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11-10-2008 | Fine Arts

Corridor Buzz!

Museum extends 'Eye Witness' exhibit to Jan. 18

By Judith Winter

“Viewer discretion is advised. Please preview ‘Eye Witness: Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqi Torture Victims’ before attending with children.”

This easy-to-miss notice at the gallery doorway needs to be taken seriously because the deceivingly innocuous-looking water color portraits can easily lull the viewer into a false sense of all’s right with the world. Subtle hints suggest otherwise. Frames made of layers of laminated plywood seem to be inside out — the laminations are in full view. And words seem to buzz around a man’s head like an annoying fly.

The series of eight black-and-white etched prints of rather noble-looking males, many wearing a tie and jacket, belies the depravity they were subjected to — until one reads their scratchy-looking testimony, often jam-packed around and over the portraits. It was a stroke of genius that Heyman, a Philadelphia-based artist, chose to scratch the words directly into the copper plate as he heard the victims’ testimony. In doing so, he had to write backwards, often making mistakes like misspelling, incomplete and run-on sentences and running words together. It’s tortuous to read and reminiscent of handwriting by people who have been traumatized, such as adults who were horribly sexually abused as children.

Reading all the testimony is nearly impossible because of the way it wraps around the paper and is made even more difficult by the humiliatingly decadent content — having to do with beatings, dogs, chains, cattle prods, Disco Mosul, living in the cold with no clothing for 6 months, genitals and misuse of water, a usually life sustaining liquid.

Sadly, this work can’t be exhibited at the flood-damaged University of Iowa Museum of Art. However, this lower floor gallery in the Old Capitol Museum enhances the exhibit. The room provides a prison-like ambience with its gray walls and original stone wall behind glass — a cleaned-up version of a grimy Abu Ghraib.

U.S. lawyers pursuing a lawsuit on behalf of former Abu Ghraib detainees invited Heyman to accompany them as they collected testimony. His purpose was to visually capture the victims and their stories and indeed he did, by capturing the disconnect between how they look and what they experienced.

One of Heyman’s subjects who, like the others, was reportedly detained and tortured by the U.S. and eventually released with no charges, queries: “I am wondering why in America you talk of freedom and justice but in Iraq you are not just torturing individuals but a whole nation? Why have the Statue of Liberty if you are not interested in liberty for all people?”

“Eye Witness: Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqi Torture Victims” is on display at the Old Capitol Museum on the University of Iowa Pentacrest through Jan. 18. Admission is free. The gallery is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 to 3; Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 to 5; and Sunday 1 to 5. Check online or call (319) 335-0548 for more information.