Richard Mosse “The Enclave”
Portland Art Museum
Reviewed by David Ondrik
Irish photographer Richard Mosse’s exhibit “The Enclave” is on display at the Portland Art Museum until April 12th, 2015. The exhibit is made up of a six-screen video projection (“The Enclave”) and a selection of large photographic prints in the adjacent gallery. According to published information on “The Enclave,” Mosse has been photographing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2010. Like his photojournalist colleagues, Mosse has embedded himself in dangerous, unstable conditions to build relationships with his subjects and tell their story.
I am impressed by the scope of Mosse’s work. He’s clearly immersed himself in a world that most of us would be scared shitless to encounter, even briefly. Men with rocket launchers. Dead bodies in the street. Victims of “weaponized” rape. Child soldiers. AK-47s. The West has largely washed its hands of this conflict, which has been ongoing since at least 1998. It doesn’t make the nightly news and I think it’s safe to say it barely registers in the consciousness of most people in the United States. So Mosse is doing meaningful work.
Unlike his photojournalist colleagues, he’s using Kodak Aerochrome infrared film, which is the source of my ambivalence towards his oeuvre. This film renders greens as cotton candy pink. It was created by Kodak for military surveillance, to reveal things that would otherwise be hidden by dense vegetation. It’s a clever choice for a body of imagery that seeks to make the war in the DRC more visible, and the surreal, alien quality of the images echoes the surreal, alien reality of the war. The wide swaths of forest and soldier’s camouflage glowing like a science fiction movie grabs the viewer’s attention and draws them into the work, at which point they have to engage with the disturbing subject matter.
But that’s also the problem with Mosse’s exhibit. Sure, the pink looks cool, but I’m suspicious it only offers a new way to “otherize” Africa to Westerners. “Not only are the people exotic, the landscape is candy-colored too!” Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m assuming Mosse chose to photograph the war in the DRC out of a desire to “do something about it.” If he wants to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in the Congo, “The Enclave” appears to be doing an admirable job within the art world. But I’m not sure awareness of the war in the DRC is any better for the people of the DRC than us being unaware. The longer I stayed with the exhibit, the more I thought about another organization that uses pink to raise awareness. In a strange alignment of life and art, that very week the Daily Show did a timely parody on “pink washing” and the emptiness of raising awareness, including visuals that looked eerily similar to Mosse’s.
It’s disquieting when photographs of suffering are printed “Fine Art Size” and hung on gallery and museum walls. Again, I’m assuming Mosse’s intention was to do “doing something” since there are much safer ways to be a successful artist. So how does selling multi-thousand dollar prints help anyone but Mosse and his gallery? It’s clearly funding more photographs, so there’s that. But is he donating to (or even establishing) relief agencies? Has any single person in the DRC had a better life, or even a better day, because Mosse was there taking pictures? The exhibit does not even intimate an answer to any of the questions it raises.
Which makes “The Enclave” a complicated exhibition highlighting a complicated war. I’ve certainly been preoccupied with it, even returning to see it a second time. In the end though, I left believing that Mosse is just another Western artist enthralled, inspired, and economically benefiting from the otherness of Africa, at the expense of its people. He’s certainly in prestigious company.
David Ondrik is an artist, art teacher, and writer currently living in Portland, Oregon.