Art brings out horror of Rwandan genocide

"The Eyes of Gutete Emerita" from Alfredo Jaar's exhibition in Geneva. Red Cross Museum

How can art hope to convey the enormity of the Rwandan genocide? An exhibition at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva by the Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar, shows it can perhaps only be done on a personal level.

This content was published on October 5, 2000 minutes

His three photography-based installations are entitled "The Silence: the Rwanda Project 1994-2000." They stem from Jaar's experiences in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994 and on subsequent visits, when he recorded the testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses.

The exhibition was organised by Art for the World, a non-governmental organisation whose aim is to encourage dialogue, promote mutual respect and raise awareness of human rights through art.

Much of Jaar's work deals with the huge disparity between real life events and how the news media present them, and with how images have lost the capacity to affect people.

Jaar says he was outraged at the reaction in the West once the genocide was underway. Newspapers were only giving limited coverage of the killings and the United Nations' initial reaction was to pull troops out of Rwanda, instead of sending in more to stop the massacres.

"I did the craziest thing I've ever done in my life. I went to Rwanda," he said. "I went out of solidarity, out of compassion, out of outrage and out of necessity. I had to document this event - the third genocide of the 20th century."

Jaar collected eyewitness statements and took photographs but was unsure what to do with them - the massacres were on too massive a scale.

"If you ask people to confront such a huge, monstrous tragedy, they are not mentally, psychologically prepared or willing to do it," he told swissinfo. "The only formula I thought would be acceptable was to reduce the scale and find a simple human story to allow people to identify with it. It's only through identification that they can feel some kind of empathy."

Jaar chose to subvert the usual photo-journalism style of showing shocking images of the victims. He concentrated instead on one particular eyewitness, Gutete Emerita, who had witnessed a Hutu death squad massacre her husband, two sons and 400 other Tutsis as they sheltered in a church.

In the installation, "The Eyes of Gutete Emerita", thousands of identical slides showing only Gutete's eyes have been piled up on a large glass table and lit from beneath. It is a reminder that there are millions of people like Gutete who must carry around forever what they have witnessed.

"Those eyes of Gutete Emerita had seen the horror - the same horror that we closed our eyes to. By inviting people to plunge into her eyes, we can almost see what her eyes have seen and we are compelled to understand the tragedy on a very specific human level," said Jaar.

To get to this piece, the visitor must go through a long, dark corridor, on one wall of which is written a single line of text putting the work in context.

"I am demanding that people give time and patience to reading this text, so that they can understand the work. For the images to make sense, this is what you have to understand first. If you don't understand this, then you will dismiss the image as you dismissed all the images you have seen so far," the artist explained.

What is striking about Jaar's work is that people who see it are moved, even though he has avoided the graphic images which are over-used by the news media.

"The works are not only about the Rwandan tragedy, but also about how images have lost their capacity to affect us and to communicate with us. We have become inhuman, in a way," says Jaar.

by Roy Probert

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