/ 21 April 2024

Conflict, migration exposed

The Body Is The Map 2 Page 0001
Renowned: Chilean-born, US-based Alfredo Jaar has a place in South Africa. Photo: Jee Eun Esther Jang

Presence is persuasion, and for more than a decade Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar has been an irrefutable presence in South Africa. The respect he has long commanded elsewhere has been achieved locally too.

It hasn’t been an effortless journey. The New York-based artist’s 2020 solo exhibition at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, which surveyed his work on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was scuppered by the Covid pandemic. The exhibition’s wonderfully pitched provocations and insights largely passed unnoticed.

And then there are also those lingering biases as to what documentary photography is, and how it should present in an exhibition. For some locals, Jaar is an apostate. David Goldblatt also held this view.

In 2012, Jaar showed his photographs of artisanal miners working at an open-pit gold mine in Serra Pelada, Brazil, alongside those of mining by Goldblatt. The exhibition, at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, was a big deal for Jaar, less so initially Goldblatt.

“David was a figure, a legend,” Jaar told a small group of collectors assembled on a recent morning at his new exhibition in the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. “I couldn’t believe it when I was going to show with him.”

Goldblatt was initially sceptical when dealer Liza Essers proposed showing the two artists together. Jaar intervened by putting together a lecture (“very improvised”) inside the gallery to explain the nuts and bolts of his practice. 

As happened during his recent Cape Town walkthrough at the Goodman Gallery for his exhibition, The Geometry of Solitude, Jaar used the 2012 lecture to correct a popular misconception about Magnum photographer Sebastião Salgado’s images of the same gold mine in northeastern Brazil. Salgado started visiting Serra Pelada in 1986, a year after Jaar’s visit, which resulted in an exhibition of 81 posters of the mine installed in a New York subway.

“I gained his [Goldblatt’s] respect and spent a whole day in his truck with him, driving through Johannesburg.”

At a small lunch after Jaar’s walkthrough of his current exhibition showing photographs of Afghani, Rwandan, Sudanese and Vietnamese refugees, Jaar said he did not take one photograph during his day with Goldblatt. Not even an obligatory snap of the two men posed next to each other. Nothing. He ruefully laughed.

Which prompts the question, what kind of photographer is Jaar if he misses such an obvious photo?

By many metrics, Jaar, a New Yorker since 1982, is a serious photographer. He has consistently used photography — his own, but also the work of others — to look at conflict and migration in a post-colonial world, not only their existence but also the complexities around its representation.

Since his debut solo in Santiago in 1979, Jaar has exhibited widely and consistently. His work, which draws on his formal training in architecture and subsequent study of film, is also respected. His allies include Zeitz MOCAA’s chief curator, Koyo Kouoh. He possessed the unalloyed regard of late Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor.

“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,” Enwezor once wrote.

In 2020, Jaar was awarded the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, an honour awarded to Goldblatt in 2006. Jaar’s immediate response was perplexity.

“I told them I’m an imposter, I’m not a photographer.”

Jaar’s Hasselblad Award citation corrects his humility. “Through quiet and meditative works, Jaar confronts issues of great magnitude, bearing witness to humanitarian disasters and attesting to the impact of military conflict, political corruption and economic inequality throughout the world.”

One such historical confrontation involved Jaar travelling to Rwanda in August 1994, a month after the end of the genocide that ended nearly a million lives.

“I was one among about two dozen photojournalists,” Jaar said in an interview. “They all had cameras with lenses that measured half a metre, two or three of them.” Jaar, by contrast, had a little point-and-shoot camera. 

The Geometry of Solitude includes a single colour photograph from Rwanda. Titled Waiting, it shows a ragged group of men, women and children at a crossing point between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group were waiting to go to the DRC’s Goma refugee camp. Jaar took only a few photographs. He was more interested in listening and learning. 

“I felt it was more important to spend three hours talking to survivors than taking pictures,” said Jaar. “When I took a picture, it was just as a reference, because I didn’t feel confident photographing. There are many ways to approach something.”

The Rwanda Project (1994-2000) is a lesson in other ways to approaching photography. Multitudinous and analytical, the project manifested in 21 discrete works, each of them an exercise in representation. 

The Silence of Nduwayezu (1997), shown at Zeitz MOCAA in 2020, is indicative. The work comprises an illuminated table stacked with one million slides portraying the same named individual. The work humanises a numerical abstraction.

“This process of identification is fundamental to create empathy, solidarity and intellectual involvement,” Jaar once remarked of this work.

The six projects on view at Goodman Gallery are pitched between the abstract and ideational, and concrete and individual. The Body is a Map (1990) is an example of the latter. Numbering five horizontally displayed images, the work focuses on the back and neck of a man (a “coyote”) who guides undocumented Mexicans entering the United States illegally.

The exhibition includes two photo installations from Jaar’s People Without Names series, made in 1986 and 1989. Both installations use mirrors to reflect photographs of refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan respectively. Each differently implicates the viewer’s reflected image.

The centrepiece of Jaar’s concise but time-travelling exhibition is Fading (1991). The straightforward documentary photos of Vietnamese refugees that are the raison d’être of this installation were made during a two-week visit to Hong Kong in 1990.

But there is nothing conventional about the way these photographs are presented. Prints of the original slide photos are sunk in 18, water-filled metal trays. An all-encompassing blue light further complicates the experience of these historical images.

Jaar routinely returned the discussion to the role of architecture in his artistic practice.

“I’m not a studio artist, I’m a project artist, and as such I react to a context,” he said. “For an architect context is everything. I’ve never created a single work that is just a product of my imagination. My first hours of the day involve consulting an obscene amount of news and social media to understand what is happening, to gather information, and then I react.”

Later, responding to a question about how he thought his training as an architect influenced his approach to photography, he brightened. 

“Interesting,” he exclaimed. “Everything I learnt about architecture I learnt through the representation of architecture. I never had the pretension of being a photographer. Having not studied art, I use the tools of architecture — like scale and light — to express myself.”

I asked Jaar what he made about the persistence of mass separation and exile in contemporary life. His historical photos of displaced Rwandans and Vietnamese are not disconnected from the present-day news images of Palestinians, Sudanese and Ukrainians.

As is Jaar’s habit in interviews, he invoked Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose activism and intellectual rabble-rousing culminated in prison.

“Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of his intellect and the optimism of his will. Intellectually, I am damn pessimistic. I look around and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. But for some strange reason — and perhaps that is why I am an artist — my will is still optimistic. I keep moving in this darkness hoping to find light. I am not sure I will find it, but my will gives me the energy to keep going.”The Geometry of Solitude is on show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town until 15 May.