An Artist's Rendering of Geopolitics: A Review of Richard Mosse's The Enclave
I was taken by the beauty and disorienting qualities of video/photographic artist Richard Mosse’s The Enclave installation at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, NC. Mosse’s work is a set of concurrently running videos of combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012. The presentation is both visually and aurally disorienting, but also beautiful in that all shades of green have become pink, the footage having been shot with infrared film. This installation captures the eye with the color and, through a lack of dialogue or narration communicates a first-hand immersive intimacy with the DRC landscape. One feels drawn in and connected them at a sensory level with the landscape and conflict that is a part of it. This connection is one of the achievements of this creative work—it communicates about the conflict through affective, non-textual means.
In an interview with GUP Magazine (GUP, incidently, standing for “Guide to Unique Photography”) Editor-at Large Erik Vroons, Mosse responded to Vroons’ question about whether the work’s beauty was a distraction from the horrors of the conflict, by stating: “’The beautiful’ is the sharpest tool in the box. If you want to make someone really feel something, strike their heart with aesthetics.” I found myself initially drawn to this work by the eyecatching and floral-like beauty of the Nasher’s promotional photograph, which showed a young African man (older boy?) in profile, holding a gun and wearing a headress of small, leafed branches and twigs, held in place with blades of tall grass wrapped around his head. The headress and the predominant pink of the photo were the things I noticed before anything else, and at first I thought that perhaps the young man was taking part in a celebration of some sort. Then I saw the semi-automatic rifle and questions arose--what exactly was I looking at...?
The DRC has had a fraught relationship with both Euro-American societies and its African neighbors. In the 1500s and 1600s, the British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese were able to establish slave-trading relationships with members of the Kongo empire (covering part of what is today northern Angola, part of western Congo, and areas around Lakes Kisale and Upemba), but it was not until the late 19th century that the Belgian monarch, King Léopold II, began maneuvering for the colonization of lands in the Congo River basin. After years of Congolese resistance against the genocidal brutality of Léopold’s forces, what was at that time known as the Congo Free State officially became part of Belgium (and renamed Belgian Congo) in 1908. In 1959 Congo nationalists rioted in the capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasha), contributing to Congolese independence from Belgium the following year. The DRC emerged as a weak independent state, however, having suffered during its years as a colony. Its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was murdured, allegedly with Belgian and US involvement. The country suffered further under the dictatorial and corrupt rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko from 1965 to 1997. Mobutu officially changed the country’s name to Zaire in 1971. (It became the DRC again after he lost power in 1997.)
The conflict in the DRC has been called “Africa’s world war” and has claimed an estimated five or more million lives from violence, disease, and starvation. After achieving independence, the DRC experienced much regional fighting, and Mobutu early on put down rebellions and sought to unify the country. However, he increasingly focused on amassing wealth and paid little attention to the decreasing stability of the country overall. In the 1990s, then-Zaire became inextricably entangled with a number of other African countries in a complex web of violence. Effects of the Rwandan genocide crisis plunged the already-unstable Zaire into Africa’s worst era of conflict. Rwandan Hutus who had for years persecuted and killed Rwandan Tutsis found themselves the objects of reprisal after the Tutsis came to power. Many Hutus fled to neighboring Zaire, allied themselves with the Mobutu regime, and began persecution of Zairean Tutsis. The new Rwandan Tutsi regime backed militias fighting both the Hutu militias and supporting Zairean troops. With additional backing from Uganda, Rwandan forces overthrew the Mobutu government and installed Kabila as president. Kabila, however, failed to rid the country of the Hutu combatants and was himself then targeted for removal by Rwanda. Kabila enlisted aid from Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and in the ensuing five years, these six African countries fought within the (now again) DRC, with all sides being accused of illegitimately exploiting the rich natural resources. Although the war was officially declared over in 2003, violence and instability have continued to the present day, with troubles in Rwanda still significantly affecting eastern DRC.
To an outsider, as many of us on other continents are, the history, actors, events, and deep-rooted hatreds can be bewildering and, also, perceived as too “remote” to warrant much concern. With the media frequently fixated on (real or hyped) terrorist threats in Europe and the US, Kim Jong Un’s periodic outbursts of sabre-rattling in North Korea, and increasingly dysfunctional US politics, the violent goings-on “somewhere” in Africa rarely merit a mention. Terry George’s 2004 Hotel Rwanda introduced many in the US (and elsewhere) to the Rwandan Hutus genocidal persecution of Tutsis through the true story of the main character’s heroic acts, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2015 film, Beasts of No Nation, depicted the horrors of civil war, broadly set in Africa, through the experiences of a young boy turned soldier. Both of these films are important in the based-on-true-events stories they tell. Although they do not shy away from portraying violence, in many ways they are easy to “digest” than Mosse’s work in that films contain a plotline to follow and conventional narrative expectations are met. That is, although we know at least parts of these movies will make us uncomfortable, given the representaiions of violence based on real events, but we will have a story told to us.
In contrast, The Enclave captivating and unsettling “work”. One can initially be drawn in, as I was, by the eyecatching, largely pink scenery and the unfamiliar contrasts of colors. Once in the darkened room of the installation, the experience is still compelling, but now because of the desire to make some sense of what is being seen and heard. The film shot by Mosse is played on six screens set up at different angles, with no discernible sequence to follow. There is also the “sound space”--as disorienting and disquieting as the visual images—created by multi-directional speakers that emphasize bass, playing primary and secondary scores that can almost be felt throughout the body. There is no coherent dialogue from the people filmed, adding further to a sense of disorientation in the experience. One feels a sense of immersion in an unfamiliar place or of happening upon a strange event already in progress; there is no one screen that lets one start at the beginning. Additionally, not all scenes indicate that there is war, conflict, or violence. The music is unsettling, as is its lack of direct correspondence with the visual images. One gets a feeling of danger or vulnerability, not primarily because of scenes of violence, but because the control we feel from understanding a situation is denied us. This deft creation of a disorienting immersive experience creates an affective means of connection to the events in the DRC for the viewer that is as powerful as (or perhaps more so than) a straightforward narrative. Additionally, the experience mimics the labyrinthine geopolitical and ethnic entanglements that have led to this situation of ongoing conflict and brutality.
Mosse’s The Enclave both allures and troubles. Underlying the multiple sensory perceptions is the primarily unconscious tension in response to the pervasive pink color. The landscapes are striking and the waving pink grasses remind one of a field of flowers. Many of the combatants fatigues are an incongruous pink. As Mosse further states in the interview with Voors, the beautiful color also creates an ethical tension in the viewer—how can one comfortably observe these images, at one level responding to their “beauty”, knowing what they represent? It is the complexity, incongruity, and tension, in ourselves and the world, that Mosse taps into that makes this such a powerful work of art.
Connie is a staff member at Coordinates.