How is War Seen by Women, Soldiers, Artists?
by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Just when I began to wonder if the Viet Nam War had exhausted all our energy for antiwar art, a passionate body of art appears to address the topic in both old and new ways. Perhaps, without the sense of urgency that sprang from the draft in the Viet Nam era, there has been a delayed reaction. Or maybe the artists were making the art all along, but it took longer to bring the artists work to the fore in the form of exhibitions. As an artist who greatly appreciates the power of art to point at our actions when they demand scrutiny, this series of shows is so welcome.

It must be so difficult for artists in a war zone to make art when they are surrounded by violence, yet some of the art indeed comes from such contexts. And, as old as the subject may be for artists in general, exhibitions at several institutions in the South Bay reveal that artists have not lost their commitment to decrying the horrors of war, nor has the war in Iraq failed to capture their attention. Some of the art also asks us to step back from the politically correct attitudes of the liberal art community and simply explore the images on the formal level, or to identify with the soldiers’ experience.

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Freedom’s Price employs a feminine camouflage pattern on the outside, but the old standard – “Home, Sweet Home” – is still secretly guarded within.

The first pair of exhibitions was seen concurrently at the Museum of Quilts and Textiles in July through September. The Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory are a collection of textile works that movingly depict the tragedy of war through the eyes and folk-art crafts of mostly women from countries in such diverse areas of the world as Latin America, South Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Woven Witness is a collection of Afghan “War Rugs” presented by the Bay Area Rug society. Such incongruous elements as jet aircraft and tanks reveal the influence of generations of ongoing war as they becomes part and parcel of the decorative iconography woven into otherwise classical and elegant rugs that are traditional to Afghanistan. Viewers have to be impressed with the endurance of the people who manage to continue their craft in the midst of such violence, and the degree to which their art forms adapt as well. We can appreciate their emotional expressions and stoicism through these beautiful textiles and rugs.

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The War Rugs of Afganistan freely incorporate images from the environment of the artisan: tanks, grenades, helicopters and machine guns.

A series of talks and panel discussions accompanied the exhibitions at the Museum of Quilts and Textiles. The third presentation, on September 23rd, asked the question “Can Art Build Peace?” Cynthia Cohen, author of Working with Integrity: A guidebook for Peace Builders Asking Ethical Questions, spoke from personal experience. She reported successful reconciliations, through art, of the hostility and anxiety that continue between people of Jewish and Islamic faiths. Individuals must be allowed to remember and learn to forgive. Her message was one of searching for inner peace in the face of horrible acts of violence and genocide.

Edith Sepulveda was born in Santiago Chile and arrived in San Jose, California as a political refugee in 1976. She spoke of the “arpileras” seen among the “Fabrics of Memory”. The arpileras are highly stylized story-telling textiles that were sewn by the women prisoners of the Chilean concentration camps during the Pinochet era. They depicted the cruelty and violence of the camps and were smuggled out to Europe as cries for help. Now they travel the world and will return to Chile “to mediate and preserve memories”. As undying memories of the violence of civil repression they serve to warn against future repetition of the same atrocities and genocide.

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An anonymous narrative quilt among the Fabrics of Memory , like the arpileras, tells of the villager’s attempt to survive and live a normal life while under brutal military occupation.

Sia Dunbar, of the African nation of Sierra Leone, fled her country in 1998, arriving as a refugee in the United States with a degree in Sociology and linguistics when rebels overtook her government. Her experiences running a women’s center, in a country torn by tribal strife, revealed the potential for arts and crafts activities to build peace. She told of a gradual process of healing and building friendships that the women in her center experienced after having endured violence, rapes, the loss of their homes and the loss of loved ones. The women, frequently from tribes that had been hostile to each other, began small activities like sewing and weaving that kept their minds and hands busy. They slowly shared their experiences with each other without recrimination. They shared projects, encouraged each other and made gifts for each other’s children. Their activities restored their sense of self-worth and allowed them to risk making peace.

Jane Przybysz, Director of the Museum of Quilts and Textiles, concluded the panel with an observation that, “Men decide to go to war, and women suffer. Women try to make amends afterwards. What would happen if men did the homemaking, instead of the destroying?”

At San Jose State, in the same third-floor gallery where Erik Madsen recently showed his etchings indicting nuclear testing and nuclear fallout, Frank Stice has introduced his series portraying soldiers on the battlefield. Also showing etchings, Stice’s most recent body of work — part of his three and a half year long study — is his BFA exhibition, and his most remarkable work to date.

