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An archive of inspiration, negotiating the world through artistic intervention

Alfredo Jar -Let there be light : the Rwanda project 1994-1998 (1998) from exhibition catalogue Centre d’Art Santa Monica, Barcelona & Koldo Mitxelena, San Sebastian.

Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda Project: 1994–2000 is a series of photography-based installation works derived from his experiences in Rwanda. He first travelled there in the summer of 1994 while the genocide was still ongoing and overwhelmingly ignored by the international community. It is estimated that almost one million people were killed over a period of three months, from April–July 1994.

The Rwanda Project attempts to counter and transform the conventions of photojournalism, which frequently objectifies violence through unmediated images of victimization. Alternatively, Jaar reverses the lens’ eye to focus on the eyes of the witnesses and the hauntingly beautiful landscape in which this massacre was enacted as a means of eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.

Descriptions of various project  via imaginary museum

1. One day, Jaar came upon an inoperative post office and bought up the last of their postcards. The cards, which had been produced at some point bv the Rwandan Office of Tourism (and sponsored by the Belgian airline Sabena), all had the same slogan emblazoned across the top: “Rwanda— Decouvrez 1000 merveilles, au pays des 1000 collines” (Rwanda—Discover 1000 marvels in the land of 1000 hills). On the reverse they carried tourist pictures of the wildlife in Akagera National Park—impalas, zebras, eagles, and lions—and beautiful mountain vistas of Kibuye and Gisenyi or the serene skies over Lake Kivu.

One postcard showed dancers in full regalia, with long white headdresses and beads. Jaar began to collect the names of the survivors he met in Kigali and write them on the postcards (…) Then he addressed the postcards to his friends and colleagues in other parts of the world. Twentyfive to thirty people received over 200 postcards. Since there was no postal service left in Rwanda, he mailed the cards from Uganda on his way out. [description by David levi Strauss]

2. In November of 1994 Jaar was invited to participate in a public art project in Maimo, Sweden. e was given the use of fifty light-boxes all around the city in which to display any image he wished. But he did not wish to display an image, yet. The truth is, he could not. Instead, he filled the light-boxes with Rwanda; that is, with the name “Rwanda,” repeated over and over, filling up the frame.

These posters, scattered around the streets and squares of Maimo, reduced the rhetoric of advertising to a cry of grief. But they also served notice on a complacent public: “You—in your tidy parks, on your bicycles, walking your dogs—look at this name, listen to this name, at least hear it, now: Rwanda, Rwanda, Rwanda…” The posters were a raw gesture, produced out of frustration and anger. [description by David Levi Strauss]

If all of the images of slaughter and piled corpses, and all of the reportage did so little, perhaps a simple sign, in the form of an insistent cry, would get their attention.

3. Real Pictures was first exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago in January 1995. Out of the thousands of photographs he had made in Rwanda, Jaar carefully selected sixty images, to show the different aspects of the genocide: the massacres, the refugee camps, the destruction of cities. He then “buried” each of these images in a black linen box. On the top of each box, he had silkscreened in white a written description of the image inside.

These boxes were stacked and arranged into “monuments” of various sizes and shapes. The completed work consists of 550 direct positive color photographs in 550 black linen boxes. The sixty images were all taken in late August 1994, in Nyagazambu Camp and Ntarama Church in Rwanda, and the Kashusha and Katale refugee camps and Ruzizi 2 bridge in Zaire. The text that replaces them both describes and inscribes them: (…)

In Real Pictures, the tables are turned—images are buried in order that history might again be made visible and legible. In this way, it is a work of heresy. It is also heretical in its refusal of visual representation, in saying no to the image. Sylvere Lotringer has commented that “In Kantian terms, Alfredo Jaar’s installation is a nonpresentation.’ It is meant to bear witness to the impossibility of presenting the unpresentable. [description by David Levi Strauss]

This is what Jaar’s black boxes are about: they are the negative of the pictures; a tomb for the media, ..simultaneously blocking out the media, presenting a mental image and putting the victims to rest.” [Ruben Gallo, “Representation of Violence, Violence of Representation,” Trains 3/4, p. 66.]

5. May 8, 1994 The Rwandan Patriotic Front gains control of most of northern Rwanda. As killings continue, hundreds of thousands of refugees flee to Zaire. Burundi and Uganda. 200.000 deaths.

[Throughout the catalogue Jaaar shows with regular intervals frontcovers of one of the biggest American weeklies Newsweek, starting from the beginning of the Rwanda disaster April 6 1994 (the dwoning of the airplane of the Rwanda president) and ending with the cover of August 1 1994, wehen for the first time the Rwanda crisis is put on the front cover of Newsweek. tj.]

