To put it simply, Alfredo Jaar’s work moved me. One might ask, what does a white, Chilean man know about a Rwandan genocide? What is his place within this context of mass killings in a country so far removed from his own lived experience –and quite frankly, who gave him the agency to comment on such atrocities in the first place? It is not my place to answer these questions but what I am here to do is explain the work, its content, its context and why I was personally moved by this exhibition.
From a western perspective, specifically a Western media perspective, Black bodies in Africa are synonymous with oppression, disease and obscurity. Alfredo Jaar went to Rwanda during the aftermath of the genocide and documented the atrocities experienced by the Rwandan people, with a central focus being brought to the year of 1994 in the work,’Untitled (Newsweek)’. The entirety of ‘The Rwanda Project’ toys with the dichotomy of those looking in, as an outsider to Rwanda, as well as those looking out, as Rwandan people enduring horrific acts of violence.
Jaar’s work comments on the lack of humanitarian aid and general aloofness of the West and international media during the height of the Rwandan genocide. This piece showcases seventeen framed Newsweek magazine covers. Each cover is framed and backlit, to mimic what can be interpreted as a movie poster, hinting that each title is a spectacle to behold. The Newsweek magazine covers show real published covers between April and August during 1994 –each positioned side by side with white, neatly typed copy beneath the cover. Rwanda is only mentioned and reported on in the seventeenth and final Newsweek magazine title in the row. The copy within each work provides context on what occurred during that month in Rwanda and is contrasted by what was being reported by the west. These neat short paragraphs, hold type no larger than 11pt. The type is so tiny within the space of the piece, not to mention how small the type is when put in the context of the overall exhibition –yet ironically it is one of the only artworks in the entirety of the exhibition that provides accurate context and insight into the real happenings of the Rwandan genocide as it progressed in real time. One can also argue that Jaar, cleverly uses type as a metaphor for Rwanda within the larger context of the exhibit, a potential metaphor for the world and its more powerful countries.
I believe Jaar did this very much on purpose. This ‘Untitled (Newsweek),’ artwork is a historical account of real and accurate events as they progressed and affected the lives of real people within a real country. The way in which the exhibition is curated, positions the realities of the work literally on the sidelines of the exhibit. This piece is positioned on the left hand side of the room as one walks through the low lit, almost dark exhibition. Similarly, the text is there to provide context to the entire ‘Rwanda Project’ exhibit, yet the type is so tiny, many onlookers pass by the paragraphs and ignore the written word. Most audiences are there to have a curated visual experience that immerses the senses, whereas reading requires time, effort and comprehension to arrive at understanding the work. Much like the West and its oblivious outlook on world news, the audience of this exhibit is complicit in ignorance. Most are distracted by the flashy Newsweek magazine covers, their imagery and their headlines –to the point that only few will read the plain text beneath the spectacle unveiling the realities of what occurred.
Jaar shows the Americanised lens of the Newsweek magazine, that is branded as real-time world news but lacks in accurate reporting of the timeline of events. Overall, one can argue that in our society, the attention and hype of the spectacle and the image is mistakenly more real than the reality of individuals that are suffering. This work if anything, showcases the true power of the media with reference to the western world and the responsibility it has to provide accurate and timely information. Alfredo Jaar, in my opinion, did Rwanda justice in this work and strived for general impact as this piece accurately reflects society and its members on both sides of the world.