At Brown, torture in watercolor

Foreign affairs
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 3, 2013

 TJI_Heyman_top.jpg
TESTIMONY An image from the exhibit.

Stroll down College Street from Brown University during the next few weeks and you'll find Providence's iconic spires and skyscrapers slightly obscured by a banner hanging from a streetlight outside Brown's List Art Building.

The banner reads "DANIEL HEYMAN, David Winton Bell Gallery" and features a watercolor portrait of a man with his eyes closed. On the corresponding painting hanging in List's lobby, the man's head and shoulders are surrounded by hastily scrawled text.

"THEY TOOK ME TO ABU GHRAIB," one section reads. "FIRST THEY GOT ME NAKED AND CHAINED ME TO THE CELL. I WAS TIED IN THIS WAY, FOR 6 MONTHS. IT WAS WINTER AND COLD AND THEY PUT A FAN ON AND SPRAYED ME WITH WATER. WHEN THEY CAME TO INTERROGATE ME THEY BROUGHT THE DOGS. SOMETIMES I WAS CHAINED ON THE GROUND. EVEN WHEN I HAD MY MEAL, MY HANDS WERE CUFFED IN FRONT."

"AFTER EACH INTERROGATION," the narrative continues later, "THEY CARRIED ME BACK BECAUSE I COULD NOT WALKED [sic]. THEY THREW ME PASSED OUT IN MY ROOM."

On the bottom corner of the page: "RELEASED MAY 2006. 30 MONTHS. THEY GAVE ME 20 DOLLARS."

The man is among the 50 Iraqis whom Heyman — a Guggenheim Fellow and critic in RISD's printmaking department — heard testify before human rights attorneys in Jordan and Turkey between 2005 and 2008. The interviews were for a lawsuit against American contractors hired to interrogate Iraqis. As the men described their ordeals, Heyman painted their portraits and wrote excerpts from their testimony in swirls of words beside the images.

These portraits — included in the exhibit "I am Sorry It is Difficult to Start" at List until May 26 — serve as a sort of companion piece to the recent "Costs of War" report out of Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies: a by-the-numbers compendium of the blood and treasure expended in the Iraq War.

The costs on display in Heyman's work are less quantifiable, but no less shattering. Visitors who enter the building are met by the artist's imposing, etching-on-plywood mural, "When The Photographers are Blinded, Eagles' Wings are Clipped," which Heyman created when he returned stateside. It features maimed and contorted bodies; a blindfolded photographer taking aim at his next shot; and eagles with deformed genitalia clutching rifles in their talons.

I caught up with Heyman over the phone from Pennsylvania, where he had just attended a symposium on the Iraq War at Haverford College. The interview has been edited and condensed.

CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE MAN IN THE EXHIBITION POSTER? I was never given any notes or anything about anybody or told much, but he was a guy that I was told had a very arduous history of being tortured. "Expect a lot," [they said.] So when I unfolded my book that morning — I was working on an accordion book — I opened it up to twice the amount of pages that I usually did. So I started painting him and I started taking notes. And he starts talking about his interrogation. When he started to tell us, he broke down and started to cry and left the room. We had no idea where he was; he didn't come back to the hotel for about five hours. When he came back he agreed to continue his testimony and I started a new painting. That's the painting in the poster. He never really looked up during that entire interview.

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Related: Review: RISD's '2011 Faculty Biennial' impresses and inspires, ‘Homecoming’ at Brown’s List Art Center, On doctors, psychologists, and torture, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Abu Ghraib, Iraq War, Brown University,  More more >
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