Turning to Blood

John Haber
in New York City

Richard Mosse, Wangechi Mutu, and Juan Manuel Echavarría

After fifteen years and well over five million dead, the earth itself should have turned to blood. And so it may seem in The Enclave, the video by Richard Mosse of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it is also achingly, unnervingly beautiful.

Wangechi Mutu has her own fantastic journey. It recalls a far more comforting Africa, with herself at the center of her own private Eden, but with unmet needs and fantastic elements of its own. Egotism and fantasy make an appealing but troubling recipe for feminism or for art. Meanwhile the death toll continues on another continent, and so does the impulse to recover the living. When Juan Manuel Echavarría calls his series "Silencios," one may relish the silences. One may, that is, until one remembers the silenced. from Richard Mosse's The Enclave (Jack Shainman gallery, 2013)

Death in infrared

With Richard Mosse, large still photographs on the way in already transport one to another realm. A waterfall plunges through a supernatural landscape, between deep blue mountains and the acid red of some unknown vegetation. Whatever this is, it covers almost everything but the sky. Shining rivers snake through it, and soldiers stand amidst its tall reeds, so high that one can hardly call them undergrowth. A paler and smoother form of it gives rolling hills the appearance of red sands, but still it is down to earth compared to what unfolds in real time. This is Africa without the certainty of ritual, so far from Mutu, Bathélémy Toguo, or even El Anatsui because so fully in the present.

Mosse says that he was moved by a natural setting seemingly untouched by violence. As he has said about a previous project, he is also out "to question the ways in which war photography is constructed." Merely to look past the beauty, to people and their acts, is to see beneath the surface, and he and his cinematographer, Trevor Tweeten, apply a technique itself used to see beneath the surface—an outdated infrared film developed by the military to pierce distractions from the air. Converted to high-definition video, it gives plants their lavender red and the soil of roadbeds their turquoise blue, while leaving human flesh and deadly weapons alarmingly familiar. Children run and play as if even refugees had somehow escaped the cost of war. Clothing takes on heightened colors, like everyday habits refusing to die.

The art and science of the medium alone highlight the difficulty of documenting events. Even to assign a time span and a body count is taking sides. Conventionally, the Second Congo War began in 1998, although the First Congo war had hardly ended, and the players had hardly changed. Officially, it led to a peace treaty in 2002, but the footage here dates to 2012 and 2013 (when the video made its debut at the Venice Biennale). The conflict, more or less between Hutu militias and Tutsi rebels, as I understand it, drew in every neighboring nation—with the smallest, Rwanda, the most deadly contributor. Mosse never identifies the players, suggesting an objectivity apart from politics while leaving the viewer that much more at sea.

One feels in need of an enclave just walking into the darkened room, to a pulsing soundtrack by Ben Frost, based on African recordings. The video's forty minutes unfold on six screens, a rough square of two-sided screens and two on walls to either side, like MoMA's atrium for Julien Isaac but without the slickness or the mythmaking. Any given screens may show the same image, the same scene from different points of view, or only blackness. Mosse relies on long tracking shots, using Steadicam to follow soldiers on patrol through the dense brush and badly paved roads of the eastern Congo, as if walking with them. The seeming impossibility is unsettling enough, quite apart from the camera angle's frequent dips and dives. The viewer may be penetrating the action, but the action also penetrates the viewer.

At least since Stanley Kubrick, horror films have used tracking shots and narrow passages to build tension—and so does the camera's motion here, except that nothing lies at the end of the tunnel. One could find oneself anywhere in the middle of the action. The video starts with the landscape, but with roiling waters that look as if oceans had touched a land-locked nation. It turns to a community theater somewhere between a Sunday sermon and a dangerous circus, with men leaping through fire. Then come the patrols, automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the ready, and a refugee camp stretching as far as the eye can see. The children at play, a live birth, and a funeral all insist that life wants ever so much to go on.

It does not go on untouched. A soldier props up a body like a ghoulish puppet, no doubt as a warning, but others crowd around a dead body to take pictures with a cell phone. And then the rebels move in, and things do not get better. Born in Ireland and based in the United States, Mosse shares the point of view of an outsider—or indeed the viewer. One can hear chanting and song, but one may also notice the near absence of one-on-one conversation. People can touch one another, but they may never find an intimate peace until the bleeding stops.

Her own private Eden

Wangechi Mutu likes comfort and quiet, honest. She wades with a white dress into blue waters, to the sounds of "Amazing Grace." She kneels in silence in the woods, with the icing on a cake all to herself. She constructs a forest of felt blankets, perhaps for protection as well as warmth. In a new video, commissioned for her exhibition's opening at the Nasher Museum of Duke University, a subtitle spells it out: I needed to escape.

One might not know it, though, from her paintings and collage. Mutu still hogs the spotlight, but prancing, in high heels or with her butt to the air. She plays the catwoman or a goat. Sometimes she comes in several versions within a single work, for this is one hyperactive woman and one hyperactive style. Flowers morph into clothing, writhing feet into hair, torn paper into leopard-skin tights, and machine parts into feet. Surely some of the acrylic stains on Mylar stand for blood—and some of the tendrils moving every which way for snakes.

