I am a huge HUGE fan of Africa Is A Country, the phenomenal blog dedicated to challenging “received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media…”
If you aren’t reading it you should be. From music recommendations to journalism to media critique, AIAC always confronts the stereotypes and assumptions (and often RACISM) of the western world about African identities.
My main reason for always enjoying AIAC is that my ideas are always confronted and challenged, pushed on and questioned. Posts regularly make me aware of my own ignorance and assumptions. That is an entirely good thing. When it comes to the many nations of Africa and the myriad cultures, religions, people groups, and identities…I need to have my western eyes opened.
That being said, a recent piece confronted me in a strong way that I am still wrestling with. Am I holding on to my own WASP perspectives or do I genuinely disagree? Sometimes the reaction of disagreement is more comfort than actual intellectual and personal disagreement and this issue is way beyond myself. I cannot claim to have any authority but I do wonder.
Suchitra Vijayan’s piece, “Rwanda and the NY Times: On those images by Pieter Hugo pairing perpetrators and victims of the 1994 Genocide” challenged me deeply. I saw those photos by Hugo and must admit I was moved. They can be viewed here. The story of enemies coming together in the name of forgiveness and reconciliation is moving and inspiring, it reinforces my world view. But, as Vijayan asks, “is it real?” “Does it actually do anything?” “Do these photos belie other issues below the surface?”
Vijayan calls the photos, ” Profoundly banal,” and goes on to say they are, “repetitive and reductive.”
How could the trauma be spoken of through one photograph, one voice? How can a range of contradictory and irreconcilable emotions of loss be explained through one narrative, one self? While photography is capable of opening up questions about power and authority, which are silenced, this essay adheres to frequently circulated and authoritative discursive practices. There is no critical enquiry of the premise that demands and dictates reconciliation; instead it de-facto buys into the assumptions (1).
And with those questions, I agree. My first viewing of the photos gave me a quick reaction of inspiration, touched by the move of forgiveness. But I didn’t go anywhere from there. The photo did not push for more. Just a quick, “Awww.” One narrative was told, not the myriad emotions and experiences held in both the lives of the subjects. But the biggest challenge comes from Vijayan’s critique of the reconciliation narrative itself.
…the narrative reduces violence to a set of meaningless outbursts, while it simultaneously fashions forgiveness in the Christian vision of redemption. A self-assured narrative of reconciliation, forgiveness and transformation, the photo-essay depicts a world organized around binary preoccupation: Hutu and Tutsi, Good and Evil, Victim and Perpetrator, and Redemption and Liberation (2).
I do believe in the power of reconciliation, and yes, that is informed by my Christianity. My vision of redemption is inspired by the lessons of Christ and other prophets who seek the redemptive power of healed brokenness. But I am forced here to wonder if that world view can be problematic? Do I seek to reduce people into these simplistic roles of forgiver and forgiven, victim and aggressor, Good and Evil, when the reality is much more diffuse. And as Vijayan points out,
It’s impulse locates core Rwandan identity in the archetypal biblical figures of a forgiving-victim and a perpetrator in search of redemption. There is one “overarching identity” that gathers all the fractured identities into some narrative thread. In its most sinister form, this documentary drive serves to enforce dominant power structures in society (3).
Do I want to know the real story of these people or do I merely want to push them into simple roles that reinforce my karmic view of grace?
But I do believe in the power of grace. I do believe that God brings the broken together and that his presence is found in the awareness of the Other. God’s ideal is that we see God and each other face to face, individuals recognizing the humanity and equality of each other. Evil comes from dividing people into categories of value and lesser value.
BUT is this exactly what we do when our view is reinforced by photos like Hugo’s/ Are we splitting people into binary identities? Am I simplifying these people and their narratives into these roles, for my own benefit? I hope not but think I may be.
Without language, pictures get handcuffed in what Walter Benjamin famously called “the approximate.” The approximate is a liability, at times even intellectually incomplete and has to be remedied by means of language and thought. While the entire piece provokes momentary horror and an illusion of human resilience, it largely leaves the spectator ignorant. The text similarly refuses to venture into areas of moral ambiguities where victim become perpetrators, or critique the political demands placed on the survivors of genocide by the Rwandan State. Consequently it fails to grapple with the problem of the political (4).
So Vijayan’s essay has left me wondering. What does grace look like beyond my own definition? Have I merely created a definition that fits my WASP and western ideals of GOD and divinity (more often not that reinforce my own identity and not OUR identity)?
Please read the piece. I would love to discuss and dialogue about it.