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Hanging on the wall of my painting studio in New York is a newspaper clipping of a hooded man standing on a box with arms outstretched, almost a pose of crucifixion. Wires run from his hands and from beneath the rough robe covering his body.
Next to it hangs a printout from the Internet of a terrified man threatened by snarling dogs straining at leashes held by American servicemen.
These images came to be there in the Spring of 2004 when I was working on a commission to paint the 14 Stations of the Cross for Saint Paul’s on the Green, an Episcopal church in Norwalk, Connecticut. My brief was to re-imagine the traditional iconography in contemporary terms. Neither the church nor I knew exactly what that charge would produce, but the central question was: How could I make the Passion narrative real to this present-day congregation?
I began work in March that year and it was after months of research and drawing that I had a moment of sudden clarity in front of a 16th-century Flemish painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art-the cowled and dark-robed women weeping at the foot of the cross bore an overwhelming similarity to the images I had seen that morning in the newspaper, of Iraqi women grieving for a car-bomb victim. Many parallels began to flow from that one connection.
When the images from Abu Ghraib prison appeared, other parts of the Passion story had a new resonance. In the 10th station “Jesus is stripped of his garments.” The Romans stripped the condemned and crucified them naked as a way of humiliating them and utterly breaking their spirit. Here were dozens of images of modern prisoners stripped for the same reasons. I decided to compose the 10th station with the man threatened by dogs, echoing Psalm 22, sung each Good Friday: “Deliver me, Lord, from the mouth of the dog.”
The image of the hooded figure I did not use. It was so unforgettable, I concluded that no one would be able to see past its origin. Instead I hung it on the wall in the midst of my other visual material, where it played a more subliminal role.
The very first time I saw the photo of the hooded and wired prisoner, along with photos of naked, piled bodies, I thought they were part of some bad-taste performance art. The actual significance sank in slowly, followed by disgust and fear at the probable effect on the rest of the world, and the United States’ inevitable loss of moral standing.
The Abu Ghraib photographs were initially documents of wrongdoing. We were shocked by them. They represented despicable acts that were unworthy of us as a nation; the torture of prisoners was un-American.
The art world responded quickly. The aesthetic component of the photographs was acknowledged in a pair of exhibitions last fall, at the Warhol Gallery in Pittsburgh and the International Center for Photography in New York. A new furor began. This time, seen as cultural and aesthetic artifacts, the meaning of the images became more complex. Were we entertained by them? Were we not violating the privacy of the victims by hanging them in a gallery? As viewers, were we not complicit with those who took the photographs?
The U.S. government and the military have been at pains to leave Abu Ghraib behind, but the images now have an indelible place in our consciousness. Some are so iconic that they quickly entered the lexicon of art imagery-the hooded figure chief among them. For artists who work slowly, notably painters, these images have begun to emerge only recently. One example is the Colombian painter, Fernando Botero, whose new body of work based on reading reports of the torture at Abu Ghraib was first unveiled in April and went on exhibit in Rome in mid-June.
On June 24th The New York Daily News ran a front-page commentary: “9/11 Outrage,” read the headline, and below it, “Gov. Pataki is allowing a museum that exhibits anti-American art to display its works at Ground Zero. This is a disgrace, and The News demands action.”
The article revealed that the institution under attack is the respected and somewhat esoteric Drawing Center gallery in New York, which had been invited to relocate from SoHo to a proposed new cultural facility at the World Trade Center site. An institution admired for its commitment to showing drawing in all its manifestations, the Drawing Center is known for formal rigor, not political activism.
And what of the offending drawings? There were just three unearthed by the journalist’s search of more than four years of exhibition catalogues.
One is “Global Networks,” a line drawing by Mark Lombardi showing a vast web of connections between politicians and global oil companies.
The second, “Homeland Security” by Zoe Charlton, depicts a woman lying on her back, airplanes flying menacingly towards her spread-eagled legs.
