Daniel Heyman first heard about the Abu Ghraib torture victims in March 2004 from an article in The New Yorker. One year later, Heyman started to record dozens of their stories.
The Abu Ghraib torture scandal consisted of physical and sexual abuses committed by U.S. military personnel against detainees at Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison near Baghdad.
Heyman, a former professor in the Foundation Program at the Tyler School of Art, first travelled to Amman, Jordan, in 2005 to create prints and paintings documenting the testimonies of the victims.
He was invited on the trip by Susan Burke, a lawyer who represented the victims in lawsuits against U.S. military contractors. Burke began counseling victims in the spring of 2004.
On Thursday, Heyman and Burke will present a lecture at Temple Contemporary, a gallery in the Tyler School of Art, about their experiences in the Middle East.
Burke and Heyman met in the fall of 2004 through a mutual friend, Brian Wallace, then-curator at Moore College of Art & Design.
“[Wallace] told me, ‘Oh, there’s a person I know … and she’s leading this case about torture, you really should meet her, you guys would have so much to talk about,’” Heyman said. “So he introduced us over dinner one night.”
“We really ended up forming a very close friendship and partnership, and he came with me repeatedly as we went over and interviewed a significant number of Iraqi victims,” Burke said.
Heyman said he hoped to create art for the project “that could be disseminated rather widely.” He decided on drypoints, a printmaking method using etched copper plates, as his medium.
Heyman initially intended to etch only pictures into his copper plates, but he realized during his first interview with the victims that he should include their testimonies, too.
“[Their testimony] was their portrait as much as anything else,” Heyman said. “What they were telling me was so much about who they were … that I just started writing from the very first moment into the copper plate.”
Heyman’s etched words curved and inverted around the faces of the Iraqis, making the text difficult to comprehend. He said obscuring their testimonies was a deliberate, symbolic choice.
“To live through being tortured is horrible, so … to have really easy access where you can [read their stories] like you might look at something on a shelf in a grocery store, I didn’t want that to happen,” Heyman said. “And I also thought what they were saying sometimes was so incredibly crazy, that the visual had to reflect that, that this was not the straight, organized, gridded world of contemporary society.”
Heyman said that he eventually accompanied Burke on five more trips to Istanbul, Turkey to create portraits. Two of those visits were devoted to meeting families of victims of the Nisour Square massacre of 2007, a slaughter of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
During the week of the lecture, several of Heyman’s drypoint etchings and watercolors from his Istanbul Portfolio will be installed in Temple Contemporary.
Sarah Biemiller, assistant director of exhibitions at Temple Contemporary, said the multidisciplinary nature of Burke and Heyman’s work will give their lecture “a whole different dimension.”
Biemiller said she contacted representatives from both Tyler’s printmaking program and the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice at Beasley School of Law to inform students about the upcoming lecture.
“Our goal here is to bring in other departments within Temple, it’s not just about art students,” Biemiller said. “We’re really interested in engaging with multiple partners throughout the university.”
But despite the multidisciplinary emphasis of their work, Heyman said he thinks artists cannot act as lawyers, nor create equally impactful societal change.
“I have come to the conclusion that the kind of art that I do is very slow, and doesn’t really … affect ongoing, short-term political debate. But what it can do is witness things for history,” he said. “So I kind of felt that my role was to gather up information that counteracted a more government-organized history of what happened in Iraq.”
“Susan’s work actually can have an effect,” he added. “A lawyer can take actual government officials to trial for committing war crimes or directing illegal acts, but an artist can’t do that.”
Burke said she thinks nothing has truly succeeded in convincing Americans to oppose torture — not her work as a lawyer, nor Heyman’s work as an artist.
“Collectively, we have not been able to persuade the American public that torture should not be a tool of U.S. policy. Neither the art nor the lawsuits nor all the efforts of many other people [have succeeded],” she said. “So I think it’s important to continue to [challenge] the violence being inflicted on innocents abroad, and continue to try to educate people about why that is antithetical to American values.”
Ian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.