Not that the videos and installation are as soothing as they sound. "Amazing Grace" is sung in an African language, with no grace to American ears, and the blue waters recall the ocean in which slave ships plied their trade. When Mutu digs into cake with long, sharp fingernails and then washes her hands, she could be pursuing pleasure, a dark ritual, a cleaning, or self-abnegation. Wangechi Mutu's Riding Death in My Sleep (Peter Norton collection, 2002)The mottled gray blankets hold their own spurts of blood red, maybe or maybe not as flowers but definitely in lace lingerie, and one thick tree covering a fire exit has its bark and roots upside-down. She does find escape at last, but only after factories have filled the air with their pollution, before the smoke transforms into cumulus clouds in a sunnier sky. As she puts it with the title of one diptych, Your Story My Curse.

There is, of course, a precedent for an oversexed woman tempted by a commanding tree and a snake. This Eve, though, seems quite proud of herself, and she does not need a man to share her temptations. One can always assume "the male gaze," especially in a museum's Center for Feminist Art. Mutu, however, aspires to her own ecosystem—with woman, the museum explains, as "part human, animal, plant, and machine." Make that also part goddess, for she appropriates the kneeling black totem out of African art familiar from another artist into high heels, Willie Cole. If the totem is traditionally male, all the better.

This woman is spoiling for a fight, in a museum for which community outreach has a way of meaning political correctness. As she puts it with another title, Yo Mama. She could be putting on a fashion show, down to the red lips, long eyelashes, and occasional shaved head and caked white skin. She could also be her own dark continent. Born in Nairobi in 1972, Mutu left for New York at age twenty, and all but a case of sketches date from the last ten years. When she calls a work People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, I thought back to September 11, and my heart lay with the imaginers.

I came fully expecting to hate all this, and I still have my doubts. Art has had more than its share of primitivism, cartoon characters, escapism, and decorative overkill, and it deserves more than the tidy optimism of an exhibition titled "A Fantastic Journey." Mutu, though, like Toyin Ojih Odutola, is fluid enough to move between feminism, racism, and private fantasies for a properly contemporary African art. The curators, Trevor Schoonmaker with Saisha Grayson, give her not just a gallery but a site, and she runs with it. At her best, she keeps her sense of humor while putting herself on the line. Having one's own private Eden, even when felt lined, means risking one's own private fall.

The silenced

Silences have become so rare, amid installations and openings so bursting with audio and visual noise. Nothing in Juan Manuel Echavarría's photographs seems disturbing either, at least at first and at least to First World eyes. Soon enough, one starts to notice the loose ends and the missing faces—enough to make one as just who has been silenced. These are empty classrooms in Colombia, with every sign of life but the living. If the silences become ominous, though, one should not forget that initial warmth. Echavarría offers hope of a common humanity, even amid the political divisions of death squads and a drug war.

His interiors look inhabited enough, even without people. Class might be starting again any minute. Blackboards and hangings are ready for today's lesson in English, geometry, or geography. A hammock offers rest, and clothing hangs out to dry in overcrowded rooms, waiting for families to pick up. If the double purpose of schooling and domesticity is troubling, perhaps impoverished village life is like that. Even in New York City, schools err on the side of staying open rather than taking snow days, in part because children deserve a warm room, a warm heart, and a hot lunch.

Compositions, too, make a point of stability. Blackboards fall close to dead center, as one horizontal rectangle within another. For a lesson in "geometric figures," the circles, squares, rectangles, and a triangle painted on a wall pun nicely on the garments hanging to their side, in their own warm colors. Not everything, though, is so tidy and humane. Scraps and buckets pile here and there, with abandoned husks strewn across an entire floor. A line of dried tobacco adds to the aridity, and smeared blackboards hold out a less comforting silence. A cord hanging down almost takes the shape of a noose.

How long ago did death pass through? Have children found refuge only a day or a moment before, or have teachers begun reassembling after the violence? Echavarría supplies few clues to a world torn apart and unable to heal. One title identifies the map from a geography lesson as "political," and another identifies clothing with the naked. The photos document the striving to maintain everyday life, much as Mosse's video finds births and child's play after years of war in the Congo. Echavarría, though, leaves his scenes empty and in silence.

Six years earlier, he titled a suite of square photographs "Death and the River." He means the Magdalena River—the scene of drug traffic and unmarked graves. And here, too, the inhabitants take death personally. In fact, they have adopted the dead as their own. An individual tends to the tomb of an NN, meaning Ningún Nombre (or "no name"). They also thank the escogidos, the select or the chosen, for their favors from the next world.

From the look of things, the dead are not doing anyone any favors, but the care of the survivors has sustained a sad but beautiful sense of community. Like the classrooms, the graves accumulate objects and inscriptions, in human handwriting rather than etched impersonally in stone. They can become starker and more geometrical, but more distinct and colorful at the same time. Echavarría reinforces the variety, color, and geometry by arranging the 2008 series in a tight grid on a single wall. As a mural, it documents, represents, and also replicates a mausoleum and a social contract. Even now, his photos are devoid of people but never of life.

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Richard Mosse ran at Jack Shainman through March 22, 2014, Wangechi Mutu at The Brooklyn Museum through March 9, and Juan Manuel Echavarría at Josée Bienvenu through April 12. His earlier show ran at the same gallery through April 8, 2008, and my current review of him first appeared in New York Photo Review. A portion of this review on Richard Mosse first appeared in The Nomadic Journal. Related reports pick up Mutu in Chelsea and Richard Mosse with cutting-edge technology.


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