Real Pictures: An Installation by Alfredo Jaar

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through March 25

Acquiring prosperity on the backs of others is the basis of the West’s economic domination of formerly colonized third-world countries, and many of Alfredo Jaar’s earlier forays into this subject provided pictorial metaphors for the phenomenon. For a mid-80s installation titled Rushes, Jaar rented advertising space in a Soho subway station for two months and put up poster-size sepia-tinted images of Brazilian mine workers scrambling up the steep, muddy slopes of a devastated rain forest. The off-handed title referred equally to the mine workers and to the subway’s location in the epicenter of the New York art scene, at a time when “rushes” for the works of international art stars paralleled the boom on Wall Street. Juxtaposing pictures of the downtrodden with text that quoted the price of gold on the world markets, Jaar successfully connected the strap-hanging first world with the netherworld of foreign labor and materials, the source of Western excesses.

Since that time Jaar–a Chilean who now lives in New York City–has consistently used the inherent inequalities produced by biases against racial “otherness” as a springboard for his politicized installations. His most recent–Real Pictures at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography–focuses on the aftermath of the massacre in Rwanda, but with results not nearly as successful as his earlier efforts. For openers, the announcement for the installation is disturbingly reminiscent of ads for Benetton, the Italian sweater company that turned photo spreads of global crises into acceptable marketing tools. The picture shows a large, colorful group of Africans waiting patiently beside boxes of what we assume are relief packages. The text on the foldout card reads: “Images have an advanced religion; they bury history.” Together the image and text provide a warning: images by their very nature can be misleading–this image showing relative calm is perhaps the aftermath of an unspeakable horror.

I was prepared for a visual work of some complexity that would reinforce the announcement’s dire tone. Yet Jaar’s installation is stark, dimly lit, and devoid of images. Printed wall text informs us that he spent several weeks taking photos in refugee camps in Zaire, Rwanda, and Uganda after Hutu soldiers went on a weeks-long killing spree, slaughtering upward of a million Tutsi citizens. Arranged like geometric minimal sculptures in the gallery are neat stacks of black archival photograph boxes. The two galleries hold a total of eight stacks that vary in dimension, from one oblong that runs the length of a wall to a large flat square in the center of the room. On each box is a printed text that describes the photo inside and gives its date and location. The rooms and stacks of boxes have an austere deadness–they’re not sites that honor those who have died but monuments to deadness itself.

I was approached by a museum intern who wanted to know if I’d like an explanation of the exhibit, and I felt obliged to hear the shtick: The artist felt that because we’re so inundated by images we’ve become immune. The idea behind this show is to read and think about what happened. The United States and the United Nations chose not to see the genocide, and this installation is in some ways a commentary on that decision. If we have any further questions, we may refer to the resource room, which holds a variety of periodicals, clippings on Rwanda, and other writings about Africa. The photo boxes are for sale, at $300 apiece, two-thirds of that going to aid Rwandan refugees.

I started reading:

Nyagazambu Camp

48 Kilometers South of

Kigali, Rwanda

Friday, August 26, 1994

This camp holds 10,000 displaced persons who have been forced to leave their homes and villages. This is only one of dozens of camps set up all over Rwandan Territory to receive the displaced population that has reached two million. There are also two million outside Rwanda in neighboring countries of Tanzania, Burundi, Zaire and Uganda. The Red Cross visits these camps periodically and distributes basic foods to every registered displaced person.

This photograph shows a large crowd of people waiting under a heavy sun for their names to be called by the Red Cross official. A Swiss journalist stands on his right with a microphone recording the sounds of the names being called. Engaged in an image of pathos instead of the complexity of the notion of genocide, the media has voraciously descended on the camps with cameras and microphones.

Jaar’s essay on the plight of Rwandans and the foreign-aid agencies is poignant. But it’s ironic that he sets himself apart from the feeding frenzy of the press, given the fact that he went to Rwanda for roughly the same reasons: to document the aftermath of the tragedy.

Another set of boxes describe the site of a massacre, Ntarama Church in Nyamata, Rwanda. Here Jaar informs us that “400 Tutsi men, women and children who had sought refuge in a Catholic church were systematically slaughtered by a Hutu death squad during Sunday mass. Churches were the one place that the Tutsis fled to when the Hutus pursued them, and they are the place where thousands were trapped and met their deaths. In Southwestern Rwanda alone, 22,000 Tutsi were killed in Roman Catholic Churches.”

Another box in the stack beside it reads: “Gutete Emerita, 30 years old, is standing in front of the Church. Dressed in modest worn clothing, her hair is hidden in a faded pink cotton handkerchief. She was attending the mass in the church when the massacre began. Killed by machetes in front of her eyes were her husband Tito Kahinamura (40) and her two sons Muhoza (10) and Matirigari (7). Somehow she managed to escape with her daughter Marie Louise Uhumerarunga (12) and hid in a swamp for three weeks, only coming out at night for food. When she speaks about her lost family, she gestures to corpses on the ground rotting in the African sun.”

Jaar might consider it exploitive to show gory images of the fallen, but his editorializing about the images puts him in the pious position of “qualified observer from the first world,” betraying his own ethos. By not bringing to the fore the ethnic rivalries and political complexities that produced the tragedy, he further sensationalizes an already overexposed event. The viewer is denied his or her own response–we’ve been told what it should be.

But perhaps my biggest beef with Jaar’s installation is the way its sterile aesthetic caters to the edicts of conceptual art. Rather than acknowledging the extreme differences between the world from which this material was plucked and our own, he packages his impressions in a clean, gallery-approved format palatable to the sophisticated art viewer, manipulatively assuring pity and guilt. While inciting his audience to imagine these horrors, the artist withholds the source of his claims. But they can be had for a price.

Eventually I retreated to the resource room, which held not only numerous periodicals on Rwanda and Africa but a bulletin board posted with response cards on the show. A number were laudatory–these viewers found the exhibit a moving experience made more powerful by the use of text–but there was one with which I concurred: “The biggest thing that all of these responses fail to see is the Ego of the artist….Words + No Images = No Exploitation.”

While it is apparent that on some level Jaar’s hidden photos comment on the West’s refusal to classify the killings as genocide, one questions his vehicle of expression. Rwanda’s situation is tragic, but what makes it even more tragic is the fact that it’s hardly unique. As in other African countries, in Rwanda the postcolonial phase forcibly created a nation out of separate tribes. Such artificial alliances are the legacy of nearly two centuries of Western self-interest, which may well cause world powers to hang back and watch whenever the tenets of nationhood begin to unravel. Ultimately the West’s morality extends only as far as its strategic interests allow, leaving countries like Rwanda in the lurch. And since Jaar now resides in the United States, he is undoubtedly one of us. He too has blood on his hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Thomas Nowak.