At the Museum of Modern Art in 2002, Alfredo Jaar created a text-based polemical installation that reproached the West for its egregious abuse of power through its monopoly ownership of images.
The installation was called Lament of the Images and revealed that more than 17 million historical photographs and artworks were de facto owned by one man – Bill Gates, through his private company, Corbis.
The photographs are buried 67m below the surface in a subzero storage vault in western Pennsylvania and include a collection of images of Nelson Mandela in prison. While it’s accepted that the works are there to be preserved, the act carries with it an insidious suggestion for those whose history and heritage has long been “preserved” in British museums, and whose land is still preserved in neo-Dutch and British hands.
Further, as Jaar suggests, this kind of preservation is merely a metonym for dispossession, since the images are totally inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t own the vault. Of course, it has become clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence what dispossessing people of their images actually means. One only has to look at Jaar’s 2006 work called From Time to Time, in which the only images of Africa in his selected collection of Time magazine covers are of our big cats, a gorilla, starving children, deprivation and famine.
The Sound of Silence
One of the images owned by Corbis is the infamous picture taken by Kevin Carter of a vulture stalking a collapsed famished child on her way to a feeding centre during the Sudanese famine in 1993. This image, since its publication, has served as a vexed metaphor for Africa’s despair.
On the one hand, one finds the argument that takes the image for literally what it is – a document of a time and place, and its attendant realities. Another school of thought frames the image within the debate of the way in which the Western gaze has historically presented Africa as a basket case, Joseph Conrad’s Dark Continent begging to be rescued. This school finds its expression in Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal work, How to Write about Africa.
Jaar, in his exhibition The Sound of Silence at the Wits Art Museum, creates an uneasy dialectic between these two schools and almost suggests that the two binaries reproduce each other in the moment that the image itself is materialised. He formulates this conversation inside an illuminated cube. Each group coming to see the exhibition gets eight minutes in which they learn about Carter, his infamous image and the details surrounding his suicide in 1994 after winning a Pulitzer prize for said image.
When the rhythmic text-based video reaches the moment of reveal, when the audience will see the picture, there’s a moment of frozen anticipation followed by a flash of blinding light. It is precisely this moment of image production itself that is whitewashed by blinding white light, thus locating Carter’s picture itself in the moment of revealing (the first school of thought) and concealing (the second).
Needless to say, the image remains unresolved and contentious, and the timing of Jaar’s exhibition is appropriate as the West brazenly extends its commercial interests ever more firmly on African soil, and as the atrocities in the youngest African state, South Sudan, begin to escalate with acute terror.
Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others
Running concurrently with his exhibition at the Wits Arts Museum is Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others at the Goodman Gallery, where Jaar explores how images are used to socialise the world in a way that perpetuates myths that sustain the immorality of Western capitalism.
Jaar’s artistic practice has always concerned itself with the politics of images. Through his work, he draws the “structural link between ethics and aesthetics”.
“Images aren’t innocent,” he writes.
They are instrumental in altering not only the political landscape of a country and the world, but also serve to set the agenda of what we, the public, might consider priorities of modern society. He illustrates this in Untitled (Newsweek). The work shows 17 covers of Newsweek magazine during the five months of escalation of genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 1 million people had already perished by the time the publication decided to dedicate its first cover to the carnage. Erasure forms the haunting subtext in his work.
There are two works that grapple with creation and evolution of images of blackness, both here and in the US, on covers of two seminal works by black authors in the international publishing industry. The first series of prints trace the modulations in covers of the reprints of Irving Wallace’s The Man – a book about the likely political and social consequence if a black man became president of the US. The book was first published in 1964. The second book is Things Falls Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Needless to say, both evolutions discharge iterations of black fetishising. In Achebe’s book, with or without the black body, the fetishist gaze lingers over the covers. The logical explanation is, of course, that this possessive or, rather, dispossessing gaze prefixes the image. It is the tool as much as it is within the tool that constructs the images.
It follows that, for as long as the concentration of ownership of these media and the control of the dissemination of these images is in the same old white hands, little can really change.
Black and white
As such, I find the black consciousness argument about the impossibility of true solidarity between the materially oppressed and the liberally conscious quite instructive, especially when confronted by the work titled Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, which shows three prints of Martin Luther King, Jr’s funeral procession. A sea of black dots and the sprinkle of red marks designate black and white attendees, respectively.
Jaar’s use of presence and absence has a sobering effect, even in the sparseness of the exhibition itself. In one sense, there’s this comment on loneliness and isolation from the world, or the ways in which the world has historically isolated you through robbing you of everything you were before you met the colonial grinder. And maybe all this stripping down of your sense of self, of belonging, history, identity, custom and community is the process of individuation. It is the preparation of the oppressed subject for democracy, for the libertarianism implied in capitalist societies. Perhaps the crossing out of each name in the title typography indicates a reversal of this or maybe it points to “erasure” and to the silencing of one opposing force by another.
Instead, what the spectator encounters are neon-lit typographies of these revolutionary men. The neon lights, for me, recall the nihilism of late 20th-century anti-establishment rave culture at the precipice of what would be late capitalism, or capitalism on steroids.
Do engagements with critical radical texts and thoughts still carry the transformative possibilities of the struggle years? Or are they pills we pop to assuage the guilt of the present? To maintain our sanity while we consume? In the same manner that one might put on a T-shirt displaying the face of Che Guevara or read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like without necessarily abdicating, or even contradicting, their capitalist aspirations? Is our seemingly inescapable contemporary consumerist reality just another myth created to sustain the immorality of Western capitalism?