In 2004, three years into the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a number of dreadful photographs surfaced that showed members of the US military, security, and intelligence forces physically,...
In 2004, three years into the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a number of dreadful photographs surfaced that showed members of the US military, security, and intelligence forces physically, mentally, and sexually torturing Iraqi and other inmates not just in Abu Ghraib, but also in Guantanamo Bay and other similar locations in Afghanistan.
These photos the American torturers took of themselves and their victims to send to their friends and families in order to boast of the terror they had been unleashing on Arabs and Muslims soon became iconic – emblematic of an immoral decadence that did not quite sit with the centuries-old propaganda that the US is the “shining city upon the hill”.
Americans were torturing people, maiming and murdering them, forcing them into deranged sexual acts. It was ugly. How could these people do such things?
Soon the global media began spreading these pictures to the point of numbing our senses. Existential questions emerged. The depth of the depravity of the people who did these things to other human beings soon escaped any meaningful registers.
Names such as Specialist Charles Graner, PFC Lynndie England, or Brigadier General Janis Karpinski became synonymous with the horror of Abu Ghraib torture chambers, but names like George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld remained respected and honoured in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Americans soon lost track of these names. Their amnesia eventually led to the election of Donald Trump. Thus, 9/11 became a pathway to 1/6 – the day the US Capitol was invaded and ransacked by the militant white supremacist cult of Trump.
Soon after their publication, a number of artists began to look at these horrid pictures with a different set of eyes, perhaps to enable us to see their horrors better. But did we really need to see those horrors better? Would we not be better off looking at the barbarity of the raw evidence itself?
In a series he called Oh Boy! Oh Boy!, Swiss visual artist Daniele Buetti transformed these photographs into stained-glass mosaics. They looked disturbingly familiar, uncannily beautiful. People who viewed them were put in an odd position: peeping into American torture chambers through a “lovely looking glass”. Were we supposed to be horrified at their beauty or enamoured by their terror?
There was something deeply disturbing about this rush to put an aesthetic turn on torture. I remember my immediate reaction was that was too soon, too early, that these pictures should remain decidedly undecipherable for a while. Artists were in too much of a rush, perhaps out of a basic human instinct of visceral reaction, to decipher them, read them, paint them, interpret them, incorporate them into their own distinct visual vocabularies.
Perhaps the most widely known artistic renditions of the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib were by the Colombian figurative artist and sculptor, Fernando Botero, who in a series of commanding visual renditions of those pictures made their terror look like something people would pay to buy and hang in museums, art galleries, art festivals, crowded Biennales. The frightful facts of what had happened in Abu Ghraib had been registered in a number of crude snapshots sent to friends and family as “souvenirs,” and now widely aestheticised to be consumed by festival curators and art galleries and their customers.
There was something obscene about this whole spectacle. What about the screams of a solitary human being at the mercy of an American torturer? What happened to that cry from the depth of human suffering? In the dark dungeons of what subterranean history did that cry get lost?
Art historians like Helena Guzik began researching the subject of art and torture further back in history and, in learned essays like, Visual Forms, Visceral Themes: Understanding Bodies, Pain, and Torture in Renaissance Art (2014), explored “the implications of Renaissance philosophies surrounding the human body in the context of pain and particularly the physical suffering endured during torture.”
The work of an American artist, Susan Crile, came close to exploring those pictures without rendering them into spaces of faded and fractured abstractions. But still when her work was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer coyly said she “hesitate[d] to use the word lyrical”.
Lyrical? Really – depictions of torture?
There remained something deeply familiar about these pictures American torturers took of their Iraqi inmates – they looked like those white racist murderers took of their victims when they lynched them, hanging them from a tree. ‘Strange Fruit’, the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday called them in an iconic song. The trees bearing those fruits had been planted in Iraq by the selfsame racist thuggery that had terrorised the South, and which had now gone East.
Iraqi artists were of course not sitting idly by in face of the US invasion and destruction of their homeland or the Abu Ghraib atrocities, of which they had memories that went further back from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to Saddam Hussein himself.
“It is our duty as artists to feel what our countrymen are feeling and suffering,” Qasim Alsabti was quoted as saying in 2004 when he and 24 other Iraqi artists produced a “series of sculptures, paintings, and installations depicting the horrors of Abu Ghraib at the Hewar Art Gallery in the Wazerieh district of central Baghdad.”
More recently, in 2019, the works of a group of artists from the US, Iraq, and Kuwait were curated in a major exhibition at MoMA PS1, for a reflection back on the horrors their people had experienced at a time when, as a review in the New York Times put it, people had no interest in remembering. Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 was barely noticed by the public at large, despite the fact that there were a few positive reviews of it in major media outlets.
Today you would scarcely find any news item in the US or Europe critically thinking about Abu Ghraib. They have no reason to do so. To the contrary, imperial cultures thrive on their intentional amnesia. History means nothing to empires, except for the delusional mythologies they keep feeding themselves.
Excerpted: ‘The art and torture of the empire’