art: Inside Iraq 

Orange Door proves its commitment to meaningful art with a photo exhibit that could steal your sleep.

Alan Pogue took the photograph in 1998 — seven years after the end of the first Gulf War and five years before the start of the second. But the bombing never completely stopped between those conflicts, and years of U.S.-backed sanctions took more lives than all the bombing combined. Looking at the photo now, after a “pre-emptive” war led by the United States has further decimated Iraq, you wonder if the man and his family survived this second attack and its lethal aftermath.

No answer is provided. The silence could steal your sleep.

“Faces of Iraq” is a touring exhibit of 55 photographs of Iraqi men, women and children, taken between 1998 and 2002 by seven American photographers. Organized by activist-photographer Gabriela Bulisova, it opened to crowds and acclaim in Washington, D.C., last January, just months before the latest rain of bombs fell on Baghdad. It can be seen at Orange Door Gallery through June 28.

Described in the exhibit notes as “an apolitical, traveling narrative of people in Iraq,” “Faces” shows men, women and children of all ages and walks of life living, working and playing in their war-torn country. The photographs emphasize — with compassion and restraint — the diversity of Iraq’s people and our common humanity. The imagery is neither gruesome nor exploitive, but tragedy lurks somewhere in the background or foreground of every photograph.

Inevitably, some of the most painful images involve children.

In a 1999 photo by Ramzi Kysia, a young boy sits in a wheelchair surrounded by friends. His useless lower body — crushed in a U.S. missile attack on his neighborhood in Basrah — is tucked under a cloth, but he beams at the viewer like any energetic pre-adolescent. His friends pose for the camera — laughing, strutting and pulling faces. All of them flash peace signs.

A 1998 photo by Jane McBee shows a father and son posing for the camera. The father’s hands rest protectively on his son’s shoulders. The man’s face is deeply wrinkled and careworn, but his eyes glow with love for the 10-year-old boy who sits before him. His son, the caption tells us, is dying of cancer because the drugs he needs are banned by the sanctions. The boy looks at the viewer — wide-eyed, his head nearly hairless, his eyebrows raised expectantly. “Please bring medicine to save my son,” his father begs the photographer. But this child perished like so many others — as many as half a million between 1991 and 1998, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization — whose deaths were caused by the sanctions.

The most unforgettable photo in the exhibit may be a simple portrait of an old woman, taken in 1998 by Pogue. A caption tells us that she lives in Basrah with 8,500 other people in a housing project without plumbing. She stares evenly at the viewer, wracked with arthritis pain for which she cannot get medicine. But her soul is clearly in greater pain. “This is no way for human beings to live,” she says. We do not know what she has seen, what she has experienced, whom she has lost. But there is no antidote for the agony, the betrayal, the grief in her face. It is bottomless.

Seeing “Faces of Iraq” is a painful experience. Knowing that the suffering of its subjects could have been prevented causes grief; knowing that a new war, waged after these photos were taken, may have increased their misery, brings tears. The respectful humanism of this “apolitical” exhibit politicizes it by default. It demands justification for the years of torment its subjects have faced for crimes they didn’t commit — most recently under the dubious pretext of “protecting” the world’s only superpower from an apocalyptic arsenal that, by now, surely only the most gullible or hawkish believes ever existed.

“Faces of Iraq” makes this demand. It is the only Richmond art exhibit of the past year to do so, or even to address these issues. This speaks volumes about Orange Door’s commitment to showcasing meaningful and relevant art, a commitment that has made it — after just one year of operation — one of the most vital and significant gallery in Richmond. S

“Faces of Iraq” runs through June 28 at Orange Door Gallery, located at 12 W. Broad St. For more information, call 648-7771.

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