Twenty years on from Rwanda, Griselda Pollock looks at the questions Alfredo Jaar’s celebrated Rwanda Project raised in its approach to art and images of victimisation in post-traumatic cultures.
Between 1994 and 1998, Chilean New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956) dedicated himself to a series of works he called collectively The Rwanda Project, following the massacre of 1 million Rwandan Tutsis by ethnic Hutus in 1994. Jaar considers most of this six year project a failure, not aesthetically, but politically. No image would suffice when faced with the trauma to which he felt compelled to bear aesthetic witness in the world. He sometimes calls the project, in honour of the novelist Ben Okri, The Lament of the Image. One work involved placing in the well-distributed poster sites of a European city a poster bearing simply the word Rwanda, repeated numerous times. This functioned as a call: a visual declaration, naming but also shouting out this name to the passing public, an invocation to remember, to engage, to pay attention.
Alfredo Jaar explored a range of visual strategies for responding to the complex relays of visibility and invisibility, knowing and denial under which the brutal murders of almost a million people occurred in the tiny country of Rwanda, while a small but disempowered unit from the UN was present and the world was apparently watching, discussing and deciding not to intervene in what they labelled a civil war and not a genocide, against which the UN convention, forged after the Holocaust in 1948, required world powers to intervene. Jaar’s series operates across the double space of attention and inattention to the trauma of the Other and to the trauma of Africa in particular. He looked at the scenes of atrocity and made images as the sign of his looking and the proof of what he saw. But he also made images that register the experience that others had been obliged to witness. It is this element that marks the singularity of his work in creating encounters for viewers far away from the event that force them to recognize a gap that has been cut into a living person’s life by proximity to atrocity, by the wound that is trauma: an event too shocking to be assimilated. Jaar does not show us, and thus repeat the deadly killing with a second murderous look exposing the already abjected dead to further, visual violation in their extreme vulnerability of unburied death. He makes us confront the gaze of those whose eyes have seen horror that was not stopped.
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996) forces us to contemplate the eyes of a woman who witnessed the murder of her husband and two sons. Each one framed separately in quad vision light boxes, these eyes only appear after a text is screened for 45 seconds telling of her invisible ordeal. For a further 30 seconds, a new text is projected, speaking of her eyes and her gestures. Finally a third text appears, for 15 seconds. ‘I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita.’ From the impersonal historical mode to the discursive statement ‘I remember,’ Jaar has prepared the viewer to have a comparable and shocking, first-hand encounter with the eyes of this named, located, historicized survivor. The implied question: will you too remember her eyes – eyes that look at you but forever see murder? The work produces the impossible meeting with eyes that seem to belong to a person who has somehow died too, as they look upon an invisible scene as if its horror was burned onto her retina from inside. The viewer is shielded from seeing as an image what she witnessed (if shown as a news image, would it not be iconized and thus commodified?). But in meeting these eyes and what they reveal unshown that she has seen, might this moment not sear the soul of the viewer also to remember, and in remembering Gutete Emerita’s eyes, the eyes of this one woman, be jolted from the kind of consumption of the image that makes images out of atrocity without inducing a political response.
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita was the second work to emerge from Jaar’s encounter with post-genocidal Rwanda that dared to show an image he had taken. The first, Let There be Light, shown in France in June 1995, plotted an installation made up of names written in light against the black matte of ten light boxes. The names were sites of genocide that might one day resonate with the same terribleness as the now familiar names of concentration and extermination camps of Nazi Germany. But in 1995, Jaar’s point is that they did not have such currency beyond those who knew all too well that in Kigali, Cyangugu, Amahoro, Rukara, Shangi, Mibirizi, Cyahinda, Kibungo, Butare and Gikongoro one million people had been killed by hands wielding machetes and guns in three months in 1994. The visible, the unremarked and the sign are set into tense relations made poignant by the final light box across which in measured sequence a series of still images recur. Two young African boys, arms around each other, stand in open ground with their backs to us. They are watching something first opposite them. They turn their heads and see something off screen. They draw closer into their embrace. They turn away and one rests his forehead on the other’s cheek. It is hard to put into words the impact of this sequenced, stilled, yet cinematic capture of human anxiety: the larger field of the historical event is obscured – we cannot be voyeurs watching from afar. What we have to encounter is the embodiment of children exposed to events that cause them to suffer – registered in delicate human gestures – the pathos formulae – of mutual comfort and ultimate despair.  Only by creating a dialectic of particularity – in this case the historical event of genocide in Rwanda, something of which is being seen by two vulnerable young people, with only each other to bring the comfort of human tenderness in their fear – and the larger context in which that particularity is denied through the troping of Africa, can art pierce the frames of viewing which enabled something to happen while the rest of the world was ostensibly watching. This work seeks, perhaps too emotively through the focus on children, but necessarily so, to produce a Barthesian punctum, a breach in the studium of over-familiar images of Africans and suffering, that can leave its own traumatic trace in the viewer, its disturbing imprint as the signifier of human pain, not as the icon of atrocity.
