Alfredo Jaar opens two exhibitions in Johannesburg in February, both informed by his well-quoted statement that ‘images are never innocent’.
The main focus of Jaar’s oeuvre is the politics of images: their effect on modern society ‘bombarded by thousands of images without warning, without mercy, containing messages of consumption crafted by marketing and communications experts’.
In his work, Jaar observes and deconstructs the means by which images in the media portray the world. He directs the viewer to the parts of the visual experience that they may not have considered in their reckoning of who has power, who does not, and why.
International curator of Nigerian origin, Okwui Enwezor has said of Jaar that ‘his 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 has placed Jaar on the same alignment as Hans Haacke, Christian Boltanski, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Adrian Piper.
For the Johannesburg public the arrival of two simultaneous exhibitions by Jaar means that an assessment can be made of the scale and depth of his work spanning more than two decades. Better still, his major installation The Sound of Silence at Wits Art Museum will enjoy a sort of homecoming given that it is created in tribute, and in order to examine South African photographer Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in Sudan (2006).
Jaar describes the work as a theatre built for a single image ‘an invitation to reflect on the meaning of that image, on the construction of that image, on the history of that image and on the ultimate effect of that image on human beings around the world.’
Editions of this installation are owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and by the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It has been shown 25 times around the world and exists in more than eight different language versions yet it has not previously been seen in South Africa. Goodman Gallery Johannesburg will simultaneously exhibit a range of Jaar’s important works including works in neon that reflect on triumphs of creativity in Africa – as well as triumphs of intellectual and economic achievement.
Works dedicated to Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Fela Kuti and Franz Fanon compliment a large work titled JOHANNESBURG 2026 which suggests that the city could become an important trade centre on the continent, as significant as trade centres of the past: Carthage, Alexandria, Thebes, Gao and Axum. Yet another tribute – a video work recalling Nelson Mandela – pictures his cell on Robben Island mysteriously alive.
Two works about books titled The Man (after the novel by Irivng Wallace that first explored the possibility of a Black man becoming President of the US in 1964) and Things Fall Apart (after Chinua Achebe’s 1962 novel about tradition versus colonialism) show the chronological evolution of the African image across the spectrum in international book publishing.
But while there is a sense of optimism there is also reason to reflect on expressions of racism and domination. An additional work titled This is What Happened, Miss Simone talks to the recurring violence against the Black body embodied in Nina Simone’s song Mississippi Goddamn. And a large work Untitled (Newsweek) dating back to 1994 shows the 17 covers of Newsweek magazine that display a ‘barbaric indifference to the genocide in Rwanda,’ according to the artist.
Additional video works and prints complete an experience that interrogates the role ordinary people play in the seismic dramas of the present day.