Heyman Bears Witness
“I sit in this hotel room and draw the face of an Iraqi who is telling the most humiliating and degrading story of his life. I try to disappear. I draw, first a small sketch on a scrap of paper, and then a copper plate using a stylus. As I listen and draw, I am also inscribing the words I hear into the copper, backwards. I have to write very quickly, so that I do not lose the thread of the story.”
So says Printmaking faculty member Daniel Heyman, who spoke about his Iraqi Portraits as part of the Art and War in Iraq symposium at the List Art Center on April 5. The portraits are included in the exhibition I am Sorry It is Difficult to Start, on display through May 26 at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University.
It’s difficult to take in the watercolor paintings hanging in the gallery and to read the words surrounding each damaged face, testimony Heyman transcribed of horrific abuses suffered at the hands of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib and other military prisons. “I made the words hard to read,” said Heyman. “It shouldn’t be easy.”
Images of war and decapitation began to seep into Heyman’s work in 2004, when the first heinous Abu Ghraib photographs started leaking out online. Scenes of torture lurk in the background of the large-scale, colorful gouache and ink works he began creating. “The images can't be seen unless you want to see them,” Heyman said during his talk.
But as they want viral on the web these same images quickly lost their impact – and Heyman grew disheartened. “The Internet dehumanized and further victimized the victims,” he said. “They were hooded, nameless. My idea was to humanize the victims of the war – to show that war happens to people.”
Heyman connected with human rights lawyer Susan Burke, who was putting together a lawsuit (rejected by the Supreme Court in July 2011) on behalf of the Iraqi torture victims, all of whom were released without charges after weeks, months and sometimes years of torture. In an effort to get information out to the general public, she invited him (and several other artists) to travel to Amman and Istanbul to witness their testimony. Between 2006 and 2008 he accompanied her on five trips and eventually heard 50 prisoners testify.
Heyman originally planned to do eight portraits as copper plate etchings that he would use to create drypoint prints when he got back home. He worried that sketches or paintings would be confiscated and hoped that the illegibility of the copper plates would protect them. After three days, he changed to painting the portraits and text in watercolor paints. At first he fretted over getting the faces right but soon realized that the words were more important. “The room fills up with the thread of words coming out of the person’s mouth. The words become a physical thing and weighed people in the room down. So, I wanted the words to feel like an imprisonment – like a cage surrounding a person. At other times I wanted the words to feel like a stream pouring out of a person.”
A member of the audience at the lecture asked Heyman if he believes that art can play a role in exposing truth. “Yes,” he responded. “Art can play a role in exposing truth but not in changing political policy. Artists are unpaid outsiders, not part of any establishment. The world is chaos. Artists are basically trying to understand that chaos.”
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