Alfredo Jaar. The Politics of Images
Africa has fascinated from Grecian times when a one-legged race of men (Skiapodes) were said to live in Ethiopia. They supposedly used their giant foot to shade from the sun. The reality is a huge, stable landmass rich in mineral resources, over-populated and lacking water. The Colonial invasion further exacerbated tribal divisions, so it is perpetually aflame.
In 1994 the Hutu-led government of Rwanda orchestrated genocide of the minority Tutsi and Hutu ‘traitors’. There were substantial contributing factors to this act. Of note, however, was the stunning international silence as more than 500 000 people were slaughtered in a few months.
Alfredo Jaar is an artist who defines his artistic activity in terms of ethics. He creates social interventions and videos that try to make viewers more aware and interactive. Trained as an architect, he is acutely aware of space and movement through it.
The Rwandan Genocide drew him to research in Rwanda and spend several years creating installations exposing his experience. His three-channel video “We Wish To Inform You That We Didn’t Know”, on view at Ryerson Image Centre sums up general skepticism directed towards the West. They only take action when they have vested interests. In the video, Bill Clinton arrives 4 years later to apologize for US inaction.
This exhibition indicates media failure to register African realities. Jaar has sequenced the covers of Life magazines from inception to demise (“Searching for Africa in Life’’) to demonstrate the West’s inherent racism. Nine Time magazine covers dedicated to Africa show it represented as issues of poverty, famine or wild animals (“From Time to Time”).
The video is the most arresting of these three pieces. The footage is drawn from various media and collaged together over the three channels. Announcements that the plane containing the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi has been shot down over Kigali lead to further information on numbers of people killed in the resulting genocide and the indifference of the world.
We hear the Rwanda Radio voices announcing ‘A little something planned’ for the Tutsi minority, showing how orchestrated the genocide was. The BBC reports on a planned wreath-laying visit by Bill Clinton, four years later and the popular anger directed at him for the US inaction. We move through Rwandan orphanages, memorial sites and shots of the army marching.
Clinton apologizes in triplicate and professes not to have known, an unlikely position as intelligence reports show his cabinet certainly did. Stephen Lewis, as Canadian ambassador to the UN, expresses his disbelief.
Then three survivors describe their horrific experiences being thrown into a pit of bodies with grenades and stones thrown at them. Further footage covers the Kigali memorial site with names of deceased and the Ntarama Church where 5000 were killed. The victims’ clothes and bones remain as proof of the event for the world. Photographs hang from a wire while Papa Wemba sings “Awa Y’ Okeyi (If you go away)”.
Jaar takes an aesthetic decision in simplifying information but in this case the effect is facile. It oversimplifies and obfuscates a very complex situation. Historically, the Tutsi minority ruled over the Hutu, which means ‘servant’. The Belgian colonialists reinforced this inequality by having two separate ID documents and permitting the Tutsi to exercise dominion over the Hutu, including beatings. When the Hutu took power in 1962, they had scores to settle. The Tutsi owned most of the land and the Akazu movement grew to enhance Hutu power and displace the Tutsi once and for all. Cabinet discussions openly considered genocide, procuring machetes and grenades from Egypt well in advance.
The US had been surreptitiously supporting the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel movement situated in Uganda and having Anglophone tendencies. Consequently, France was supporting the Francophone Hutu government. For the US, the Somalia debacle was still fresh where their dead troops had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. They didn’t want another costly African rescue mission.
Jaar is one of the most interesting artists working in the ethical dimension. He has a genuine commitment that one can only admire and his work always gives pause to think even if one disagrees with his aesthetic strategy.
ALFREDO JAAR THE POLITICS OF IMAGES
Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto