By Elizabeth Nolan
Art is often used to convey serious messages, and it has the capacity to bring home truths in a meaningful way.
On Saturday, January 12, a very serious exhibition opens at The Point Gallery, marking the six-year anniversary of the incarceration at Guantanamo Bay.
Curator and gallery owner Margaret Day first saw Hilda Woolnough’s 10-panel graphite drawing Guantanamo when it was shown at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, PEI. Day was very taken with the artistic strength behind the 33-foot piece and immediately wished to bring it to her Salt Spring gallery.
“I believe that along with poetry, art has a real role to play in helping us deal with the awful as well as the beautiful,” Day wrote in an e-mail. “When a single individual is treated as less than human we are all as human beings degraded.
“An image that helps us envision that which is beyond our experience — in this case the helplessness of people imprisoned in a foreign land, without charge and with little hope of fair trial, in cruel and degrading conditions — helps us to move forward, to imagine and work for a world in which terrorism is countered not by brutality but by justice.”
Woolnough, who was hoping to use her work to bring the issue to the attention of other Canadians, saw the Salt Spring exhibition as a possible jumping off point for a Western Canadian tour. Unfortunately, the artist died December 12, 2007 after a recurring battle with cancer and without seeing her plans come into being.
The 10 panels that make up Guantanamo are a testament to Woolnough’s ongoing horror of the detainees’ treatment, an appeal to bring the human face back to these men. Each of the 576 men imprisoned at Guantanamo during the time Woolnough worked on the piece in 2004 and 2005 is represented — but as faceless figures. Paper-doll chains are cut out and stacked to replicate the chain-link fence. In spread-eagled positions, the figures appear naked and shackled to each other. Rough representations of genitals appear on the figures in two panels.
Using dark black strokes behind the links in some panels, or softer billowing shadows in others, Woolnough evokes moods ranging from violence and anger to confusion and despair. Vertical black oblongs in the final two panels, which are placed to form a right angle, surround the viewer with the darkest area of the entire piece. The suggestion belies hope of release for the prisoners, and promises only death. Creating different patterns of dark and light within the linked bodies in each panel, Day says Woolnough is referencing a Western/Muslim dichotomy; Western art is obsessed with the human figure while Muslims are forbidden from reproducing it. Repetitive designs within the panels also bring to mind the Oriental carpet.
Two related but separate pieces on exhibit more closely show Woolnough’s outrage at the American treatment of prisoners. These show human/skeleton figures, hooded and shackled to the wall like the torture victims at Abu Ghraib.
Although Guantanamo and its companion pieces are dark in subject matter, they are necessary reminders of ongoing human rights abuses. Margaret Day is dedicating the show to the memory of the artist, who was committed to helping these victims even through her own death. Entrance is by donation, with funds, beyond those incurred for shipping, to be directed to Amnesty International.
An opening reception is on Saturday from 2-5 p.m.
Guantanamo runs from January 12 -20, and again from March 16 to April 13. The gallery is open most days, but check with Margaret Day at 653-0089. The gallery’s walk-in entrance is on Southridge Road