Donald O. Carroll - Amahoro - Exhibition Essay USA 2008

Tom Bogaert documented genocide and human rights abuses in Africa and Asia for fourteen years as a lawyer for Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Five years ago, he resigned to become an artist.

Jack the Pelican is pleased to present “Amahoro,” the first one-person exhibition of Belgian artist Tom Bogaert. “Amahoro” is the Rwandan word for peace. It is a greeting, exchanged by people passing on the street.

Bogaert offers us a strongly uncomfortable mixture of tragedy and farce. On the one hand, he takes on immensely difficult subjects, including the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and their moderate Hutu sympathizers were killed. Then, there are the astronaut canaries…

The artist does not see his artwork as an extension of his human rights work, though it directly confronts the intersection of human rights, entertainment and propaganda. Given his background and history, an autobiographical reading is to some extent unavoidable.

It should be noted that the artist is white. He understands that the issue of race in his work is problematic. Harsh self-examination and -criticism is certainly evident. In the end, there is very little moral higher ground for him to be left standing on. Bogaert is operating here, to the best of his abilities, squarely within the tradition of (political) art and aiming a mostly complacent contemporary art audience. He has no formal art training. The entertainment components of the show are not necessarily to be trusted at face value. This is an exhibition that we hope will provoke serious reflection.

Tom Bogaert’s 2004 video This Is Rwanda appears on a gameboy, with actual footage of the massacre presented as a graphically-enticing, pumped-up video game. As Bogaert notes, you cannot talk about the genocide without talking about the role of the media. For 100 days, the popular radio station RTLM stirred the killers to action with a lively mix of entertainment and hate. “Kill the cockroaches,” blared one DJ, “they are coming to take your country,” and then, on to a catchy tune. The station broadcast death tallies like sports scores and even detailed the exact whereabouts of fleeing victims for others to track down and slay. The Genocide was especially horrific, because much of the killing was done with machetes. They were imported from England for the purpose.

In this work and others, Bogaert takes on Eurocentric perceptions of a rudderless third-world humanity, impulsively acting out ancient ritual blood feuds. He is deeply struck by the recurrence in the popular imagination and media of primitive Malthusian socio-economic theories of populations swelling uncontrollably. In direct reference to the conceit, Bogaert presents a giant swooning mound of black licorice mice, fighting their way to the top. The rhythmic surging within the piece gorgeously resembles braided afro hair. In another piece, black licorice mice cover a turntable. As the needle bumps along over their backs, it generates a rhythmic pounding eerily reminiscent of African drums. The title Black Noise alludes to a blatantly racist emotional disconnect. It is also the technical term for silence.

With intoxicating fear, mingled with the satisfaction of being safely afar, we are made to consume visions of masses reproducing and killing one another with libidinal frenzy. Contrary to widely held perceptions, however, the Rwandan Genocide was not about the spontaneous eruption of age-old tribal rivalries. The situation was deliberately orchestrated by political leaders and planned months in advance. They systematically fomented fear and played it for all it was worth.

Fear is a very real emotion. And, to Bogaert’s way of thinking, so is hope. We are bombarded every day with messages that play on our sentimental longing for a better world for ourselves and our loved ones. The artist addresses this issue in his sculptural installation Canary Space Station—a fantastic space ship complex he has cobbled together from dozens of garden variety bid cages. He uses real canaries. They are on a mission to a faraway paradise, where they will live evermore in piece and harmony. This is their ship and their technology. Presumably, it will work. On the surrounding walls, Bogaert presents the posters that sparked their quest. Canary space posters, by canaries, for canaries—canary propaganda. It is to us humans perhaps more curious than compelling. Bogaert plays us. The birds’ sweetness elicits our affection. But they are so innocent, so naive. We are outside their economy of desire. But, if that’s what they want, maybe they will make it. Probably not. But don’t we recognize ourselves?

In 1963, Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to characterize Adolf Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust. She saw the epic horror as driven by countless little men, average citizens uncritically complicit with their countless little acts. It was bureaucratic. In the postmodern world, by contrast, evil comes to us in highly entertaining forms. As Bogaert observes, propaganda nowadays is sickeningly sweet. Let’s face it.

Don Carroll – Jack the Pelican Presents – January 2008