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Broad Street Review

Heyman’s Abu Ghraib prints (2nd review)
By ROBERT ZALLER 05.05.2007

Daniel Heyman’s Abu Ghraib Detainee Interview Project combines image and text in portraits of former Abu Ghraib prisoners that are all the more devastating an indictment for their understatement. The victims retain their humanity and reassert their dignity, but what of us?

Their dignity, our disgrace

A sensation of the New York gallery season was Fernando Botero’s suite of Abu Ghraib paintings, in which Botero, hitherto known for his female grotesques, produced an unsparing pictorial view of torture and its effects, both physical and moral. A smaller and little-noticed show by Daniel Heyman at Philadelphia’s Print Center, which closed May 5, approached the same subject in a diametrically opposed way, though with equally sobering results.

Heyman was invited to witness interviews conducted by a legal team headed by Philadelphia prosecutor Susan Burke as part of a class action suit on behalf of former Abu Ghraib detainees. The interviews took place in Amman and Istanbul in March 2006, and Heyman portrayed the detainees (all of whom had been released without being charged) in drypoint and watercolor, surrounded by text taken from their testimony. None of them is smiling, and one— the only one portrayed in full figure— is missing an arm and leg lost in prison; but none is under physical duress. These detainees might, in truth, be survivors of an earthquake or storm, or simply people awaiting bad news in a doctor’s office.

The dead with the living

It’s the swirl of words about their heads that distinguishes them as denizens of hell. The words themselves, sometimes spilling onto their clothes, are closely, neatly printed in block capitals, though the lettering is uneven and occasionally crude, to avoid the appearance of mere transcription. Here is how one detainee describes his arrest:

When I saw my son dead I lifted up my son to show them this was my son.
An American soldier went to find my son’s head. He brought my son’s head and put it on my son’s corpse, four feet from me. Then they took us to prison.

The repetition of the word “son,” the revelation of his decapitation (it is not explained), the soldier’s gesture— perhaps a humane one, or as humane as possible under the circumstances—and the shock of the last, simple sentence (it takes a beat to realize that the “us” in it does not mean that both father and son are being taken to prison, the dead with the living): All this conveys a horror to which only the utmost simplicity can do justice.

The other testimonies, with their accounts of rapes, beatings and various brutalizations, are familiar enough from other sources. What Heyman has done is to put the words to their faces, as close as a winding sheet yet at the same time infinitely distant, for what one can recollect is at the same time what can scarcely be imagined, even by the victims themselves. Torture sets one apart forever, both from the rest of the human race and from oneself.

Speech that defies legal briefs

Heyman has stenciled further testimony on the plank flooring of the gallery; here the lettering is precise and the text rendered in careful visual patterns. The style is derived from conceptual art, but the function here is quite different. If the words that accompany the portraits are meant to render, in part, the urgency and disorder of speech, the stenciling is like a stenographic record. But the text is repeated; the record is broken. This is speech that refuses to pass into a legal brief, or the dry ledgers of history. And this is a show that refuses to do so as well.

Heyman, a Philadelphian, is at work on a new, bilingual version of these narratives. His obsession is understandable. What is beyond comprehension is the war that, three years after the first revelations of Abu Ghraib, goes on, still killing, still torturing, and remorselessly grinding whatever can be left of our honor into the dust.

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Abu Ghraib prints

Please thank Robert Zaller for the wonderful article about my work at The Print Center ("Heyman's Abu Ghraib prints"). I am so indebted to the writers who have come to visit this exhibition and share with the public and myself their thoughts and reactions to the work. Mr. Zaller's article is particularly meaningful to me in its sensitivity to the work and to its subject matter. Through his eyes I am looking at my own work anew. Thank you for that.
Daniel Heyman
May 11, 2007