Jaar’s earlier installation, Real Pictures (1995), is all about asking how the distant/distanced bystander can be brought to confront the real of an event, which is so often documented by pictures in the media, made real to people only through such pictures, but which are, by the same token, also reduced only to pictures, derealized as icons. How do we renegotiate the ethical and the necessary affective relation to human suffering so that we undo the short-circuit between knowledge and understanding facilitated by the iconized and mediatized image of suffering in the still actively ‘colonial’ troping of Africa.
In Real Pictures, there are no images to see. They are present, however; enclosed, encased, entombed in sculptural forms that actively determine the physical environment with references to archives, monuments, floor tablets, tombstones. They are also references to the mute purism of a minimalist sculptural aesthetic, now made to house the evidence of a wretched history which involves not merely the barbarism of genocide, but the terrifying question of how it could have been allowed to happen in a world that was looking on, gathering information, being shown photographs, receiving reports, registering appeals for help? Printed texts on the tops of linen-covered black boxes that house the photographs describe the hidden images. The viewer is required not merely to see the formal installation and be positioned variously by its different forms and heights, but to take time read the words that both replace/displace the image (that our scopophilia, heightened to voyeurism, makes us long to see) and redraw it, but in our mind’s eye. The words Jaar provides as the tools for such a redrawing force an encounter with named individuals. Just as the testimonial literature that emerged following the Holocaust makes us realize that ‘it’ happened one by one – with each person a world was destroyed – so Alfredo Jaar’s focus on invisible images that mark his encounter with a named survivor-witness rejects the dangerous fascism inherent in mere enumeration and the annihilatory massification inherent in the media/photography and cinema – yet we must understand that each story is to be multiplied by one million to begin to realize the extent of the atrocity and its significance for the totality of all who wear a human face in the face of the breach of that fundamental solidarity on which the possibility of any human society exists.
Between the dismal archive or badly preserved, cropped, degraded, often black and white imagery that constitutes the visual memory of the Holocaust and the moment in the 1990s approached by Alfredo Jaar in his work Untitled (Newsweek) lies a revolution in technology and news reportage. Rwanda’s genocide took place in a different world from the closed spaces of a war-riven Europe, a fascist empire, an indexical production of images by single-lens reflex cameras. Rwanda took place in a world where news magazines and television supported a massed cohort of news journalists, able to dispatch reports by instant satellites and computerized technologies. We had just watched a war in Iraq–Kuwait in 1991 on television, with daily doses of the views from the bombers delivering their directed payloads. The world was watching, daily. This is how and why Jaar’s piece Untitled (Newsweek) (1994) acquires its shocking ferocity.
In the performance version of the piece, a man, the artist, stands on stage and reads a small news-like item. Each item plots the unfolding of events in Rwanda from 6 April 1994 when the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi returning from the peace conference in Tanzania was shot down as it approached Kigali airport – an assassination that triggered the massacres of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority led by the Interahamwe militia empowered by the immediate coup d’état that followed. Each report details the swelling numbers of the dead. Each report is juxtaposed to the cover of Newsweek magazine. The covers indicate what appeared during that week to the editors of the magazine to be the major political, economic, cultural issue of which its readers needed to take note. The enormity of the gap between the rising death toll and the indifference of the world’s leading news magazine, the educator and indicator, tells us more than any other visual source about the unforgivable perversity of those in charge of news reporting and news making. Alfred Jaar’s work reveals something truly dreadful about the mediatized world and the choices that were made by news editors. In not showing what was happening, in not selecting an iconic image to represent a genocide taking place at a horrendous pace, in not using its forum to shake up reluctant bureaucrats or beleaguered political decision-makers, we have to confront something more than a state of denial: what appears from Jaar’s simple plotting out of the time it took Newsweek to place Rwanda on its covers is a failure to inform the world by those whose job it is to be informers. Alfredo Jaar’s Untitled (Newsweek) uses time politically. In the sequencing of matching 17 covers, over 17 weeks, to the numbers of people brutally killed in Rwanda before Newsweek finally raised this genocide to the dignity of a cover photograph by showing a brutal image of piled corpses, Alfredo Jaar makes the viewer (it is now shown as an installation down whose alternating line of text and image the viewer must walk) experience vicariously the disjunction between daily murder and mediatized indifference, ignorance, looking away that may have contributed to the rising death toll. Jaar’s work exposes the dangerous power of the media when it fails to act, fails to make things visible, even in the bad faith of seeking images to sell papers. The intersections of commodification, information, and aesthetics are politically exposed to show how dangerously powerful is a failure to make and show images.
This brief discussion of a few of Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda series, all of which the artist felt were a failure before the challenge of the event and aesthetic responses, poses some fundamental questions addressed by Visual Politics (What are the politics of what is seen and what is not, what is shown and what is not, what is registered and how it is used? How do we interpret what we find in images – be they grand paintings, novel media art forms, memorial sculptures, films, TV series, media or unofficial photographs? What is interpretation itself? What relation does the image have to a politics of contestation in a post-traumatic era?). It locates the issue of the aesthetic work performed by an artwork in creating images but also in addressing the image culture into which an aesthetic gesture might intervene critically but also affectively. ■