Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Iraq War
Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Iraq War
By Sonia Nettnin
According to Hebrew Scriptures, the Garden of Eden, where human life burst forth, was located in what is now Iraq. In this land, civilization began and humans created the wheel, the earliest system of writing, and the first legal code for social justice.
Since 1979, Iraqis lived under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in which many minority groups experienced severe repression and human rights abuses. Quality of life for the majority of Iraqis plummeted after the first gulf war destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and sanctions crippled the economy.
This introduction was part of Eyes Wide Open, a multimedia exhibition that explores the effects of the Iraq war on Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers. People see, hear and feel the impact of this war and the first Persian Gulf War. Moreover, they see the suffering caused by a decade of subjection to UN and U.S. sanctions. Finally, the event marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq.
The exhibition was created by the American Friends Service Committee, together with the University Ministry of Loyola University in Chicago. A display panel explains the organization’s objective: “AFSC educates the U.S. public about the effects of militarism and promotes nonviolent solutions to conflict. The organization coordinates internal exchanges with opinion makers and grassroots activists from many countries to discern the roots of conflicts and work toward solutions.” AFSC has two staff representatives in Iraq. Through humanitarian projects, they have provided relief assistance to Iraqi civilians.
Michael McConnell, Regional Director, Great Lakes AFSC told the Associated Press that Iraqis suffer from a lack of security. The feeling of chaos permeates among the Iraqi people because the war puts them at greater risk.
One way this feeling is expressed is through a display of 10,000 plus bullet casings. Alongside a plowshare sculpture lined with gold, color-coated-bullet shells, a floor sign states they “…represent the Iraqi civilians killed in the ongoing Iraq War.”
Another dimension of the exhibit is the 32 feet of panels (eight-feet-high). They contain eyewitness accounts, facts, graphics, and pictures that illustrate the Iraqi peoples’ years of afflictions. Black-and-white photographs by Linda Panetta and Lorna Tythostud surround a presentation of facts compiled by Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF’s Senior Representative in Iraq. After the first Gulf War and sanctions, “basic indicators for well-being were among the bottom 20 per cent in the world. . . .Over 1,500,000 Iraqis have died as a direct result of the deprivation caused by sanctions . . . from 1990-1999, 500,000 children under the age of five died as a direct result of sanctions.” The exhibit assesses these findings further through the statement “these children died slow deaths from disease and hunger at an average rate of over 55,000 a year – that’s over 5,000 a month and over 150 a day.”
Color photographs of the Iraqi people communicate snapshots of lives. These images are displayed on the walls, along windows and on the room’s columns. People experience the visual images from different angles. At the time of this publication, credits for the color photos were not available.
In these pictures, the Iraqi people shine like a temple of strength, in a landscape of warfare. A picture of a young man with a kufiyeh around his head holds a kerosene container on his shoulder. His left arm props the bottom of the canister while his right hand extends over his head for the handle. Rays of sun on his arm and white sleeve create a vertical shadow on his cheek. The expression on his face breathes resilience.
Nearby, a narrative account on a panel from Rick McDowell and Mary Trotochaud, AFSC representatives, “…tell of visiting a small, rundown house by street children. ‘Kerosene heaters – carried from room to room – barely touched the mid-winter Baghdad . . . thin blankets served as beds.’ In the wake of the war, Iraqis struggle with a new violence and lack of security . . . electricity functions sporadically. Fifty to 70 per cent of the workforce is unemployed. An estimated 9,000 to 15,000 people are in prison, many without charge; family members search for them, wives are left to provide for their families.”
Close-ups of parents with their children reveal the dimensions of their existence. At first glance, they are photographs of boys and girls with their mothers and fathers. Then, the realities of their lives invade the senses. They have experienced bombings and seen dead bodies. Many of them live in the ruins of buildings, where their bare feet walk on remnants of glass, metal and rubble. Scenes of the destruction are captured in the exhibit.
The vertical alignment of photographs embedded in the panels, positioned next to narrative and informational text, looks like a documentary in pause mode. The stillness is an experience of moments, depictions of life in Iraq, over linear and cyclical time. It feels like on-the-ground coverage, not prevalent in mainstream media.
A photo of a Muslim woman dressed in black while she holds her child’s hand, expresses living conditions poignantly. The landscape is behind her. In the foreground is a large puddle of water, lined with rocks. She walks in the distance, yet is so close. The lens captures her movement. By her side is a child-in-white. The picture illustrates a visual triple framework: the black-and-white clothing in a black-and-white photograph of clarity.
On a column is a photograph of a man who holds his crutches. Viewers look to the right and a see a backdrop of Islamic architecture. While he holds his crutches, the photographer takes his picture. He is an eyewitness account and a pillar of self-evidence. His eyes reflect light and his ankle-length tunic is draped with his coat. He has layers of meaning. It reverberates in the air around him and in the exhibit room.
In the corner of the room is a T.V. It plays media footage of interviews and public speeches by the Bush Administration. The audio repeats the terror repeated in speeches of terror in the terrorist network because terrorists are instruments of terror and the terror of these incessant statements terrorizes the mind with the thought that thousands of people, such as this man, have permanent, physical disabilities, for the repetition of this word.
A lime green sofa is in front of the television. It looks out of place. The comfort level needed for the absorption of truth can drive the average person into either action or insanity.
How did the Iraqis survive this war? How did they survive years without clean water, sufficient food, adequate heat or electricity? How are the children who still wander the streets?
Solace is in the photographs of children, who smiled for the camera. Was it the attention or their curiosity? Their sea of faces expresses hope. They are the generation of youth who has endured war, sanctions, another war, and now occupation. Findings from the AFSC’s Iraq projects assess that more than 54,000 Iraqi people are homeless and the housing shortage stands at 1.4 million.
On a PC is a counter that clicks the cost of the Iraq War. It was $106,908,058,775 and counting.
Per the AFSC press statement, “this exhibition contains 448 square of information about the false justifications and economic costs of this war . . . (four) days ago the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Special Investigations Committee released a report identifying 237 misleading statements by the Bush Administration about the Iraq War.”
At the bottom of a panel series is a linear timeline. Quotes by the Bush Administration from media sources demonstrate the rhetoric used to buildup the information on WMD. One panel contains a statement from an article, “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism,” published in the Army War College Report. It reveals “[The administration] may have set the U.S. on a course of open-ended gratuitous conflict with states and non-state entities that pose no serious threat to the U.S.”
Across the room is a photo of a woman who stands next to art work. Through people, Iraqi culture survives war. Her almond eyes possess a stream of narratives.
On top of a column is a pair of dried, mud-caked, leather shoes. They represent the shoes worn by Iraqi men in the war. Underneath the shoes is a picture of a dead man. The photograph emphasizes his burned legs and bare feet. So many Iraqi men died this way.
Through the lens of this exhibit, people touch artistic expression of this war. They see the amount of energy and money that goes into the justification for war and its execution. Most important, they see the Iraqi people, who began the civilization of the world.