6. SLIDE + SOUND PIECE, 1995 Two slide projectors, programmer, sound system Carroussel 1: 66 slides. Carroussel 2: 55 slides. Sound: Geoffrey Oryema from Beat the Border, Published by Real World, 1993. Duration: 21 minutes: The Slide + Sound Pf’ece came about in March 1995, when Jaar was asked to give a slide lecture on Rwanda during the exhibition of Rea/ Pictures in Chicago. What kind of slide lecture does one produce to accompany a photography show in which no photographs appear? The Slide + Sound Piece begins in silence, with words projected onto a screen. The words are hand lettered, white on black, like the epitaphs on the boxes. (…) … is followed with a quote from the African writer Chinua Achebe:

"Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him." (…) And then begins a chronology of the genocide as reported in the world’s press, juxtaposed with the world’s responses and the accompanying body count: April 15, 1994/ 100,000 Deaths … May 20, 1994/ 600,000 Deaths . June 20, 1994/ 1,000,000 Deaths. As the terrible litany is projected onto the screen, the sound of the projector takes on the character of a dirge. (…) And then a different music begins, a song from the Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema. As he sings, we read from the screen… [description by David Levi Strauss]

7. THE EYES OF GUTETE EMERITA, 1996 Two quad vision light boxes with six B/W text transparencies and two color transparencies Time cycle: 45’, 30’, 15’ and 1/5’. Quad vision light box: 26” x 23” x 6” Overall dimensions: 26” x 48” x 6”.: The second image from Rwanda to appear in Jaar’s constructions was The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, first shown at the City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Raleigh, North Carolina in June 1996. Two of the “quad vision” light-boxes were placed side by side, almost touching.

As in the composition with the two boys (and in the Slide + Sound Piece before it), the sequencing and timing of the changing words and images in this piece are what determines its effect. The method is cinematic even if the form is not. At the beginning of the sequence, a block of text appears, white on black, in each of the two lightboxes.

There are ten lines of text in each box, and they remain there for 45 seconds: This text dissolves and more text appears, five lines on each panel, this time for the duration of 30 seconds: This text, too, disappears, and is replaced by two more lines: “I remember her eyes” These last two lines reverberate for 15 seconds.”The eyes of Gulete Emerit

Then, suddenly, an image flashes into view. It is Gutete’s eyes, very close up, filling the two frames, one in each frame. Before one has time to think, they are gone, leaving a potent afterimage. [description by David Levi Strauss]

"In that fraction of a second, »/asks the spectator to see the massacre through the eyes of Gutete Emerita. I think that this is the only way to see the massacre now, since we failed to see it in the actual images of the Rwandan genocide." [Jaar as quoted by Ruben Gallo, Trans, p. 61.]

8. THE SILENCE OF NDUWAYEZU, 1997 Light table, slides, slide magnifiers, light box with B/W transparency Light table: 36” x 200” x 120”. Light box: 6” x 258” x 4” Overall space dimensions: 15’ x 40’ x 28’: At about the same time in 1996 The Eyes of Gutete Emerita took another form, this one more architectural than cinematic. It was first presented at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in February 1996. The first thing we see as we approach the work is a black wall with a thin line of text embedded in it at about eye level.

It is the same text that appeared in the light-boxes: “Gutete Emerita, 30 years old, is standing in front of a church…” We read the illuminated text as we move along the wall. “I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita.” When we come to the end of the wall, we turn the corner and are confronted by a fantastic sight: a huge (16 x 16 foot) light table, on which is piled a mountain of 35mm slides. A million of them, in fact. A million slides for a million deaths. As we approach this apparition, we see that there are loupes arranged around the edges of the table.

We pick one up, take a slide from the mountain, and hold it up to our eye. It is the eyes of Gutete Emerita. We pick up another slide—more Gutete eyes. Another and another, all eyes. The artist has said that it is this moment, when our eye comes that close to the eyes of Gutete, that is the moment he has been waiting for. In that moment, the distance imposed by media representations of Rwanda is collapsed.

Eschewing the so-called “objectivity” of the news media, Jaar here breaks through to another objectivity, both in the optical sense of the lens that is closest to the object, and in the root sense of “something thrown before the mind.” As in the light-box version, the effect is almost neurological. Eye to eye, we are involved. The many in the one. If the world turned a blind eye to the killings in Rwanda, Gutete Emerita did not. Her eyes saw it clearly. Looking into her eyes, perhaps we too will see it. It is a risky, some will say foolhardy attempt, but it works. [description by Claude Levi Straus]

9. EMERGENCIA,1998 Metal pool, water, fiberglass maquette, hydraulic system Pool: 36” x 24’ x 22’6”. Maquette: 12” x 21’6” x 19’8” Emergency frequence: 1 minute every 12 minutes: “We find ourselves at Centre d’Art Santa Monica, in Barcelona, in the central courtyard. An interior cloister surrounds a large courtyard where two large parallel arcs add to the volume, giving a distinct sensation of emptiness. (…) Just inside the limits of the interior square of the courtyard of Santa Monica Jaar has placed a large black square, the equivalent of measure and order, of the superior geometry created by the human mind, a universal form.

Its surface reflects the exterior space in the same way that the interior light is dynamically projected on to the outer walls, the interior of an exterior. (…) But suddenly the African continent emerges. The waters rise and fall, the light is affected by the movement, the reflected model is stunned into silence. And in a few moments, everything returns for a long period of time to the balance which will be newly shaken. Here, Africa, the unknown, the marginalized, is not lost outside us, but presented from within the limits, breaking this false harmony, this apparent balance, this limited knowledge, our self-sufficiency. [description by Vicenc Altaio in the catalogue]

10. August 1, 1994 Newsweek magazine dedicates its first cover to Rwanda:  ”Hell on earth - racing against death in Rwanda”

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    I’m sorry this is such a long post, but it’s worth a read. He’s seriously one of my favorite contemporary artists.
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    Alfredo Jar -Let there be light : the Rwanda project 1994-1998 (1998) from exhibition catalogue Centre d’Art Santa...
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