Scars of memory: an artist responds to the Rwandan genocide
08 September 2003
A major exhibition by the Ghanaian painter and sculptor Kofi Setordji is on display in the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, headquarters of the World Council of Churches.
"The Scars of Memory" is his response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.
Comprising installations in wood, metal and clay, its centrepiece is a bed of earth some 12ft square in which are set clay masks, recalling a mass grave. A vulture in metal hovers overhead.
Other works show masks with numbers cut into their foreheads and wires bound across their eyes. These are statistics, rendered impersonal and powerless by the perpetrators of genocide.
Some of the work is bitterly satirical. Wooden abstracts of three busts with a human skull in front of them marked "Exhibit" are captioned, "Judges: what part did you play?" Sentries stand guard over a defenceless population, but they stand in coffins rather than sentry-boxes. "Political, religious, military leaders - masquerades" depicts figures whose breasts are boxes with hinged doors, open to see that inside they are heartless and hollow.
One of the most powerful works is an untitled wooden figure, one massively powerful arm hanging down with its fist clenched, ready to strike. The pointing left hand holds scales of justice, empty but weighted down on one side. It is topped by a metal face with pitiless eyes but no mouth; there is nothing to say to the victims.
Speaking at the opening of the exhibition held during the World Council of Churches' Central Committee on 26 August, Dr Wilfried Steen of the Church Development Service (EED) of the Evangelical Church in Germany, which sponsored the event, said: "The unimaginable cruelty of the events in Rwanda during the massacres of the civil war needs artistic creativity and integrity to allow some form of coming to terms with the recent past. No healing of memories will be possible without this challenge of comprehension."
In his own speech, Setordji said, "Nine years ago I was traumatised by the images on TV of genocide in Rwanda, and that brought into being the creation of this exhibition.
"I have dedicated this work to all genocide victims in the world."
Addressing Central Committee members, "I trust when you go back to your country you will encourage others never to be part of the crowd of passive onlookers, but to take a stand in the name of peace and human dignity," he said.
Later, Setordji spoke of seeing images of refugees in Goma and corpses floating in Lake Ituri: "Seeing all those dead bodies, like discarded wrapping paper, I had to ask, 'How can this happen in the 20th century?' These people died for nothing.
"And I questioned the whole system which let people kill, and then punished them, but didn't judge those who fuelled the killing - the arms dealers, and the major powers playing off one power against another."
Setordji believes that the actions of the Hutu killers were possible because they lost their sense of individual responsibility in the actions of a group. Describing this as a "sickness", he said that "The main goal of the exhibition is to let people come face to face with themselves, and say, 'We too have this disease.' We want to eradicate polio, but we don't want to look at ourselves."
"This happened because people use human beings as chess pieces. It was in no-one's interest to stop it," he continued.
"But I want this exhibition to be a 'stop' sign. It will set people thinking: this is not about two ethnic groups, or about the African continent - it is about humans."
Speaking of the part played in his work by prayer, Setordji said: "God created the world. The key is that God created in his own image. He took clay and water, and breathed the breath of life into it. In our work, we too add creativity, and so we are in the image of God."
The exhibition at the Ecumenical Centre comprises only a third of Setordji's work on the Rwandan theme, created over a period of two and a half years of intense labour.
First seen at the Berlin Ecumenical Kirchentag in June, the exhibition is in Geneva until 24 September, and will be in Kigali, Rwanda from 2-15 April 2004.