Presence Haunted by Absence

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Presence Haunted by Absence


Shahidha Bari finds vivid and lurid representations of the unnerving normality of the everyday in today's Rwanda

Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now

Until 30 April 2014

Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, Strand Campus, King's College London

If you are familiar with the national flag of Rwanda you will know that it consists of three bright bands of colour: striped from top to bottom, sky blue, yellow and green, with a spiky golden sun nestling in the upper right corner. It is a pleasing and optimistic flag for a country that might be seen to be seeking to identify itself in similar terms. And poetic, too: the blue signifies happiness and peace, the yellow, economic development and mineral wealth, the green, hope of prosperity and natural resources, while the sun symbolises unity, enlightenment and understanding. I concede to knowing this only because I took a moment to look it up after visiting the new exhibition on contemporary Rwandan photography currently occupying the Inigo Rooms at the Cultural Institute of King's College London. But my ignorance of Rwanda, shared by many others, I suspect, extends considerably beyond questions of flag colour.

At the entrance to the exhibition, the curators pose a simple question: "How do you see Rwanda?" The collection that follows is duly presented as an attempt to expand the limited register by which those outside Rwanda might have understood or preconceived of the Central-East African state. The exhibition is dedicated to prising open a window into contemporary Rwanda and in so doing, perhaps, attempts to loosen what might be seen as its intractable historical associations with genocide and civil war. In some way, my inability to recall the national flag is indicative of the scale of the educative work to which an exhibition like this commits itself. This educative component speaks both to the Arts and Humanities Research Council's incentive in funding the project and also the home that the project claims in the dedicated gallery space of a university.

And photography, as this exhibition often demonstrates, is an efficient and engaging medium by which to impart that education. The images, collated from the work of 10 specially selected photographers, competently suggest a sense of place and people, intimated in the particularities of colour palettes, surprising details and juxtapositions. This is a vivid and evocative exhibition of people, through which we learn about their varying homes, workplaces, families, landscapes, animals and arts. But in other ways, this is an exhibition that also defeats itself, intimating what is not there and the complexity of a fuller narrative that could never find any medium equal to its enormously difficult task.

Fabrice Musafiri's "street photography" provides a good example here. His large, cluttered prints present young Rwandan men intent on the business of their industrious daily lives. In one shot, a young man levelly meets our gaze, stood calm and proprietorial, deep inside a brightly coloured market stall brimful of footballs, plastic guitars, stuffed toys and soaps - the detritus of disposable modern life and the stuff of his livelihood. In another shot, Musafiri's lens peers into the strip-lit shopfront of a DVD store, reaching into the interior life of the young men gathered behind a disc-stacked counter: intently focused on a screen, they seem not to notice Musafiri's intrusion and so we catch their faces fleetingly illuminated in the recognisably lurid modernity of neon lights. Musafiri's barber shop scene is similarly expressive of the industry, energy and entrepreneurialism of young Rwandan men that is so evidently his theme, except that, in the far right of the foreground, his camera, by some happenstance, also captures a young man perfectly in profile, clasping a rucksack to his chest and leaning against the interior wall that makes for the outside edge of our frame. …

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