© MESSAGE OF HOPE Alfredo Jaar’s “Muxima,” an elegy to Angola and its people.
By BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO
Published: November 4, 2007
I have always had my doubts about the ultimate purpose of political art. My skepticism stems from a feeling that there are more effective forums for the expression of outrage at social, political and humanitarian injustices than the quiet rooms of a museum.
But there is also something noble about artists who choose to put their creativity at the service of a cause. They know that their artwork is unlikely to appeal to a wide public, and that it will probably never sell, or at least only to a museum — if they are lucky.
One such artist is Alfredo Jaar, the Chilean-born, New York-based photographer and video artist. Now 51, Mr. Jaar has spent two decades making artwork that draws attention to the plight of the poor, dispossessed and hungry in the third world. Latin America was his initial focus, but more recently he has been drawn to Africa.
Three Africa-themed installations make up his latest exhibition in the gallery at the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University. It is a small but affecting show, starting with a conceptual piece dealing with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. There has been much done on this subject, but the message of the work is less about the genocide than about the world’s reaction to it. “Untitled (Newsweek)” presents a dozen or so framed Newsweek covers from April to August 1994, beneath each of which the artist has inscribed events in Rwanda that year. The dates coincide with the start of violence in Rwanda in April through to the first Newsweek cover on the genocide four months later, by which time millions of people were already dead from tribal warfare or displaced from their homes.
In Mr. Jaar’s work, Newsweek becomes everyman (or at least every media), and the work’s lingering question is the same as the one raised by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a 2004 speech to the Commission on Human Rights while observing the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda: “We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenseless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda 10 years ago.”
The ethics of reporting on African atrocities is also the subject of “The Sound of Silence” (2006), a recent work that at first seems like nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation on the life of the South African photographer Kevin Carter. In a darkened room with benches, text descriptions of his life and work flash across the screen.
But about halfway through the eight-minute presentation a flash goes off, and Mr. Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a sick, starving child being stalked by a vulture appears onscreen. It is a chilling image, shot in the Sudan in 1993 and published in several newspapers, including The New York Times, to a storm of condemnation — Mr. Carter was accused of indifference to human life in pursuit of his shocking image. He subsequently committed suicide.
This work and the story it tells offer much to mull over, not the least of which is the relationship between the public responsibility of journalists and private ethics. Should Mr. Carter have immediately rescued the child, or was he right not to intervene, to look on and then get the best shot so that he could dramatize the plight of the starving in the Sudan? It is a difficult, torturous issue.
The final artwork in the exhibition, “Muxima” (2005), strikes a different note. It is subtle and poetic, portraying the modern history of Angola through alternate interpretations of a single popular folk song, the camera meandering through cities and towns, showing people going about their lives. It is an elegy to Angola, its people and culture. But it is also a message of hope: art endures, aligning responses to the world and deepening a sense of identity and community.
“Alfredo Jaar,” Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, 283 Washington Terrace, Middletown, through Dec. 2. Information: (860) 685-3355 or www.wesleyan.edu/cfa.