Spring 2008

Angola’s blank screen

Alfredo Jaar: Politics of the Image / Muxima

South London Gallery, February–March 2008

By concentrating on just six pieces for differing media, each concerned in some way with Africa, Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Politics of the Image’ exhibition shows the strengths (and occasional weaknesses) of the Chilean-born artist’s quietly polemical approach.

Most controversial, from a design point of view, is his appropriation of magazine covers as works of art, though he says that no art director has ever confronted him about this: his point is to draw attention to the role of printed media in shaping our opinions. Searching for Africa in LIFE (2007) is the most problematic, since it shows tiny reproductions of that magazine’s covers from the 1930s to the 1990s, set in a massive grid over five 152x102cm boards. The point here is that Africa rarely features in these front covers, but at the same time their images, and the stories they tell, are absorbing from many other perspectives – photography, art direction, editing (not many cover lines on the early ones), history, feminism, politics.

The Sound of Silence (2006) is a wooden shed presenting a continuous screening of an eight-minute film about Kevin Carter’s 1993 photograph of a small, starving Sudanese girl and a watchful vulture. Carter committed suicide several months after it won a Pulitzer Prize, apparently haunted by accusations that he should have done something to help her.

Jaar throws light on aspects of the brief, tragic story behind this (sadly not untypical) African news picture in a series of typewritten statements, white out of black. There is no soundtrack but the work has the rhythm of poetry, and climaxes with a glimpse of Carter’s photograph – and a flashgun coup de théâtre – before reverting to bald statements about its ownership, and the image’s reference number in the vast Corbis picture library.

Muxima (2005) has no text, but says plenty with moving images and sound. This thoughtfully edited hymn to Angola is the highlight, the moral centre, of the exhibition. There are several versions of the title song, which means ‘heart’ in the Angolan language of Kimbundu. It has a beautiful melody, with a stately, descending chord sequence that can be made uplifting (with intricate electric guitars) or mournful (with a hint of Fado) or both. The 36-minute film is divided into ten short ‘cantos’, most accompanied solely by music, though Canto VI features the quiet, industrious sound of someone locating and finally detonating a buried landmine. Anxious not to show what he calls the ‘insulting pictures’ familiar from the news media, he keeps his camera a respectful distance from the subject; in the case of the AIDS patient shown in Canto XI, he averts its gaze, turning it instead on the hydro-mechanics of the hospital drip, contrasting it with shots of oil platforms and drills.

Jaar’s methods and techniques are simple: he shares his delight in the music, and he shows things – people, architecture, water, jobs, landscapes, statues, all related to an aspect of Angola’s history and culture. Only in Canto V is there an element of rhetoric, in a deserted, open-air cinema, its blank screen a metaphor for Angola’s absence from our everyday thoughts.

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