Unfinished Portraits: Iraq and Afghanistan

by PRITI GULATI COX

My anti-war memorial Unfinished Portrait attempts to bring audiences face-to-face with the human costs of the US-led invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan—to make the numbers of the dead, and dying, more comprehensible. This art project is always a work-in-progress, and the challenge has been two-fold: how best to communicate the tragedy on all sides of these wars, and how to induce audiences to give as much attention to the invaded victims as they do to the invading victims.

Unfinished Portrait: Iraq

The work on Unfinished Portrait began in 2006. By February 2008, with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaching, I had installed the initial version of the work in a 35-by-45-foot room of a former paper warehouse in Salina, Kansas. The walls, columns and ceiling were painted black. Hanging on one of the black walls were twenty-five, one-by-one-foot wood panels painted with passport-size portraits of the first 3000 American troops who had died in Iraq. Had it been possible to cover the black walls, columns and ceiling with passport-sized painted faces, it could have portrayed approximately 375,000 of the Iraqi people who had died as a result of the war. A plaque on the wall explained these numbers.

The floor was covered with a thick layer of sand, which by the end of the four-week exhibit was covered with viewers’ footprints. A looping piece of music, Mecca by artist Sheila Chandra, played in the background. The Urdu chorus translates as, At this moment we are in a sea of sentiment, and there is no shore in site.

I would say that maybe 10 percent of the people who viewed that 2008 work reacted to the black walls that symbolized the Iraqis. Visible proof of that lay in the footprints, almost all of which went directly to the painted portraits.

One could ask, “Well, why would anyone bother walking to a wall that was simply painted black?” Maybe some viewers felt that just being surrounded by the blackness was enough to get a sense of the disproportionate contrast between the American losses and the Iraqi losses. But in the many interactions I had with people that were there, almost everybody commented only on the painted portraits. And almost no one said anything about what that war has done to the country of Iraq and to her people. The work was largely treated as nothing more than a tribute to the troops, and, by implication, to their mission and actions. That’s not how I had meant it.

I do recall one comment from an Iraq veteran, and I’m paraphrasing here, that by juxtaposing the 5-by-5-foot area occupied by US portraits with the vast wall and ceiling space that represented the Iraqis, I was belittling the Americans’ sacrifice.  And I said to myself, at least someone gets it! Not that he was right about my intentions toward the troops, but he at least acknowledged that he was disturbed by the contrast between the magnitudes of their losses and ours.

When the show ended in March, 2008, I tucked the painted portraits away in a corner of my basement for four years.

Unfinished Portrait: Iraq and Afghanistan

Early in 2012, I decided to re-create and expand the project, adding the victims of the Afghanistan war. I replaced Mecca with a 45-minute spoken-word performance by four members of the community. And now, scattered among the American faces were passport-size camouflage squares representing a tragic new face of these wars: suicides among combatants and veterans. I moved the exhibit to an outdoor setting, with the spoken performances occurring after sunset, with the paintings and the readers facing the audience to the west. As darkness fell, the portraits faded from view, and the performers read from a script based on reports of the wars’ horrors, the blackness rising in the eastern sky served as a backdrop representing the hundreds of thousands of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who have died.

Aside from a few nods of the head, or the occasional hmmm! utterance, this more conceptual approach—using the sky to commemorate the Iraqi and Afghan deaths—elicited almost no response from the audience. Another  failure, to say the least.

Over the winter of 2012-13, the co-evolution of this project and its audience took a couple more twists and turns. At one point, I entertained the thought of “cremating” the portrait panels in a late-night funeral ceremony—a gesture that would take the painted light out of them, in a sense, and send them to the same black space that has enveloped the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought that was a good idea, but I was convinced by friends that doing so would leave people with nothing to look at and reflect upon.

Unfinished Portrait: Pointillism With a Point

Meanwhile, the War on Terror has spilled further, across the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan. The Obama administration is coming up with new techniques on recruiting many more enemies for America through the unmanned drone program and obsessive spying, and I’m back to the gestural drawing board.

I am still using the 45-minute performance script, which includes portions on the predicament of Army whistle-blower PFC Bradley Manning. He leaked 700,000 truth documents to Wikileaks, and no one was harmed by it. Yet he faces the possibility of life in prison. For every document that Manning revealed, the truth is that the War on Terror has claimed at least one life. Yet no one in this country has been held accountable for it.

According to the Costs of War project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, at least 330,000 people have been killed by direct violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. This does not include hundreds of thousands of other deaths that occurred because of the wars. And now more than 6,650 American men and women in uniform have perished. (This does not include the 3,000-plus private contractors killed working for the US in the war zones. Nor does it include the roughly 23,000 coalition allies who have died.) And suicide is now the leading cause of death in the US Army.

Keeping these numbers in mind, I decided to illustrate the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani deaths not with vast stretches of blackness but by doing almost the reverse: squeezing the victims’ images into a physical space the same size as that used to portray the American losses. Doing so meant reaching back a century and a half to incorporate a second painting style into the work.

I adopted a variant of pointillism—a technique pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the nineteenth century—to portray the deaths of the invaded. With the American portraits now covering forty panels, each one-by-one-foot, painted with 120 faces, I produced forty additional panels to represent Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani deaths. On each panel I painted precisely 8,836 tiny dots, using the same set of four colors I’d used for the other portraits.

In the current work, as I have shown it in Detroit and upstate New York, the eighty panels are hung on a wall together, with the “point” portraits mostly on one side and the faces and camouflage squares mostly on the other, but with them mingling in the middle. The total number of portraits is 344,926, which is closer to the number of people killed by direct violence in these wars. From a distance, the work appears wholly abstract, but the viewer who gets up close has no choice but to see the numbers in their totality. Among the victims, it is now easy to spot those with faces who are widely lauded as heroes; those in camouflage  who, having taken their own lives, are regarded by the world’s largest military as an embarrassment; and those existing as points of paint, whose faces are known only to family and friends—the invaded who died fighting the invaders, or as police, or journalists, or humanitarian workers, or as all types of children, women, men.

And viewed from a distance, everything blends together – all victims, all far away, faceless, uncountable, beyond our imagination, like the points of paint in a Seurat. It’s intended, you might say, as pointillism with a point.

Most of my time working on this project is being taken up by painting the portraits of fallen Americans. And even though, as many folks commented, I am one of very few people that is looking into the eyes of each and every American that has died fighting these two wars, I have to say that I never once regarded them as heroes. They are as much the victims of really bad American foreign policy as is the soldier who shot himself after returning home, or an Iraqi child, or an Afghan woman out fetching water that got killed in a “precision” strike, or a US contractor, and so on. In fact, throughout this very long journey, you can say that I have tried to use the tactile medium of painting miniature portraits of Americans as a conduit to bring attention to the much bigger, singularly un-paintable and continuing tragedy that is Iraq and Afghanistan, today.

Had I represented the deaths of the US soldiers with points of paint, in the same manner as I did those of the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani victims, the entire collection of American faces, including suicides, would occupy approximately one- half of a single panel. On the other hand, if the faces of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan who have died could have been painted as I was able to do for the Americans, and if that had been done at the pace at which I have worked, the project would occupy the entire careers of seven artists.

All along it has been about them – the Iraqis, the Afghans, and all the other victims that are remembered and mourned only by their families and friends. I have felt, and continue to feel, much more for them.

Priti Gulati Cox is an artist living in Salina, Kansas. She’s a local organizer for CODEPINK. To read the performance script and see more on Unfinished Portrait, please go to the project website. She can be contacted at priticodepink@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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