Penn State

Chris Rosenblum | Artist’s ‘life’s work’ honors victims of genocide in Rwanda

Will Snyder with the sculpture he made as a memorial to the 1994 Rwandan genocide on Monday, March 24, 2014. It's 800,000 pages in 2,500 books stored in 100 crates. This summer, the artwork will be installed and displayed at the United Nations building in New York.
Will Snyder with the sculpture he made as a memorial to the 1994 Rwandan genocide on Monday, March 24, 2014. It's 800,000 pages in 2,500 books stored in 100 crates. This summer, the artwork will be installed and displayed at the United Nations building in New York. CDT photo

Will Snyder has mixed feelings about his memorial to one of humanity’s lowest points.

Eight years ago, Snyder, a local artist, created a distinctive tribute to the victims of the Rwandan genocide. This summer, his artwork will have a prominent showcase: the lobby of the United Nations’ Secretariat Building, the iconic skyscraper in New York, as part of a monthslong 20th anniversary commemoration.

Starting in April of 1994, members of the African country’s majority tribe, the Hutus, rose up and slaughtered the minority Tutsi and moderate Hutus during 100 days of unbridled rage and ethnic cleansing.

Families were hacked to pieces with machetes. Bodies lined streets. The death toll surpassed 800,000, possibly close to a million — more than 10 percent of the nation’s population then.

While a Penn State graduate student from 2004 to 2006, Snyder made “800,000 Acknowledge. Remember. Renew” for his master’s thesis exhibit. His tribute consists of 2,500 hand-bound books in 100 crates, one for each day of the civil war, each of the 800,000 pages remembering a victim.

Arranged in a gently winding wall that is 15 crates across at the base, Snyder’s piece stands on display in the Keystone Centre complex on North Atherton Street, home to the Keystone Church and several affiliated businesses and ministries.

Snyder works at the complex as a business manager and graphics designer.

“It’s pretty to look at, which is cool,” he said of his art, which resembles a library wall, if the section contained nothing but beige, blank spines.

“I like the rhythm of it. But once you grasp how many lives it represents, it’s gross.”

The U.N. thought it was poignant, accepting Snyder’s application to join the Rwandan government’s remembrance for two weeks in June.

Martina Donlon, a U.N. information officer and the manager of the U.N. Outreach Program for the Rwandan genocide, said she and her colleagues liked Snyder’s concept of one page per victim. They also appreciated a dimension that U.N. staff and visitors won’t see.

At previous shows, Snyder has invited people to press a wet clay handprint onto a page — a human connection to each lost soul. About 2,500 pages have been filled.

For logistical reasons, the U.N. nixed the clay component, but Donlon said it’s a meaningful touch.

“Because when we talk about the genocide, we talk about big numbers, like close to a million,” she said. “But it’s important to remember that it was one individual, and another, and another. And I think that’s what this work does, in a really nice, symbolic way.”

We have a hard time grasping murder on such a scale, with wrapping our minds around unimaginable horror. It’s easier to shake our heads at a huge, abstract number than to confront the truth.

Snyder’s work makes viewers go beyond the statistical shield and peer into the dark side of mankind. In part, he took himself on the painful journey.

“This is me grappling with the numbers and how to tell that story and honor those lives,” he said.

It all started while Snyder was earning his Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking.

Through his church, he met Jean Paul Kayinamura, a Rwandan visiting State College. Kayinamura hoped to build a children’s home in his country.

Snyder was shocked to discover how little he knew about the genocide. At the time, he was also taking an art and social activism class and searching for a thesis project.

Learning more about Rwanda from Kayinamura coincided with realizing that art could lead to meeting basic needs. His thoughts crystallized, and he came up with the books.

After his church donated the funding for materials, Snyder enlisted the help of six high schools, including State College Area High School, and scores of Penn State students and local volunteers.

Over the course of several months, they bound the volumes. Snyder sent kits to the schools for their art classes. At Penn State, students folded pages while watching the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.”

For the final push, Snyder hosted his own “fold-a-thon” in downtown State College, with three teams binding 750 books in assembly line fashion.

His thesis show took place in 2006 at Penn State’s Zoller Gallery, the spacious room decked out in black. For a week in May, visitors walked among crates laid out in precise rows like coffins. Panels offered accounts of the genocide, and looped ambient music heightened the somber mood.

People wept. They also made handprints for $5 each, helping raise $3,500 for a new well and pump house in the Rwandan town of Gitarama.

Since then, Snyder has shown the installation in various permutations at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and other regional exhibitions. Much in the same form as it will be at the United Nations, the work will be on display in the Keystone Centre until June, with an open house scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m. April 10.

To fund the United Nations installation, Snyder is launching a Kickstarter campaign on Sunday, his goal to raise $8,000 for transportation costs and other expenses. For example, he’ll need a 17-foot truck to haul the crates.

But his vision extends beyond the U.N. Because the exhibit won’t be open to the general public, he hopes future donations will help him rent gallery space in the city for a couple of weeks.

The dream goes further.

Some day, he’ll buy a truck, customize it for easy shipping and create a fully mobile exhibit. At schools, he’ll do more than teach about the genocide. Benefit handprints will help a country still mired in poverty and struggling to move forward.

He has thousands of pages to fill, thousands of people to remember.

“This is a life’s work,” he said. “It wasn’t a one-time thing.”