Alfredo Jaar's Rwanda Projects
David Strauss' article begins with when Alfredo Jaar first arrived in Africa in 1994. He started out in Paris, then flew to Kampala, then to Uganda, and finally Kigali, Rwanda with his assistant Carlos Vasquez. Kigali had been destroyed to a point where the dead outnumbered the living. They began to meet people and accumulate stories, and one day Jaar stumbled upon a post office where he bought the last of the Rwandan postcards. He began to write the names of the people he met on the backs of these post cards, with the phrase "is still alive!" below them, and sent them to friends and colleagues back home. On one side of the card there would be an image of a beautiful Rwandan scene and on the other a simple statement of hope. This action became called Signs of Life and was Jaar's first Rwanda project. It contained a direct message, with layers of art-historical reference and reversed meaning, and created a kind of "engaged conceptualism."
Jaar and Vasquez teamed up with a Swiss journalist and Japanese reporter to document further findings around Rwanda, most of which were at refugee camps around the city. On August 29, 1994 they visited a church about 40 kilometers south of Kigali where four hundred men, women, and children had been murdered four months earlier. Strauss then talks of how Jaar had taken photographs at practically every moment, and in some cases the camera was the bridge between himself and the indirect beyond the lense, but other times it reminded him only of "the futility of a gaze that arrives too late." He later stated that his opinion of a "good photograph" became one that came, " as close as possible to reality. But the camera never manages to record what your eyes see, or what you feel at the moment. The camera always creates a new reality."
Jaar could not look at his images for two years. He was given the opportunity to show his images in Sweden in the November of 1994, and he found he couldn't do it. He instead filled the light-boxes in which the images would be shown with the name "Rwanda" over and over and over, calling to the people of Sweden to see, to acknowledge, and remember. It wasn't until his show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago in January of 1995 did Jaar first display his photographs of the genocide. In sixty, very carefully selected images he showed "the massacres, the refugee camps, the destruction of cities." Each image became contained in a black linen box with a silk-screen white written description of the image on top. The boxes were then arranged into stacks and into monuments. Jaar has described the images as being "buried" in the black boxes, and the show as a "cemetery of images." Strauss also argues the show feels like an archive, and that when stored in a such a way the images "accumulate a charge, so that the monuments begin to operate like batteries: image batteries." He then compares Jaar's work to that of Maya Lin's Vietnam War memorial in that it holds the same simple aesthetic, and with it comes the power and force of the message.
Then in June of 1995 Jaar created an installation entitled Let there be Light, which was of ten light-boxes each displaying a different name of a different place in which a total of one million people had been killed in three months' time. Each name was made of light, and when a person stood before them, the name of the place reflected on their face. The second part of the installation was a light-box holding a mechanism that allowed four images to appear in rotation. The four images were of two boys, on holding onto the other, and by the fourth image they are both resting their heads on one another, with their arms around the other back. This "quadvision" light-box was used again at Jaar's next show entitled The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. Two of these boxes were placed side by side- in one a ten line description of the woman Jaar and Vasqeuz has met outside the Church south of Kigali whose family has been massacred with machetes in front of her. The text then fades into a five lines of description about this woman, Gutete Emerita's, eyes and how much tragedy they hold. Then there are two lines of text: " I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita" and then two images of her eyes extremely close up flash before the viewer. Strauss describes how he became very sick after this experience, and he still feels sick when remembering back to it. He states that the experience is one that attempts to "recover the power of the image" and Jaar has gotten to "the point where an image can make sense again."
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita appear again in February of 1996. This time the text is written very small on a black wall, and it leads you down to the end of that wall. Once you reach the end you turn a corner, and around the corner is a pile of one million 35mm slides of Gutete Emerita's eyes. When one picks up the slide, they come face to face, or rather eye to eye, with Jaar's intention, that you can not turn away from the massacre when you have grabbed it and brought it directly into your sight. This installation appeared two more times, and in the third time Jaar presented a new story about the children of Rwanda. The wall tells of the orphans and the children who had lost either the will to live from pain, or their trust in the world around them. One child is called out in the story who could not speak for four weeks. Nduwayezu, 5, had looked directly at Jaar's camera and Jaar couldn't forget him. This installation came to be titled The Silence of Nduwayezu, and with it came three images, one of the tea fields along the road to the church, one of the road on the way to the church, and one of the church with wisps of clouds above it and sign next to it reading, "bodies, 500?"
Strauss then argues that Jaar's Rwanda works attempt to enlighten the world of it's silence and inaction during the genocide, and to bring it as far as it can into reality and remembrance. He compares it to a few famous paintings of war, asking if art should be or can be doing these things. He then discusses how the proliferation of the image has made the representation of life mediocre, and that due to our bombardment of visuals on a moment to moment basis we are becoming numb to the effects and meanings held within these images. He argues this by quoting Stalin who said, " A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Statistics are a way to passively learn about a huge amount of information, where as tragedies are difficult individual experiences. However, the statistic of one million people dying is, in actuality, the same experience of the tragedy, but a million times over. This is our days issue- to attempt to acknowledge this information and reprocess it to it's full meaning. One must focus on the individual, and the connection and possibility of that one individual, in order to feel the full effect of a statistic.
Strauss ends by saying the "terrible truth" about photographs is that they can never show was it currently happening. They are of the past, and they hold what happened in the past- therefore being about something that is gone. This was Jaar's frustration: "the futility of a gaze that arrives too late." But he finds himself, after two years of avoiding the images, and he finds himself in Guete Emerita, "through the most basic human encounter, eye to eye."