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Stice reveals the grittiness of a Winter march in his etching, In the Wire

 

Perhaps Stice offers something of an answer to the question of whether men join the military bent on destruction. “The idea of democracy helped me to choose printmaking as a focus, ‚Ķthe process of making multiples best expresses that idea as well as contributing to the content of the work. Additionally, printing the edition of an image allows me to decompress from the creation process… There is no political goal in choosing my subject, but a deep reverence for those who choose service for freedom and defense of the idea of America. “

Stice dreamed of joining the military as a youngster. A birth defect in his heart was revealed when he suffered a football injury in high school, permanently canceling his dream. Nevertheless, his life as an artist has allowed him to continue to identify with the soldier in “the loneliness, fatigue, grittiness, fear, and personal conflicts, as well as the camaraderie and mutual support offered by those who serve together.” Stice’s unabashed admiration for the military life and service to one’s country hearkens to a time when politics and the objectives of war seemed more straightforward. When was that? During WWII? Was it when Viet Nam erupted that most of us lost faith that such a simple action as defending our homeland from attack was the only justification our government would use to go to war?

Stice uses photographic sources, precisely from the epoch of WWII for the imagery in this latest body of work. In In the Wire , he combines two views. The change of scale and the aquatint process both lend themselves to a chilling depiction of soldiers marching in the snow, the limited vision, the frozen bones, the misery. Watch is slightly more benign. We note the tedium of being “on watch” and the youth of the soldier. Again, it is a compassionate view.

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Frank Stice’s etching, Watch

Stice’s work raises questions for me such as: Who or which side is defending their homeland in Iraq? Is there any unified or clear vision of what each of the many sides is fighting for? With hindsight, do any of us still believe that wars are or ever were so simple as we once thought? Can soldiers ever again feel certain they are not the pawns or victims of self-serving warlords, business interests, and egomaniacal national leaders? Have we relinquished the impulse to blame the soldiers who fight in any given war for the larger evil of war itself, as we did when the miltary came back from Viet Nam?

At the Institute of Contemporary Art, the impact of the Iraq war on its women is compellingly presented in the exhibition Open Shutters Iraq. Featured are the stories and photographs of nine Iraqi women. Journalist Irada Zaydan used a wide range of IDs and disguises to search for women from different places and life situations throughout the war stricken regions of Iraq, women who would be willing to take the risk to tell their stories and whose families would permit it. They traveled to Syria to be mentored one-on-one with other women photo-journalists, before returning home to begin their documentation. Later, they returned to Syria for editing and presentation of their collective work in the format as now seen in this exhibition.

Their stories are replete with loss of family members, violence, fear, anger, humiliation, destruction and deprivation. The presentation for each woman’s story is the same: a beautifully designed horizontal panel frames the segments of text and photographs in a format referencing Middle Eastern architecture. A line of six photographs runs along the center. Some of these pictures depict family and friends that are central to the writers, others show the countryside or the devastated buildings in bombed out areas. The text, alternating in English and Arabic script, surrounds the imagery. Somehow, the entire sequence of stories and photographs is so riveting that the viewer cannot leave without reading every word and examining the implications of every image.

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Iraqi women secretly become photo journalists to tell the story of the War in Iraq.

Lu’Lu’a from Kirkuk tells how, as a veterinarian, she and her colleague Jamal were abducted from their clinic in 2004. They were tortured and held for ransom as part of the chaotic and random criminal activity that raged freely. Her family raised the money to free her, but their primary concern was that she had not been raped which would have shamed the family. Her husband continues to blame her for ruining his life, insinuating that she may have been raped and refuses to admit it, or that it makes no difference because people will believe she was raped anyway.

Mariam of Falluja recounts the loss of members of her family, both as fighters and as victims of revenge killings. She experienced American occupation of her home several times and rebuilt it after the Americans burned it down. The family turned their beds to face the doors and barricaded themselves inside as best they could. They were denied the right to bury their dead in sacred sites, and forced to bury them in their own gardens. She calls Falluja a “City of Ghosts”.

Shamous of Baghdad was a college student. “A month after the beginning of the occupation I went to my college‚Ķand I cried‚Ķeverything had been damaged‚Ķthey’d burned everything they weren‚Äôt able to carry away.” She tells of looking at her college education as “lost years” where students garnered what education they could sharing a single textbook, without recourse to a library.

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The destruction of Iraq is documented in Open Shutters Iraq.

The Open Shutters Iraq project shows at the ICA alongside the Landscape of War. A further exploration of Iraq, the war and its implications is currently programmed at the Montalvo Arts Center in the form of exhibitions, performing arts and other public programming. IRAQ: REFRAME attempts to expose the reality of the country through a broad overview of its people, its art and its history. Somehow it is easier to declare war on “the other”, people we don’t know or understand, a country we have never seen, a religion we know nothing about.

These and a number of other exhibitions from the Pacific Art League to the greater the Bay Area are helping to restore my faith that artists deplore war and are willing to share their outrage.

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