Daniel Heyman
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Chicago Tribune

Abu Ghraib project becomes badge of shame

By Alan G. Artner | Tribune critic
February 21, 2008

A kind of art that gets much less attention than work created for marketplace and museum is art that forces us to look at issues we don't like to address.

In recent decades, there has been a lot of such work dealing with race and gender. But only since the beginning of our escapade in Iraq has much contemporary art appeared on the dehumanization of war, and central to it are prints and drawings by Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman.

Some of his disturbing drypoints were in a group show on Iraq at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago late last year. Now, nearly four times as many images make up a solo exhibition at the DePaul University Museum, giving viewers a chance to experience more than half of the visual scream the artist calls the "Abu Ghraib Detainee Interview Project."

Two years ago, Heyman, an artist who previously had focused on homosexual life, was invited to sit in on interviews with people alleging torture at the now-notorious prison. More than 200 civilians held there and eventually released, cleared of any wrongdoing, had filed suit against an American contractor in Iraq and were building a case with their (American) lawyer.

The artist accompanied the lawyer to hotel rooms in Amman and Turkey, where he created portraits as the subjects spoke, rapidly adding bits of their testimony to each image in the time between questions. When his copper plates for engravings soon ran out, he painted watercolors, and that gave the range of media he used on later visits.

Heyman's drawing is often as inexpressive as the drawing of an ordinary courtroom artist. His draftsmanship conveys mainly that the plaintiffs are serious professionals, not just victims. But the portraits, with all their awkwardness, are only part of the project.

Heyman, 44, has said, "My goal is to reclaim for the victims of torture their right to describe what happened in their own words," and this he has done by selecting excerpts from testimony and wrapping it around the speakers' heads, sometimes in different colors. Misspellings and addenda frequently make the texts as ungainly as the images, but here content is the thing, and it seems more harrowing in relation to the pacific humans Heyman pictures.

You read of all manner of deviltry performed on the detainees until you want to turn away. But how many knew of these accounts before Heyman made them his subject? He's going back to Amman in April. May his blunt, emphatic work continue to bring home our shame.

"Abu Ghraib Detainee Interview Project: Work by Daniel Heyman" continues at the DePaul University Museum, 2350 N. Kenmore Ave., through May 4. Call 773-325-7506.