Painter and printmaker Daniel Heyman, whose collection “Bearing Witness” is exhibited inside the Miller Fine Arts Center, emphasized the necessity of recognizing the humanity in those around us during the April 5 Frazee Lecture in Ice Auditorium.
“The job of an artist is to make it more difficult to deny the humanity of those we bomb and detain and abuse in the name of security,” Heyman said.
Heyman’s portraits profile Iraqis who were detained without charge and abused in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and are now plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit.
Heyman sat in on interviews between the detainees and human rights activists, drawing their portraits and including pieces of their story.
Each portrait weaves text and image to convey the experiences that the detainees went through at the hands of American
Heyman said the portraits are not intended to shock so much as to enlighten and “take the audience beyond the confusion of politics to a place where they can start the work of repairing the world.”
In his lecture, Heyman told the Biblical story of Lot and his wife, who live in a town full of abuse and suffering that is encouraged by the powerful and ignored by the rest of the world. When Lot and his wife try to flee, the wife looks back and is turned to salt. Lot gets revenge by setting the town on fire.
“The fire raced on and on and continues to race on today,” Heyman said. “Today’s story isn’t complete, however, and doesn’t have to end the way Lot’s did.”
He questioned alternative scenarios such as Lot, who seeks no revenge or roams on the Earth, mourning and bearing witness.
Janet Elfers, director of ecumenical and interfaith relations and a panelist at the Frazee Lecture, said that Heyman’s portraits reclaim their subjects’ humanity and let them tell their story. She approached the subject of Abu Ghraib prison from a Christian perspective, calling for the need to educate and advocate to end American-supported torture.
“Torture is a moral issue,” she said. “It is important for us to seek justice … for tortures committed in our name.”
Artist and professor Kanaan Kanaan, the second panelist, held a differing perspective but agreed that Heyman’s portraits had a powerful impact. Khanan grew up in Jordan and lived in Iraq.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve felt the heat of bombs, of shrapnel whizzing past my head. When I saw [Heyman’s] work, I couldn’t see it again because the words were too powerful.”
Khanan spoke about the disconnect in America that separates his citizens from events overseas.
“We in America are so distant, so far away,” he said. “We don’t even know what poverty means.”
He said that it is time for Americans to educate ourselves, learn more and do more. He spoke of the need for more cultural exchange programs, diversified news sources and more artwork such as Heyman’s.
“We are not monsters,” he said, referring to the people of his homeland. “We want to tell our stories.”
Brian Winkenweder, department chair and associate professor of art and visual culture, was the final panelist of the night, and he spoke about the “epiphany of the face,” a theory proposed by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’ theory says that when we look into someone’s eyes, we have three thoughts: our mutual mortality, an awareness of our ethics and the trust that neither will try to kill the other.
Heyman’s portraits allow viewers to experience an “epiphany of the face,” Winkenweder said, by making eye contact with the portrait subject and the viewers.
“‘Epiphany of the Face’ allows you to see yourself in the others and witness your shared humanity,” he said.
He said torture has a dehumanizing effect on all of us but that Heyman’s work is helping.
The exhibit, “Bearing Witness,” will be on display at the Linfield Gallery in the Miller Fine Arts Center from April 2 to 30.
Rachel Mills/For the Review
Rachel Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.