America has not seen its own land shattered by war in a century and a half. It is easy to forget. But war is immediate for Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal, who left Iraq as a refugee in 1991 and came to the United States. Bilal is best known for work that probes the raw points of conflict between his birthplace and his adopted home. In 2007, he lived in a Chicago gallery for a month, making himself the object of target practice for online viewers who could play a live game of “shoot the Iraqi” by remotely aiming and triggering a paintball gun at him.
Bilal’s powerful new project, “The Ashes Series,” at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University, is more contemplative. The mournful series features photographs of tableaus he created based on news photos of buildings in Iraq — bombed, looted, reduced to piles of rubble.
The dust that covers everything in these images is not the dust of crumbled concrete. Instead, Bilal scattered 21 grams of human ashes through his 10 models, imbuing the unpopulated images with a palpable presence of lives lost. Human remains! I wondered, as I walked through the gallery, if their use was disrespectful. Yet they’re the perfect, searing material to testify to the gravity of what has happened in Iraq since the United States invaded 10 years ago. By some estimates, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed.
The images are desolate and sacred. In “Piano” a white grand piano appears like a raft in a sea of rubble, enveloped in eerie quietude. For “Chair,” Bilal fashioned a model based on a photo taken in Sadaam Hussein’s looted palace: An upholstered chair sits like an empty throne on a pile of dust and bricks as hot light flares through a hole in the wall behind.
Curator Ian Alden Russell has installed the photos on the backs of two rows of white columns; you can’t see the images from the gallery’s entrance. Instead, you have to walk and turn, walk and turn. That experience, like searching for a gravestone in a cemetery, reiterates the sense of loss laden into these photographs with every fleck of ash.
A second show at the Bell Gallery, Daniel Heyman’s eloquent “I am Sorry It Is Difficult to Start,” begins, like Bilal’s, with a documentary impulse subsequently crafted into something more. Heyman was on hand for the testimonies of former detainees at Abu Ghraib Prison, the hellhole from which photographs of torture by US military personnel upon Iraqi prisoners emerged in 2004.
We may remember some of the Americans who came to trial, such as Private First Class Lynndie England, featured in a photo in which she held a leashed prisoner. The prisoners themselves, though, largely remain anonymous. Giving us their faces and their words, Heyman makes the incident immediate again.
Most of Heyman’s portraits, in gouache and watercolor, expressively depict ordinary men. Text murmurs around them. “The Broomstick was Metal,” from “10 Iraqi Portraits,” shows a man whose gaze seems inward. The title begins his swirling testimony. “I was hit in the face, back, legs at Abu Ghraib,” it continues.
Heyman has also installed a dense, large-scale etching on plywood. “When Photographers are Blinded, Eagles’ Wings are Clipped” scathingly comments on military censorship of photojournalists in Iraq. Amid a blindfolded photographer and an Iraqi prisoner suspended upside down, eagles with clipped wings fly and plummet to the Earth. Others, recalling the Great Seal of the United States, appear sexually mutated. The message is clear: The American ideals those eagles represent have mutated, perhaps beyond repair.
War looms large
“Tamziq: Scattered and Connected” a group show at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in partnership with The Odysseus Project and the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, tackles these same issues. The exhibit, which deserves better exhibition space than the meandering hallways here, spotlights work by Middle Eastern and American artists. It addresses a wide variety of intersections between the two cultures, including war, immigration, veterans’ issues, and refugees.
War looms large in works such as Eli Alperowicz’s painting “Under the Boot,” depicting a massive boot about to smash a small figure on a bike. Then there’s James O’Neill’s monotype “Outside of Nasiriyah,” in which black clouds of ink convey the fog of war. Deeply shadowed figures emerge — two women in burqas, who, aside from glints of light on their cheekbones and eyes, are indistinct masses, and two soldiers, identifiable only by their helmets.
It takes a minute to recognize the shell of a building in Rania Matar’s black-and-white photograph “Juggling, Aita El Chaab Lebanon,” in which a girl juggles and a man jumps rope. The piece, from the artist’s “Aftermath of War” series, illustrates how life goes on.
Thamer Dawood’s jewel-toned abstract painting “City Story” is a balm. Fluid marks chatter down a wall of sunny orange into a purple pool, where they set off like a flock of birds. The many voices in “Tamziq” (which means “torn” in Arabic) don’t have the power of Bilal’s “Ashes Series.” But they have many worthwhile things to say.
DANIEL HEYMAN: I am Sorry It Is Difficult to Start
At: David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through May 26.
Scattered and Connected
At: Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through April 26. 617-923-0100, www.arsenalarts.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com