Alfredo Jaar revisits Rwandan genocide 25 years after the atrocity

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Alfredo Jaar, Rwanda 1994 (1994)

Twenty-five years after the Rwandan genocide, in which one million people were murdered by Hutu extremists, mostly members of the Tutsi tribe but also moderate Hutus, Alfredo Jaars project about the 100-day massacre goes on show in the UK for the first time today.

The Chilean artist, who fled Pinochets regime for New York in 1982, recalls how, in August 1994, he became so incensed by the “barbaric indifference” of the worlds media to the mounting death toll, he decided to travel to Rwanda.

“I remember feeling the rage taking over my body and I thought, I have to go,” Jaar recounts. “Of course, everyone around me thought I was totally insane. They said to me: Youre not going Alfredo.”

But the artist remained firm. Having signed a release form issued by the UN, who said they could not protect him if something happened, Jaar and his assistant set off. “It was the craziest thing I have ever done, but it changed my life,” he says. “I always felt that, in my work, there is a before Rwanda and an after Rwanda.”

When you have a tragedy of a million deaths, its meaningless, its too abstract. So its important to reduce the enormity of the tragedy to one story, to one name.

Jaar spent three weeks in the violence ravaged country, meeting people in refugee camps and listening to their stories, as well as travelling to neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda and Burundi where millions of Rwandans had fled.

“I took more than 3,000 pictures, the most horrible images I have ever seen and taken in my life,” he says. But he has never shown them, nor will he (some he has hidden in ash-grey linen boxes, creating memorial sculptures out of the blocks). “That was the ethical position I took as an artist,” he explains. “Im not going to show this, Im not going participate in this pornography of violence. Im going to do something else.”

That something else is what Jaar has described as his “most difficult project”, a series of 21 pieces created over six years, between 1994 and 2000. Six of the works are now on show at Londons Goodman Gallery, as well as one new neon work, And Yet (2019), based on a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. It is, Jaar says, his response to the recurring violence of contemporary politics.

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The earliest piece on show, Untitled (Newsweek) (1994), comprises 17 covers of the US magazine installed in a row on light boxes. The first is dated 11 April 1994. As Jaars caption points out, this was five days after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Tutsis, was shot down above Kigali. Their deaths sparked widespread massacres. But Newsweeks cover shows a bear tearing through a sheet of financial stocks and shares, with the strap line: “how to survive in a scary market”.

It was not until 1 August—17 weeks later—that the magazine dedicated its first cover to Rwanda, at which point the monstrous death toll had reached one million people.

Alfredo Jaar, Embrace (1995)

Children feature in several of Jaars photographic works, although he never reveals their faces, choosing instead to use cropped or blurred images. Six Seconds (2000), an out of focus shot of a girl with her back to the camera, is the final work in the project.

Jaar encountered the girl in 1994 in the Nyagazambu refugee camp, but, after just six seconds, she turned and left. Jaars camera was hanging from his neck so he hurriedly photographed her back, resulting in the blurry image. For six years, Jaar held onto the picture, convinced he could not use it, but later realised that the fuzzy quality exactly expressed his “incapacity to represent a certain reality—everything is always out of focus”.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is The Silence of Nduwayezu (1997), a pile of one million slides heaped on a light table, all featuring a close-up of the eyes of one boy: Nduwayezu, a five-year old Tutsi whom Jaar met at a refugee camp in Rubavu. Nduwayezu, like many children, had witnessed the brutal murder of his parents, and had been so traumatised he had not spoken for four weeks.

Alfredo Jaar, The Silence of Nduwayezu (1997)

The aim of the piece, Jaar says, is to humanise the genocide, to bring Nduwayezus story into focus; viewers are encouraged to scrutinise the images through magnifying glasses on the table. “When you have a tragedy of a million deaths, its meaningless, its too abstract,” Jaar says. “So its important to reduce the enormity of the tragedy to one story, to one name.”

He adds: “This way people can identify with that person, and feel solidarity or empathy. Once you know the story, you cannot dismiss this image.”

It would seem people have indeed felt a sense of solidarity. Over the past 22 years, more than 150,000 slides have been pocketed from the installatiRead More – Source