Alfredo Jaar’s work represents one of the most developed commitments by a contemporary artist in the blatant embrace of the structural link between ethics and aesthetics, art and politics – Okwui Enwezor
For his first solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in London, Chilean- born New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar presents '25 Years Later', a selection of works from his iconic 'Rwanda Project 1994 – 2000' in commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
In the face of what he described as “the criminal, barbaric indifference of the so-called world community”, Jaar traveled to Rwanda in early August 1994 to witness the horrific aftermath of one of history’s most violent conflicts. Three months prior, an estimated one million Rwandans had been systematically killed during one hundred days of civil unrest following the gunning down of the Rwandan president’s plane over the capital Kigali. Two million people were displaced within Rwanda while another two million sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The artist dedicated six years to this project.
Jaar was profoundly affected by what he witnessed and at the same time struck by the dearth of international press coverage. Through this series of work, he sought to bring attention to personal stories to pay tribute to the victims of the genocide. His 'Rwanda Project' attempted to make sense of the tragedy in a series of exercises dedicated to the people of Rwanda.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is an installation titled 'The Silence of Nduwayezu', which comprises one million slides featuring a pair of eyes in close-up and is a meditation on the tragedy that unfolded for one million people. The eyes belong to Nduwayezu, a young Tutsi boy who Jaar met at a refugee camp in Rubavu. Like many Rwandan children, Nduwayezu had witnessed the killing of his own parents, a trauma so deep it affected his ability to speak. Jaar remarked that “his eyes were the saddest eyes I had ever seen” and attempted to “represent that and speak about his silence – because his silence also refers to the silence of the world community that let this happen.” In this work, the artist reduces the scale of the tragedy to one person, and one story, to trigger identification and empathy.
The work 'Six Seconds' is based on a photograph of a young girl that the artist encountered in the Nyagazambu refugee camp located 48 kilometers east of Kigali. The girl was visibly shocked and was desperately searching for her parents. She had just learned that they had been killed by a Hutu militia. She disappeared before the artist was able to ask her name or inquire about her story. Their encounter lasted only six seconds and the only record left is this out of focus photograph. The artist has written that “as an artist I try to communicate clearly with my audience. But in some cases it is very difficult, almost impossible to articulate visually a real life experience of loss or pain. The “out of focus” quality of this image acts as a metaphor for my incapacity to represent a certain reality. In a way, I feel that every work of art about another subject is always out of focus.” 'Six Seconds' is about the difficulties of representing issues of life and death in a work of art. It relies on poetry and beauty to communicate loss and dignify its subject.
Two films are included in the exhibition: 'Embrace' shows two children comforting each other while witnessing an episode beyond the frame of the image and outside of our view. Their body language expresses pain, solidarity, and love, all the sentiments that the world community failed to express. 'We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know' is a three-channel installation based on a speech delivered by president Bill Clinton from Kigali Airport in 1998 in which he attempts to justify a passive international response to the genocide. In fact, the United States avoided using that precise term, genocide, because if used, it would have been forced to intervene.
This claim to ignorance is further addressed in Jaar’s 'Untitled (Newsweek)' which displays an overview of Newsweek Magazine covers during the Rwandan Genocide, exposing that domestic US news took clear precedence over any mention of the massive human tragedy unfolding in Rwanda. Jaar includes a running commentary below each of the covers, describing the parallel developments of the genocide and the inaction of the world’s leaders, and particularly the United Nations. In another work, Rwanda, 1994, a series of postcards of the United Nations in New York are intervened with LETRASET, calling attention to the world body’s lack of reaction to the genocide.