. His fine arts practice is under the name NYAMBO.

Gallery

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