Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!

Cross Connections

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:

First published in the September/October 2005 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette



More articles by:
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena