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COVER STORY

February 28, 2007

Philadelphia City Paper Logo
Truth in Prints
Artist Daniel Heyman's new show gives voice to the voiceless.

by Drew Lazor

Published: Feb 28, 2007

I am sorry it is difficult to start, especially in the beginning our door exploded in the middle of the night — family — 6 children, mother (dead now) still I was hearing the scream of my daughters — they put a bag on my head — my brother's family was staying in the house — and they were beaten in the garden.

In 2004, when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, pundits latched on to the issue with fervor. Liberals saw the American-endorsed beating, raping and unmitigated torturing of Iraqi nationals as symptoms of a poorly conceived siege. Many conservatives condoned, or even championed, what happened, believing that detainees — bloodthirsty terrorists that they were — got what they deserved. (Rush Limbaugh brushed it off as nothing more than "people having a good time.")

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Photo By: Michael T. Regan

Shockingly, all the spin managed to distract from one vital piece of information: These were civilians, and they were guilty of nothing. Check the documents. Not a single person was ever charged with a crime.

For Americans, it was easy to take a stance on the scandal based on the information we were being fed. But we weren't there. We can't even begin to comprehend what truly happened.

Daniel Heyman can.

In March 2006, the Art Museum-based artist traveled to Amman, Jordan, with reps from Philadelphia law firm Burke Pyle LLC and met face to face with the Iraqis whom most Americans had seen only in those grainy, horrifying photos. He followed up the visit with an August trip to Istanbul, Turkey. What emerged: bleak, almost voyeuristic portraits, glimpses into lives irrevocably shattered by the very forces sent to protect them. More strikingly, Heyman surrounded each subject's face with textual excerpts from his or her stories — damning evidence that has only now begun to surface. He's compiled the art — a series of stark prints and watercolors — for "The Abu Ghraib Project," a solo show that opened last week at The Print Center.

"The whole project is to give some kind of voice to people who were never listened to when they were put in prison," says Heyman, a tall, infectiously affable man who thinks even faster than he speaks. "It's trying to give them back their own voice, and their own dignity. It's easy to deny the humanity of an enemy, especially an enemy on the other side of the world who doesn't speak your language or [practice] your religion. It's easy to say they're worthless."

They told me I was a terrorist. That my hair was the color of terrorist. The interrogator was Egyptian. And remembering him I hate all Egyptians for what he did. He said confess or I will send you to a place where you will be raped & they will play with you like a boy. He looked at me like I was dirty. It made me doubt myself.

This is not one of those things where you ask, 'Did this happen or not?'" says Burke Pyle co-founder Susan Burke, who invited Heyman to accompany her on fact-finding trips to the Middle East. "There's no question. Of course it happened." Burke's firm is representing a group of Iraqis in a massive class-action lawsuit currently awaiting trial in the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. The firm named CACI International Inc. and Titan Corp., two corporate contractors that provided Abu Ghraib with interrogators and translators, as defendants in the civil case. They stand accused of acting in conspiracy with the wrongdoers in the military. Much of the evidence in the public domain suggests that nonmilitary personnel both witnessed and participated in torture.

Burke decided to seriously pursue the case after reading a 2002 Washington Post piece in which an anonymous government official stated, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job." She began networking with other human rights lawyers and eventually struck up a relationship with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

The Abu Ghraib seed was planted by a single man: an Iraqi who met with an American lawyer and explained how he'd been unjustly detained and tortured in the prison. The story made its way to Ratner, who passed it on to Burke; the man was the team's first client. The case has since grown to include 170 Iraqis. As of now, Burke Pyle has successfully struck down motions to dismiss filed by both defendants last spring; the case will most likely go to trial in around 18 months.

The lawyer met Heyman through Brian Wallace, former curator of Moore College of Art & Design. Burke is good friends with Wallace's wife, Kelly; the couple had the lawyer and the artist over for a meal. (Burke sardonically jokes that she knew they'd hit it off because they were "both obsessed with torture.") Burke was planning a fact-finding trip to Amman to meet with clients and record their stories as evidence. She'd already invited American Prospect journalist Tara McKelvey, who is working on a book on the scandal, and filmmaker Rory Kennedy, whose documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib debuted on HBO last week.

"Halfway through dinner, she said, 'Why don't you come over with us?'" recalls Heyman, who then had been incorporating the infamous photos into his Mylar print work. Now, he would have the chance to "be an artist as a journalist," embedded with his subjects instead of drawing sterilized inferences from newspaper clippings. "As an artist, you don't have that access," he says. "But with the access came this huge responsibility, because [the prisoners] don't have access, either. [They] were talking to a translator, a lawyer, a journalist and an artist. I'm one of four Americans that could possibly tell their stories. I feel like I have to tell it."

"We were both appalled with what happened, and we were both completely befuddled by why more people weren't appalled by what happened," says Burke. "There are those turning points in everyone's life — do we sit by idly as the U.S. becomes a nation of torturers? Unfortunately, the answer for most people is yes."

In the two years since the scandal broke, more than 10 people were sentenced to prison time within the military's court martial system. One soldier, Spc. Charles Graner, who was cited in nearly every bit of testimony Burke's firm collected, was hit with the longest bid: a decade at Fort Leavenworth. But Burke is unsatisfied with the results — she wants the Department of Justice involved. "What [the detainees] really want is accountability. Money is a poor substitute for justice, but it's the best we can do for them," says Burke.

"The art is immediately accessible to people, while the reality of building a court case is not," she adds of her motivations behind inviting Heyman to come along. "[He] made the damage immediately accessible, put the human face out there and let people know how much these people suffered."

Jasim was in a cage for ten days A metal cage He was not allowed to stand He was hooded for ten days When a father was forced to burry his 18 year old son in a hole a meeter deep that they both dug and then the son was forced to lie down in the hole The soldiers were laughing The prisoners were crying The son stayed in the hole covered with dirt for 1 hour The son & father and Jasim thought the son would die.

What happened to these people goes beyond cruelty. To listen to these people tell you about it ... I wish it had never happened," says Burke. "The sad thing is the pain of listening to stories about your fellow Americans doing this to completely defenseless prisoners. It is horrifying. Even guilty people should not be tortured. But these were innocent bystanders."

According to interviews, detainees (the majority of whom were Sunni) were regularly shipped to Abu Ghraib after being pulled off the streets under the suspicion of terrorism, often due to Shiites falsely tipping off soldiers. Women and children were captured as well. Outside the prison walls, they were taxi drivers, electricians, janitors, farmers and used-car salesmen. Inside, they were expendable tin cans for carefree soldiers and contractors to kick around. Heyman recalls observing one almost-emotionless detainee the group met in Istanbul. "There's a light that's been turned off in this person," he remembers thinking.

Heyman says he took strides to make himself "invisible" during the interviews, which took place in hotel rooms. In Jordan, he scratched his minimal depictions into copper plates, filling the empty space around the images with snippets of testimony he found the most compelling. Since the plates were used to create prints, Heyman scratched the words in backward, which lends a hastened, unpolished feel to the accounts.


 
   
 

The artist made a few changes in approach for August's Istanbul trip, also with Burke. Heyman grew increasingly aware of "the relationship between words and pictures." Between the testimony and the translation, he "felt like the whole room was covered in language and words. The second time, the heads get smaller and the words wrap around everything." He opted to use khaki-colored paper for the prints, to more accurately capture his subjects' skin tone and the landscape of the Middle East.

The stories still resonated regardless of Heyman's chosen medium. A father and son were forced to disrobe and strike each other to amuse the contractors and soldiers; the father was later made to ride his son around the prison like a donkey for several hours. Heyman listened to accounts of Graner slamming prisoners' faces into exposed nails in the walls, then holding them down and sewing raw, unsterilized stitches into the fresh wounds. They took numerous reports of naked prisoners being dragged along the prison floor; there were innumerable accounts of rape, some of which involved children. One client began sobbing uncontrollably after being shown a picture of his still-unaccounted-for brother, hooded and chained to a wall.

"They were stripped of their humanity," says Burke, "and for them to know that people care [by making] creative manifestations of caring ... it's part of the healing process."

There was a female prisoner named Nour. I think she had blond hair, but I only saw her from behind one day when they were cutting her hair off. She screamed out a prayer asking help from men. "Who will help me?" It is a very old prayer, a very common prayer. But her voice went in and out because of the weight of the men on top of her at once.

Heyman is converting the floor of The Print Center into a drab-colored stencil dedicated to two women detained in Abu Ghraib. He met one in person; she has since been killed. The other disappeared. For the artist, placing their stories underfoot serves as a metaphor for how female detainees were completely disregarded by the media. "People don't even know that women were in prison," he says. "Their voices were completely obliterated."

For Heyman, it's important that everyone has unfettered access to the pieces. That's why his goal is to sell this art only to public collections. "I don't want them to disappear," says Heyman. "It'd be meaningless for me to tell their stories and have it end up in somebody's living room." Heyman hopes that his small contributions will lead to something bigger — namely, unabashed honesty about what happened. "In order for healing to go on, on both sides ... they must have their dignity restored, and we must accept what we did."

"[The war] is on the minds of everybody in this country," he says. "We're not finding out truth from traditional sources. I'm not a politician. But at least as artists, we can tell the story of our times."

drew.lazor@citypaper.net