The author Don Miguel Ruiz makes the point that we only see what we want to see and we only hear what we want to hear. When it came to the Rwandan Genocide, it becomes clear that the West chose to neither see nor hear. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide claimed 800 000 lives while the West looked on.
‘The Rwanda Project’ by Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean artist, exhibits several pieces raising awareness of the genocide as well as critiquing the world’s priorities during the genocide. Jaar documented the aftermath of the genocide with the intention of making the West aware of the issues occurring in Rwanda. He created the first edition of Rwanda Rwanda as a poster. It consisted of the word “Rwanda“ written eight times over in black on a white background. The poster uses strong typographic elements with modern advertising techniques. It was displayed in light boxes all over Sweden in a public art project. Instead of using visuals such as photography, Jaar used extremely bold text in a way that is almost shouting at the audience while they walk past in order to grab their attention. In the 90s there was a rise in pop media culture and tabloids, which contributed to a shift in the way media was presented and consumed. This was displayed through the West’s engagement with the Rwandan genocide.
Jaar’s edition of his artwork Rwanda Rwanda exhibited at the ZEITZ MOCCA, covers the entire wall repeating the original poster so densely packed that it strains the eye and becomes difficult to look at. This shows how over saturation and repetition can lead to fatigue, such as the word Rwanda taking a toll on one’s eyes and slowly disappearing into the contrasting colours.
While looking at the word “Rwanda” individually the magnitude of the genocide becomes visible too. Each time the word is repeated, it displays a victim of the genocide, a metaphor for the lives lost. Even the way the posters begin to merge together, due to its overwhelming repetition, shows how the identity of the victims was not important to the West. This emphasises the discourse of the West versus the rest, that Stuart Hall goes on to describe as a way of seeing the West (Europe and United States of America) as superior compared to the rest of the world.
The West’s disengagement from Rwanda becomes increasingly visible in the exhibition. Jaar’s installation Untitled (Newsweek) consists of a week of Newsweek covers in 1994. The covers are framed in a series of light-boxes creating a very eye catching environment. Written underneath each publication, are events that occurred in Rwanda at the same time. This installation shows the lack of reportage and coverage of the Rwandan genocide by Western media. The Newsweek publications consisted of popular culture references and events happening in America such as the markets, popstar suicide and celebrity murder, rather than taking action against the genocide. Rwanda was left in the dark and all the attention was directed towards popular culture, emphasised through the light-box overshadowing the text underneath.
In a world where we are so connected through mass media, Jaar’s work comments on where we place our attention and how it hasn’t changed over time with access to endless information on the internet. With the vast range of information we have access to, we still gravitate towards the least emotionally draining rather than addressing issues that need attention.The exhibition plays with the mediums used, as the majority of artworks are displayed through a light-box. In this way, each piece draws the audience in through its light as well as showing what was in the spotlight of attention in 1994. Rwanda is left in the dark and ignored, whether it be small text or overwhelmingly busy text. Jaar’s exhibition ‘The Rwanda Project’ contrasts images and text through the use of light and dark. By Rwanda remaining in the dark, Jaar shed’s light on what people pay attention to and absorb through the example of the Rwanda genocide and popular culture, in order to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.