And finally, there is “A Glimpse of What Life in a Free Country Can Be Like” by Amy Wilson. This drawing prominently features the iconic hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib prison standing on a box, which turns out to be the top of a World Trade Tower. The wires running down from the figure’s outstretched arms spell “liberty” across a sea of skeletons.
Wilson’s drawing, especially, drew the attention of The Daily News and was reproduced four times over two days, including an enlargement of the central figure. There were two front-page articles and two editorials, studded with the phrases “anti-American,” “America bashing,” “vulgar art attacking America’s war on terror,” “kooky and anti-American art.”
The acts shown in the Abu Ghraib photos undeniably occurred, but The Daily News goes on to accuse the artist of “depicting terror suspects as victims of American torture” as if this were the product of her imagination. The appropriation of the Abu Ghraib image transforms her into one who threatens our country, who undermines “America’s war on terror.”
So what does this mean for the Drawing Center and for American artists?
On June 25th, New York’s Governor Pataki pronounced categorically that no America-bashing would be tolerated at Ground Zero and called on the Drawing Center to give assurances that it would comply. The Drawing Center responded by reaffirming commitment to its mission statement: “To demonstrate the significance and diversity of drawings throughout history; and to stimulate public dialogue on the issues of art and culture.” They then began quietly to seek out another location and have now abandoned a move to the World Trade Center site.
As for my own work and commission, the Abu Ghraib image became part of a much larger mix as the overarching theme encompassed the innocent people who are caught up in war and violence: civilians, refugees, the unjustly accused who have died in detention, the grief-stricken families of hostages and bomb victims. To this end, I drew upon a host of visual references. In one, Mary is a chador-clad Iraqi mother, standing outside Abu Ghraib prison, waiting for news of a missing son. In another, weeping Iraqi women have been joined at the foot of the cross by an American father and son, bereft after receiving news that a family member has been killed in Iraq. In the eighth station, Jesus turns and speaks to grieving women; here they are refugee women of Darfur, Sudan.
There are multiple references to occupying armies of the present and the past: Israel in the Palestinian territories, Nazi Germany, British colonial forces, the U.S. military today. Jesus is first seen in custody at Guantanamo, then carrying his cross along streets girded with barbed wire, in the company of the rifle-bearing soldiers. In asking viewers to think about Jesus’ suffering in modern terms, I did depict Jesus as a victim of torture, and that source image of the man threatened by snarling dogs is discernable in the final painting.
The 14 paintings were finished, permanently installed, and dedicated this past March. After the initial shock of the contemporary associations, the clergy and the great majority of the congregation have embraced them. For people who have served in the military there has been a difference of opinion on the modern military references. To some they are cathartic; to others, inappropriate.
But as word of my stations has spread beyond Saint Paul’s, that one Abu Ghraib image has provoked the most angry responses. What about innocent Americans who jumped from the World Trade Towers? some have demanded by e-mail and by phone. Why keep bringing up Abu Ghraib when Saddam Hussein did so much worse? How dare you compare Christ’s great suffering to that of detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or Afghanistan? I too am seen as disloyal and anti-American by some, for my willingness to create new connections and attempts to foster dialogue about America’s role in the world and how Christians respond to it.
If these reactions and the attacks on the Drawing Center become an entrenched cultural trend, it should be of the utmost concern to all artists. Making new connections is the very heart of art-making. Should we censor our own work to avoid offending those who do not like the connections we make? When did it become anti-American to question the government and its policies? When did it become anti-American to question war and its consequences? Do we want to live in a world where these questions are denounced as seditious propaganda, and artists and cultural institutions are required to silence themselves?
Some weeks ago, one of the writers of an angry e-mail came to Saint Paul’s to see the Stations of the Cross for himself. He was welcomed by the staff and shown around. After spending a long time studying the paintings, he decided to come back again, and bring his family.
GWYNETH LEECH is a painter living in New York City. She may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in the September/October 2005 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette