"Geography = War", by Alfredo Jaar, at Sesc Pompeia. Photo: Patricia Rousseaux

When, in the late 1980s, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar learned that in the small town of Koko, Nigeria, 3.500 tons of industrial waste produced in Italy had been dumped into rusty barrels, contaminating the region and its residents, he immediately flew to Africa and recorded the scene.

The travel costs were borne by the organization of the show. Earth Magicians (Magicians of the Earth), held at the Center Pompidou, in 1989, by the curator Jean-Hubert Martin, considered one of the first exhibitions to review the centrality of Western production in contemporary art. In fact, it was there Cildo Meireles started his international career with the installation Mission/Missions, a provocation to the presence of the Jesuits in Brazil.

Another iconic work from the 1989 show, geography = war, this one by Jaar, is now seen in a new, much wider version, in the retrospective Sorry about the images, on display at Sesc Pompeii until December 5th. “In this work, I approach the unequal relationship between the developed and the underdeveloped world, such as what happens with vaccines now”, Jaar tells arte!brasileiros during exhibition setup.

The Chilean artist is recognized for being one of the most insightful and accurate thinkers of power relations in the world through images. “I'm not a photographer, what interests me is the politics of images”, says Jaar. So, instead of spectacularizing the photos he brought back from Nigeria, he projects them onto a hundred barrels, which simulate where the toxic waste was. It is never possible, however, to see the image in its entirety, as if to indicate that, as those portrayed people and their families had their lives mutilated, an ethical correspondence between what is seen and what happened is necessary. There is no indifference in Jaar’s work, says Moacir dos Anjos, the exhibition’s curator, who points out in the Chilean’s work “a commitment that requires tying aesthetics and ethics together, refusing any watertight separation between these two guiding instances of human understanding and action.” .

You don't take a photograph, you take a photograph
“You don't take a photograph, you make a photograph”, Alfredo Jaar. Photo: Renato Parada / Courtesy Sesc Pompeia

Despite having in the images the center of his reflection, some works in the exhibition are texts, which in turn refer to the images. It's the poster YOU DON'T TAKE A PHOTOGRAPH. YOU MAKE A PHOTOGRAPHY, phrase attributed to American photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984). Here, Jaar's philosophical character can be seen, firstly through his reflective aspect: those who visit the exhibition are invited to perceive how an image is more a construction than a documental act. Then, for the democratic aspect, when sharing his work, since the poster is allowed.

In addition to the poster, by the way, the postcard is also available to the public a million points of light, a photo taken of the Atlantic Ocean in Luanda (Angola), towards Brazil, where most of the enslaved people who were brought here left, an estimate that reaches 3,5 million people. The image, however, is almost abstract, because what you see is just the reflection of the sun on the sea, but which is distributed in luminous points that evoke the violence that the crossing in the Atlantic represents.

Koen Wessing
Sequence of photographs by the Dutchman Koen Wessing, taken during the dictatorship in Nicaragua, part of the installation “Shadows”, by Alfredo Jaar. Photos: © Koen Wessing / Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, Netherlands

This is another example of Jaar's treatment of images. The photograph of the postcard is projected on a large scale in the exhibition, but those who only observe the image do not immediately perceive its political character, and it is necessary to read the text on the postcard to understand the forcefulness of the photo. “We are visually illiterate”, observes the artist. Therefore, part of his work is to provoke an estrangement that takes the visitor out of his comfort zone. After all, even with the production of three billion images a day, as Jaar says, “nobody teaches you to see”.

The exhibition at Sesc Pompeia, a place chosen by the artist himself after visiting other places, occupies the space in an exemplary way. “I am an architect by training, so I always respond to the context and everything here is on the scale of space”, says the artist.

For the exhibition at Sesc, he also created a new work, again a text, neon scripts, scripts, scripts, scripts, scripts, scripts, scripts, the famous part of the Anthropophagous Manifesto, by Oswald de Andrade, published in Revista de Antropofagia, in 1928. “In the confusion we live in, new ways of thinking about the world are needed”, says Jaar.

This confusion is reflected in the famous phrase of the thinker and politician Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937): “In this chiaroscuro, the monsters appear”, written in 1930, during the time he was imprisoned in Italy, between 1927 and 1937 – a period of great conflicts, especially due to the rise of fascism, a moment politically very similar to the current one. The posters of this sentence are available at the Bienal de São Paulo, in the colors of the Brazilian flag, which is far from a coincidence. After all, as the artist explains, “images are not innocent”.

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