Artist Takes Intimate Look at Torture Victims
Produced by Lynette Kalsnes on Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Everyone's seen photos of prisoners who were tortured at Abu Ghraib. The images of a naked man at the end of a leash sent shock waves around the world. One artist wanted to a take a more intimate look, and his work is on view now at DePaul University's Art Museum.
Sound of greeting
Philadelphia artist and printmaker Daniel Heyman leads a tour of his one-man show at DePaul. There are Arabic words projected on the floor.
You can walk right on this, it won't hurt you, yeah, of course, that's the point.
The Abu Ghraib Detainee Interview Project features more than 20 prints and a 34-foot-long accordion book of watercolors, all of them portraying people tortured at the prison.
Heyman's art is often political. But for years, he avoided the Iraq War. Then he saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib.
HEYMAN: Something in me cracked about America, and I just thought, either I talk out about this, or I leave the country or something. It was, Americans don't torture people. They have a justice system. They have the rule of law. And this just seemed way out of bounds.
He incorporated the photographs into his paintings, but wasn't satisfied.
HEYMAN: The photographs continued to deny the humanity of the victims. They continued to obliterate any kind of individual identity, because the photographs are always of victims with hoods on.
Then he met a lawyer named Susan Burke at a dinner party. Burke was suing two defense contractors on behalf of more than 240 prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, all of them released without charge. Her team kept traveling to the Middle East to interview Iraqis. Heyman joined them.
HEYMAN: I'm not a lawyer, I can't get them reparations. I'm not a doctor. I can't help them with their medical needs, I'm not a psychiatrist. The only thing that I can really do is help them speak for themselves.
Now it's unusual for an attorney to let outsiders into client interviews. But attorney Bill O'Neil, who's part of the firm, says this is an unusual case.
O'NEIL: This case goes beyond what just this lawsuit is about. What the people that we've talked to want most, is the recognition of what was done to them was wrong.
The attorneys sought ways to get the word out to a larger audience.
O'NEIL: The art isn't gory, the art isn't meant to shock. It's not built on the images of the people as they were tortured. It's built on the images of the people as they are in real life.
In March of 2006, Heyman observed interviews the lawyers did with torture victims. Heyman sat with a copper plate on his knee, and scratched one victim's face into the plate with a diamond-point stylus.
HEYMAN: It occurred to me as I was listening that what was unbelievably revealing was yes, his face, but mostly the words that were floating around the room. So, so moving, and so, so wonderful and terrible all the same time. And I thought, I have to get them into the pictures,
LINCOLN: You do have the sense of someone working very quickly under difficult circumstances, and so there's a tremendous immediacy to them.
Louise Lincoln is director of the DePaul Art Museum.
LINCOLN: Their experiences and their suffering is palpable on their faces. The words circle their heads like haloes, and sometimes the entire air space is filled with their testimony and with the weight of what they experienced.
So far, Heyman's made four trips to the Middle East, and plans to make more. The stories stick with him.
One man told Heyman he was finishing dinner with his family, when a bomb went off, and killed two of his children. The man says he was rounded up, and taken to Abu Ghraib, without time to mourn or bury his sons.
Heyman steps into the gallery and points to a watercolor of another man.
HEYMAN: Well, I love this one. This is the man who was in the picture on the leash
The man's wearing a green shirt, and a red checked tie. Heyman reads from the testimony:
HEYMAN (reading testimony): My hands were tied behind me, tied up like this. And Graner pushed my head down. There, there was urine on the floor, this much, (and he indicated two fingers). And I had grown a beard since I was in prison. And Graner put my beard into the urine.
Back on the gallery tour, Highland Park resident Sally Abraham moves right up to the prints for a closer look.
ABRAHAM: In America, probably most people read about it, but were inured to it, with so much horror going on. And I just think this brings it to focus. I mean, I just have shivers about it, it is just so upsetting.
She says the first-person perspective is extraordinarily powerful, and deserves to be showcased. And the work will be, permanently— sets of the prints are already in several institutions, including the Library of Congress.
I'm Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.