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A Response to A Gesture
Michael Baers (2013 Grant Recipient)

A copy of Necessità dei Volti at the Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2013. Courtesy of Michael Baers.

In November 2012, a doctoral colleague presented a very peculiar artifact during one of our colloquiums. Hardbound in a brown cloth cover, the book, entitled Necessità dei Volti (“The Necessity of Faces”), consisted solely of color photocopies of 483 personal photographs belonging to Moroccan soldiers—casualties and prisoners of war alike—collected by the Polisario, the armed force of the indigenous people of Western Sahara, during their war with Morocco, who invaded Western Sahara just as Spain was in the process of relinquishing its colonial possession. During the fifteen years of fighting which then ensued, much of the Sahrawi population was driven into exile.

Leafing through this tome was fascinating and confusing, for it begged the question, how had such a document, which one instinctively handled like a sacred object, come to exist, and what possible efficacy could it have if intended as a tool for raising awareness about a conflict that, thanks to Moroccan lobbying efforts, has remained largely invisible? As explained by my colleague, the book was used in “encounters”—something between a consciousness raising session on the ethical dimension of photography and a tool to discuss both the Sahrawi’s predicament and that of those forced to invade, conscripted soldiers culled from among Morocco’s most marginalized communities, then disavowed, for they had fought in a war their government never publicly acknowledged. This practice was initiated by an international group of artist/activists who began holding these sessions after receiving permission to remove a sampling from among the 70,000 photographs discovered in an ersatz war museum the Polisario maintain outside one of the five Sahrawi refugee camps located in southern Algeria.

These photographs of old people and children, friends, family, and lovers, expressed something more profound about the situation of the Sahrawi than all the books and articles about the conflict I would later read. Perhaps something of the context in which they were discovered carried over into the photographs themselves, like a metaphysical shadow, and perhaps it was something more elusive. These photographs speak to the ultimate nature and tragedy of warfare itself, to the indifference of governments in destroying the happiness of common people. By archiving them, the Polisario had managed to suspend the logic that customarily organizes military antagonisms, for at some point after commencing the process of preserving the personal photographs belonging to their opponents, the Polisario determined, an intention they have stated repeatedly, that once the conflict was fully resolved they would return the photographs directly to the soldiers’ families. This intention, shared as well by these anonymous organizers of encounters, manifests itself in their punctilious care of the mementos in their possession, never allowing them to be reproduced nor for the encounters they hold to be documented—withholding them, in other words, from the profane circuits of distribution by which images and discourse circulate.

If any commentary on this project is premised on the fact that the photographs themselves cannot be reproduced and are only accessible by viewing the book directly, what other means of representing the project are available to the commentator? The proposal entitled “A Response to a Gesture” starts from the understanding that reflecting on Necessità dei Volti requires negotiating this circumscription, and only by doing so might its author extend the project’s imaginative reach and maintain its moral and ethical imperatives. It requires recourse to poetics, to writing—to the same sort of elliptical means employed by the anonymous group, who address the predicament of the Sahrawi through the personal photographs of their reluctant and blameless opponents.

Michael Baers is an American artist and writer based in Berlin. He has participated in exhibitions throughout North America and Europe, usually with drawings or offset publications. He has also contributed comics and essays to many publications and print initiatives. He will soon release his first graphic novel, “An Oral History of Picasso in Palestine.”