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Broad Street Review

March, 24, 2007

Biased political propaganda— and art:
Faces of innocent victims of U.S.torture

By ANNE R. FABBRI

Long after the onus of America’s illicit and ill-advised foray into Iraq has faded, these portraits will surmount the particular, becoming symbols of man’s potential for evil. The heartbreak now is when we realize that the perpetrators of torture were Americans.

Daniel Heyman: The Abu Ghraib Project. Through May 5, 2007, at The Print Center, 1614 Latimer St. Free. 215 735.6090 or www.printcenter.org.

If you have time to view only one art exhibition between now and May 5, head for the Print Center to see Daniel Heyman’s series of prints, The Abu Ghraib Project. The exhibit consists of 17 individual portraits of detainees surrounded in the picture space by lettered verbatim excerpts describing their experiences at Abu Ghraib, the notorious U.S. prison in Baghdad.

These are not hooded, anonymous victims; each is an individual with a history, someone’s beloved father or son. They were mostly Sunnis, arrested based on tips by Shiites and ultimately released with no charges filed against them. They are the faces of ordinary people, immortalized by an artist. Long after the onus of America’s illicit and ill-advised foray into Iraq has faded, these portraits will surmount the particular, becoming symbols of man’s potential for evil. The heartbreak now is when we realize that the perpetrators of torture were Americans.

Subversive, like Picasso and Goya

Having been invited to witness interviews in Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey by the legal team initiating a class action suit on behalf of the former detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Heyman created these portraits while the victims gave their testimony. When he ran out of etching plates, he resorted to watercolors on paper. He inscribed— in reverse, as necessitated by the print process— the interviewee’s story directly onto the copper plate to prevent future editing and to preserve their individual stories, and he hand-lettered their words on the watercolor paper. Words written in this manner seem like graffiti on a city wall, telling it like it is and not edited for polish and finesse. They have an immediacy that puts the skilled portraiture in the context of life itself. If truth is subversive, they are— and so were Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s Disasters of War. All of them are biased and political, and they are art.

Two series of prints— six of the eight drypoint prints from the Amman, Jordan series, 27 x 22 inches each, and seven from the ten Istanbul series of drypoint with chine collé, 26 x 19 ½ inches, plus four water-based woodcuts, 9 x 26 inches— line the walls of the second floor north gallery. Printed text with a triangular pattern in the form of a prayer rug on the floor is about two female detainees, with a repeating text about a missing woman, later found dead, and memories of her.

It’s a strange experience to stand in the middle of the gallery and turn around slowly, looking at the faces surrounding you. These are intelligent-looking, sensitive individuals, and you feel a kinship with them. They are dressed not in the anonymous garb of prisons but in street clothes. The delicate lines and shading of each head, with expressive eyes and lips portray vital individuals and their stories, are heartbreaking.

‘They told me they took my son’

Each portrait is titled with the first lines of testimony, such as, “When I Saw My Son” (a portrait and testimony of unbearable sorrow), “Our Eyes Were Covered,” “He Could Feel The Dogs’ Breath,” “They Told Me They Took My Son.” The fact that the perpetrators of the torture were Americans, soldiers and employees directly reflects upon the callous leaders who sanctioned those actions.

However effectively an image might work as propaganda, that goal doesn’t transform it into art. The difference lies with the creator’s skill. The specific incident is a timely topic; but long after Abu Ghraib will be mired in the forgotten details of distant history, these portraits will survive as potent testimony of humanity.

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