Daniel Heyman
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Streetwise
February 2008

DePaul Art Museum exhibit depicts civilians tortured at Abu Ghraib
 
by Adeshina Emmanuel
 
American soldiers kidnap a 61-year-old man without explanation.  They torture him, “by putting sandbags on his head, stripping him naked, forcing him onto his hands and knees, piling other naked prisoners on top of him,” forcing him to feign sex acts, all while being photographed.  They write on his buttocks and leave him naked in a cell for two days with no mattress and no food except bread and water, according to a class action complaint filed on behalf of several former tortured Abu Ghraib detainees, all of whom were released without charge.  

“There are national disagreements, but the idea that we would accept torture as some kind of policy: as an artist I couldn’t accept it,” said Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman, whose Abu Ghraib Detainee Interview Project is at the DePaul Museum of Art, 2350 N. Kenmore Ave., through May 4.

In 2003, images of American soldiers subjecting prisoners at Abu Ghraib to grotesque, humiliating torture were leaked to the international news media, and shown worldwide.

Heyman was both appalled, and artistically motivated by the events at Abu Ghraib.

“Because I have this skill of making art, I felt it was important to use my art to speak out against it,” stated Heyman.

A friend of Heyman’s introduced him to Susan Burke.  Burke is an attorney who represents the Abu Ghraib detainees in their class action law suit against Titan Corp, a military contracting company employed at Abu Ghraib.

Burke planned to travel to the Middle East with a team of lawyers and researchers in order to work on the case.

“She was already in the law suit; we met, and she asked me to come along,” explained Heyman.

Since 2006 Heyman has traveled once to Amman, Jordan, and three times to Istanbul, Turkey, to observe interviews that were conducted as preparation for the detainee’s class action law suit.  As the Iraqis recounted horrid tales of torture and degradation, Heyman drew portraits of the detainees and concurrently wrote their graphic testimonials into his artwork.

Said Heyman, “The most satisfying thing that I was able to do was to listen to these people, and be a great service to them by helping others do the same.”

Heyman’s exhibition consists of 23 images painted in bold, rich watercolors.  The detainees’ severe expressions accent the deplorable tales of cruelty painted around them.

“This is extraordinarily difficult work to look at, but the discomfort the images produce is exceeded by the importance of the subject matter,” said Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Museum of Art.

“Sometimes people think art should be pretty, and this isn’t very pretty,” Heyman admits.

Heyman plans to continue to utilize his art to raise American awareness and empathy for those who were tortured at Abu Ghraib Prison.  Some Americans view the detainees as terrorists or enemy soldiers, yet, all of the detainees whom Heyman made portraits of were released without charge.  They were innocent civilians.

“A guy gets arrested in the middle of night, stripped naked in front of his family, beaten, dragged to prison, and tortured for months…” Heyman alluded, referring to the vile injustices that took place at Abu Ghraib prison.

“These people were really wounded by other Americans.  I felt like I was doing something to help heal terrible, terrible wounds to people.”

The gallery is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 11 to 7 and Saturday/Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.  Admission is free.  More information is available at 773-325-7506.