19.11 - 23.05.2021
Alfredo Jaar’s solo exhibition at Zeitz MOCAA draws on his investigations into the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and his interest in exploring trauma as an outsider. Jaar is a Chilean-born, New York-based artist who looked to critique the lack of global attention to the genocide in Rwanda. When you walk into Jaar’s exhibition you expect to see images of mass murder and violent photographs but to my surprise, there aren’t any. Jaar has depicted the whole exhibition with no gory visuals, it is predominantly text. There is not one image of a dead body even though the genocide claimed 800,000 lives. There is little to no talk of the Tutsi or Hutu people, or the reasoning behind the genocide. In this way, Jaar has left this up to the viewer to investigate. Jaar creates an overwhelming sense of grief, meaning and silence in the room using lights, text and the positioning of his work.
The first installation which caught my eye was Rwanda Rwanda which consists of a wall filled from top to bottom with posters, with the words ‘RWANDA’ repeated eight times. The posters take up the majority of the wall and are positioned side by side in four rows of fourteen. The word is written in a bold, legible black font and mimics that of a propaganda poster. According to MoMA ‘This print, with its bold lettering and hypnotic repetition, is minimalist in its simplicity, yet its almost abstract design is infused with grave subject matter.’ When viewing a singular poster, the words scream ‘Rwanda’ over and over again and there is a sense of urgency in them, but when the posters are placed side by side, the words don’t seem to shout as loud since they are overshadowed by the number of posters on the wall, creating more of a pattern than a singular word. The words all blur into one and the word Rwanda is no longer screaming at you. These posters were placed all around European cities in an attempt to raise awareness about genocide, but they did not help. The United Nations and the international community failed miserably to intervene. Many factors contributed towards the international inaction, including peacekeeping fatigue from the United Nations, as well as their bureaucratic disposition and the world’s lack of interest / misguided view of African conflict in general.
Jaar decided against showing images from the Rwandan genocide because of peoples compassion fatigue due to the continuous exposure to images shown on a day to day basis.
By choosing not to show images from the Rwandan genocide, or provide any further information on the topic, the viewer is left to their own discretion and imagination. Often we are shown graphic images and pleaded with to donate and help. These images are subjective, associating a population or event in a specific light, rather than being more general and allowing people to picture the events in their own way, creating their own narrative of the atrocities occurring. Jaar prevents the event / genocide from being associated with a specific face or place, which would have been harmful; you don’t want to put an image of a specific child who suffered the genocide and disregards the other 800,000 people who suffered too. I believe Jaar’s work is more powerful than the way in which the press dictate their issues as their approach tends to be bias / one-sided politically.
This idea of not showing images of the genocide and allowing viewers to depict the chaos links to Jaar’s next piece, Real Pictures, where he has placed a series of boxes in a room with a description of the images inside the box, which the viewer does not have access to. Viewers are instructed to not open the box or look at the pictures inside. The writing is very descriptive and paints a very clear image of the events taking place; explaining the day, the event, where it is and what is happening, in tremendous detail. This, as mentioned earlier, allows the viewer to picture the scene themselves instead of providing a clear image of the event. Reading what happened is almost more horrible, if not worse, than seeing an actual image. All the boxes / pallets are displayed side by side in low light, creating a memorial-like scene. The whole room (and exhibition for that matter) has an eerie, uncomfortable feel whilst walking through it because the descriptions are so explicit and detailed, you feel as if you are standing at someone’s tombstone.
Walking through Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition at the Zeitz MOCCA I felt extremely moved by his work and the way in which he chose to portray it. Whilst viewing the exhibit I was not bombarded by graphic, violent images from the genocide, which would usually be the case for a topic like this. Jaar managed to represent it in a way that moves the viewer using minimal imagery which I felt made his message so much more impactful. Jaar has created a piece of art that can be directly compared to the media and thus commenting on both, whilst the media is typically biased and one-sided politically Jaars artwork leaves this job to his audience. His artwork allows space for his audience to create an opinion and story around the piece for themselves, making it more impactful and long-lasting in their minds.