From 2005 through 2008, painter and printmaker Daniel Heyman
accompanied a team of human rights attorneys to Istanbul and Amman, where he sat in on dozens of interviews of formerly detained Iraqis. Closer to home, in 2008 and 2009 Heyman began painting another group of people with few opportunities to tell their stories: poor, recently incarcerated African-American men in Philadelphia, all of whom are fathers.
Bearing Witness: Stories from the Front Lines is an exhibition of Heymans portraits of both of these groups, and runs from Saturday, April 24 through Sunday, May 23, 2010 in Wesleyans Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery
. It incorporates first-person testimony and features a plywood wall installation that provokes questions about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. The exhibition is curated by Zilkha Gallerys Nina Felshin.
The portraits and accompanying text provide powerful and disturbing insight into the experiences of Heymans subjects. One account of abuse by American forces that Sadik Saturi al-Dailami related to American human rights attorneys in Istanbul, after his release from Abu Ghraib prison in 2008, hauntingly begins I was in the cage seven days. Heyman artfully weaves the words of this testimony into his depiction of the speaker, integrating a dress shirt and tie with the story: After my hand was broken (fingers stepped on by Lynndie England), I passed out. Then she dragged me. Amazingly, in part because of the amount of time it took to translate into English, Heyman was able to complete each portrait during the course of the interview.
Returning to the United States, he observed his next subjects in Philadelphia progress from inexperienced parents with uncertain futures to responsible members of their communities, guided by the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers. In creating their portraits, Heyman was impressed by the honesty with which they shared their thoughts and their life stories. What began as a limited commission for a one-day Philly Fathers exhibition two years ago has grown into a seven-portrait collection of fractured, but healing, urban lives, in the same style of interwoven image and text as his project in the Middle East.
Bearing Witness features portraits of both former detainees and former felons; each has his own story. The renderings of prisoners released from Iraqs Abu Ghraib prison give humanity and a voice to that cohort of men and women now bound together by their survival. In similar fashion, the Philly Fathers series allows the viewer not only to see the men but also to hear their moving stories. The dignity of Heymans subjects is underscored by the fragile yet powerfully seductive formal qualities that characterize the artists unique style. His delicate yet assertive use of color, line, and text as a formal element result in work that is intriguing, powerful and completely engaging.
In a departure from his two-dimensional work, for this exhibition Heyman has created a 10 x 14 foot plywood wall printed with images that is meant to provoke questions about our understanding of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Without the wall, Heyman explains, it might be too easy to look at the portraits and think, this is all in the past, everythings returned to normal, when it hasnt.
Daniel Heyman received degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania, prestigious grants from the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Independence Foundation, the AMJ Foundation and the Rhode Island School of Design. He is also a 2010 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He currently resides in Philadelphia and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, Princeton University, and Swarthmore College.