In 2004, three years after the start of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a number of appalling photographs surfaced which showed members of the US military, security and intelligence forces. physically, mentally and sexually torturing Iraqi and other detainees, not only in Abu Ghraib, but also in Guantanamo Bay and other similar places in Afghanistan.
These photos that American torturers took of themselves and their victims to send to their friends and families to brag about the terror they unleashed against Arabs and Muslims quickly became iconic – iconic of an immoral decadence which has not quite followed the centuries. – old propaganda that America is the “shining city on the hill.”
Americans tortured, mutilated and murdered people, forcing them into disturbed sexual acts. It was ugly. How could these people do such things?
Soon the world media began to broadcast these images to the point of numbing our senses. Existential questions emerged. The depth of depravity of the people who did these things to other human beings quickly escaped any meaningful register.
Names like specialist Charles Graner, PFC Lynndie England or Brigadier General Janis Karpinski have become synonymous with the horror of the Abu Ghraib torture chambers, but names like George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are remained respected and honored in “the land of freedom. and the house of the brave ”. Americans quickly lost track of these names. Their amnesia ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. So September 11 became a path to 1/6 – the day the United States Capitol was invaded and sacked by Trump’s militant white supremacist cult.
Soon after their publication, a number of artists began viewing these horrific images with different eyes, perhaps to give us a better view of their horrors. But did we really need to see these horrors better? Wouldn’t we be better off looking at the barbarism 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 strangely familiar, strangely beautiful. The people looking at them were placed in a strange position: peering into the American torture chambers through a “pretty mirror”. Were we supposed to be horrified by their beauty or seduced by their terror?
There was something deeply unsettling about this rush to give torture an aesthetic twist. I remember my immediate reaction was that it was too early, too early, for these images to remain decidedly indecipherable for a while. The artists were in too much of a hurry, perhaps by fundamental human instinct for visceral reaction, to decipher them, read them, paint them, interpret them, incorporate them into their own distinct visual vocabularies.
Perhaps the best-known artistic interpretations of the Abu Ghraib torture chambers are those of Colombian figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero, who, in a series of towering visual interpretations of these images, made their terror resemble something people would pay to buy and hang. in museums, art galleries, art festivals, crowded biennials. The frightening facts of what happened at Abu Ghraib had been recorded in a number of crude snapshots sent to friends and family as ‘keepsakes’, and now widely aestheticized for consumption by curators of festivals and art galleries and their clients.
There was something obscene about this whole show. What about the cries of a lonely human being at the mercy of an American torturer? What happened to this cry from the depths of human suffering? In the dark dungeons of what underground history has this cry been lost?
Art historians like Helena Guzik began to research the subject of art and torture further down in history and, in scholarly 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 in particular the physical suffering endured during torture.
The work of an American artist, Susan Crile, almost explored these images without transforming them into spaces of faded and fractured abstractions. But when her work was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer timidly said she “hesitated.[d] to use the lyrical word ”.
Lyrical? Really – representations of torture?
There was something deeply familiar about these images American torturers took of their Iraqi detainees – they looked like these white racist murderers took from their victims when they lynched them, hung them from a tree. Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday called them ‘Strange Fruit’ in an iconic song. The trees bearing these fruits had been planted in Iraq by the same racist thug who had terrorized the South and now traveled to the East.
Iraqi artists of course did not stand idly by in the face of the US invasion and destruction of their homeland or the Abu Ghraib atrocities, which they had memories of which stretched further back to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to Saddam Hussein himself.
“It is our duty as artists to feel what our compatriots feel and suffer,” Qasim Alsabti said 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 United States, Iraq and Kuwait were the subject of a major exhibition at MoMA PS1, for a reflection on the horrors their people had. lived at a time when, as a critic according to the New York Times, people had no interest in remembering. Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 was barely noticed by the general public, despite there being some positive reviews about it in the mainstream media.
Today, you will hardly find any information in the United States or Europe critically thinking about Abu Ghraib. They have no reason to do so. On the contrary, imperial cultures thrive on their intentional amnesia. History means nothing to empires, except for the delusional mythologies they continue to nurture.
Extract: ‘The art and torture of empire’