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12.12.07

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Photograph by Index on Censorship, Open Shutters, Courtesy of Eugenie Dolberg
BASRA DREAMS: Um Mohammad's picture of a cultural center shows the black flag of a fundamentalist group.

Notes From The Front

'Open Shutters Iraq' and 'The Landscape of War' at SJICA show the impact of conflict on lives and thoughts

By Michael S. Gant


AT A NOV. 30 press briefing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino bridled when reporter Helen Thomas asked how many more people must die because of our continuing presence in Iraq. At first, Perino chastised Thomas: "To suggest that we, at the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive." Then, perhaps realizing that such a position might be hard to defend, she rephrased: "We are going after the enemy, Helen. To the extent that any innocent Iraqis have been killed, we have expressed regret for it."Such niceties might be lost on the women whose exceptional photographs of what life is really like in Iraq can be seen in "Open Shutters Iraq" at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibit is paired with a group show called "The Landscape of War." Both are presented under the aegis of the Montalvo Arts Center's "Iraq: Reframe" project, which has brought Iraqi artists and art about the war to various Bay Area venues.

Organized by photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg, "Open Shutters" took a diverse group of Iraqi women to Syria and gave them training in using cameras. The women returned to their homes and started recording their surroundings in uncensored images. Reproductions of the pictures—in both color and black and white—have been mounted on large wall panels that also include the women's thoughts printed in English and Arabic.

The mood is apprehensive and often bitter, the bitterness steeped in the false hopes raised by the invasion. More than one woman remembers the outrages of Saddam, the pain of sanctions and the anticipation that life might be better under the Americans. But as Raya, writes, "And God has left, taking his bags. He's grown bored of our wars." Raya's snaps of the rubble that was once a bookseller's shop in the poets' street known as Al-Mutanabi show us not just lives shattered but a cultural heritage turned to ashes.

The streets are often deserted in these photographs, many of which are taken, by necessity, from windows and through blinds and ornamental iron grates. Trash and barbed wire accumulate on the barren roads seen by Lujane, who writes, "The sniper ... put a stop to all kinds of life in the street. Even the palm trees are wilting."

Arresting images abound. Um Mohammad's tour of Basra includes a cultural center topped off, incongruously, with a green-painted tile and concrete dragon with a black flag stuck in its mouth. The text notes that the building has been taken over by a fundamentalist religious group that brings "a new kind of death." Strangely touching is a muddy field dotted with debris in which desultory sheep attempt to forage—this was once an amusement park, but simple amusement seems impossible now that "everything beautiful has been stolen from my city."

Mariam's shadowy, underlit pictures of bullet-pocked walls and ceilings of her home in Fallujah bristle with fear and the insomnia of the besieged. Mariam recalls how the Americans raided the city and set buildings on fire. Now, like a restless ghost, "I don't sleep. I walk around the house pushing tables in front of the doors, so that maybe, if the Americans decide to invade us again, this time I will hear them trying to get in ..."

Amid the ruins, the small joys captured by young Dima seems epically welcome. All of 6, Dima has a keen eye for portraiture—showing us one of her young friends in a pose of contemplation that makes her look like a wise old sage. Dima, a resilient optimist, adds a question that cuts deeply: "Anyway, don't the Americans have their own country?"

Mapping Conflict

The companion show, "The Landscape of War," moves from the intimate to the metaphoric. First up is a jarring large-dot monochrome print by Mora Ligorano and Marshall Reese of a familiar face: George W. Bush, looking stunned as he learns of the 9/11 attacks. Much angst and suffering has flowed from that moment, as picked at by the artists in the exhibit.

Bush turns up again in Christoph Draeger's installation piece. An old Hungarian video about civil defense in time of nuclear war is captioned with the president's 2005 inaugural address. The mindless invocations about preserving freedom's bounty in the face of all enemies play across dire black-and-white images of what the ultimate war of mass destruction might look like. The point is bludgeoned home, but since subtlety is lost on this administration, maybe that's inevitable.

James Drake's oversize autobiographical drawing Echo Rattlers Strike Fast Kill depicts a haunted soldier on various torn sheets of paper held together with crisscrossing strips of masking tape. This fractured warrior reminds us of how strained our armed forces have been by the Iraq invasion.

In her etchings, Fanny Retsek marshals patterns of hatch marks, as if counting the victims of war. Judging the toll of another conflict in Oh, Yea, Darfur, Retsek has filled square after square of diaphanous paper with thousands of close-spaced pen strokes. The segments are connected in a long scroll that dangles from the ceiling, pooling into a pile on the floor—the statistic of suffering mounting faster than anyone can count.

Enrique Chagoya takes the show's title literally in his satirical Road Map, a color lithograph that plays with the cartographic designs of an early-explorer's map to depict a world dominated by America and dotted with dying whales, haloed GIs, bundles of dynamite and plenty of oil tankers. In the same vein, but less successfully, Mike Arcega has painstakingly assembled a world map from little pieces of dried Spam pinned to a board. It could be an attack on globalization—or just an attack of indigestion.

Michael Light's expansive color photographs demonstrate, as Alan Greenspan himself admitted, that the war in Iraq is really about oil. Light's aerial vistas of oil refinery equipment in Southern California (the tanks seem to sprout like mushrooms after a rain) and coiling overpasses pinpoint the consumption patterns that belie fancy rhetoric.

The show is dominated by Sandow Birk, who made a strong impression two years ago with his illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy at the San Jose Museum of Art. Three giant woodblock prints from a series called Depravities of War are based on the 17th-century etcher Jacques Callot's the Miseries and Misfortunes of War (and by inference Goya's Disasters of War).

Coarse black lines create scenes full of dire action. In Invasion, tanks and corpses litter the desert, almost obscured by billowing towers of smoke from bombed oil wells. In Destruction, a Humvee guards a burning mosque; nearby, soldiers point their weapons at Iraqis kneeling or lying on the ground. More soldiers gather in an elaborate mosaic-tiled courtyard in Desecration.

These astonishing images confront us with the painful knowledge that no matter how many maps you have, stumbling into the battlefield is easier than finding a way back.

THE LANDSCAPE OF WAR shows through Jan. 19, OPEN SHUTTERS IRAQ shows through Jan. 5 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Tuesday–Friday 10am–5pm, till 8pm Thursday, Saturday noon–5pm. Free. (408.283.8155)


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