She/He Has No Picture
She/He Has No Picture, 2019 is a wall installation commemorating the victims of the pre-dawn bombing of Public Shelter Nr. 25 in the Al Amiriyah neighbourhood of Baghdad on the 13th of February 1991. Without warning, two American F-117 planes each fired a laser-guided ’smart’ missile, instantly incinerating over 400 people. Shortly afterwards, a small booklet was published listing the victims names. 100 of those were accompanied by a photographic portrait. The others merely had a notice printed beside their names reading either ‘She has no picture’ (female) or ‘He has no picture’ (male).
Here, Hanaa Malallah describes the history behind this piece, the process of constructing this installation, and how she plans to develop the project further:
Two or three months after the event a friend and I went to visit the ruined shelter. It was dark, only dimly lit by the hole made by the missiles in the ceiling. A toxic smell of smoke and charred bodies permeated the air. Human remains fused into the very fabric of the interior by the intense heat of the explosions and an uncanny panorama of scorch marks on walls and ceiling had created a horrific yet mesmerising visual spectacle. Families had hung photographs of their loved ones and arranged some candles, creating makeshift shrines of remembrance and grief. People were praying, others crying. Some, like us, were simply silenced in shock and disbelief. The artist in me desired to take photographs but, during that pre-smartphone time, in Iraq we were living under stringent sanctions, and film was almost impossible to come by. There was no need. The images etched themselves deeply into my heart and, a strong desire to memorialise the dead of Al Amiriyah took up residence in my soul.
Over the years, a file was accumulated. With the advent of the internet, related content increased and continues to grow with every annual commemoration and my files are now stored in the Cloud. Names of victims, pictures, observations, comments and condemnations; even the small booklet of victims I had once owned but lost is there. The shelter can be visited in virtual reality on YouTube: steel rods bent like willow switches, crazed slabs of concrete, scorched matter of many hues. Viewing it on my laptop in London viscerally yanked me back to 1991 and propelled me into the studio. Using burnt fabric on a small canvas, I started to build the face of a female victim whose image I had downloaded from the internet.
Artists sometimes say about a particular artwork that it was simply channelled through them. I understand this now. 28 years after visiting the shelter and its horrors I was suddenly ready. The material practice which I have termed ‘Ruins Technique,’ where the creative process begins with an act of destruction, has matured over the span of three decades. There is both an expansion and a synthesis of processes in this project; a revisiting of my love for portraiture, numbers and equivalents, secrets and codes, the virtual and the actual. Relationships between concept, media, techniques and content work with rhizomatic fluidity. In the end, however, this is an ethical endeavour and, hopefully, a restorative one.
Central to this project is the face: the face of victims, of viewers and of the faceless and its relevance to memory and mourning. I question the forms and physicality of the representation of the face and what it means in the era of the internet not to have one. The role of the human face is paramount in the social and mutually responsible encounter with the Other. It is the locus of person-hood and is capable of expressing meaning before a single word is spoken. Horror, pain, joy! Vulnerability and defiance may be conveyed simultaneously, and its presence – the face to face – is prohibitive of murder. After all. “Thou shalt not kill” is a moral imperative intrinsic to all religions.
In its fully assembled form She/He Has No Picture, 2019 is an expanded media wall installation with five constituents: Bas-relief Portraits, Brass-Plaques, Personal Numbers, Digitally Reconstructed Portraits, and a Memorial Wall.
408 human beings were incinerated on the 13th of February 1991. Of these only 100 people had their picture reproduced in the booklet printed not long after the incident. I sourced their faces from the internet and worked off copied screenshots. These were often murky, indistinct and flat. Each portrait was then built up layer upon layer into bas-reliefs with burnt or singed calico, thin cotton material with the texture of bandages. At times it felt I was working with clay or flesh – burning flesh. At other times it suggested painting. Raised from the flat surface of the canvas the faces assumed the illusion of three-dimensionality emerging through the material, frozen in the penultimate moment before death. Their eyes seemed to follow me around the studio, gazes imbued with foreknowledge of an imminent and harrowing fate. A death gaze! As though time had collapsed between the moment in life when the original photograph was taken, the actual moment of death, and that moment long after death when I sourced their image from the internet.
Between the bas-relief portraits are installed six highly polished brass plates capable of mirroring the viewers faces. A sentence written in Arabic is engraved on each surface reading either ‘She has no Image’ or ‘He has no Image’, unintelligible to the non-Arabic reader. These were cut into the brass with a laser, referencing the technology that helped deliver with precision the fatal bombs and consequently the deaths of those seeking refuge in the shelter. Although this face-to-face confrontation of the viewer with her/himself may be an act of visual substitution, an ethical appeal to our common humanity and vulnerability, it is fleeting and does not, cannot, restore the likeness of any of the remaining 308 victims.
The booklet listing the names, gender, age, occupation, and former address of the victims leaves 308 spaces blank. They have no picture and consequently, they have no face – no personality. Like ghosts, they are neither self nor other. They have been abstracted, enumerated, rendered a statistic or code. Ethical conduct, mourning, or reparation are thus compromised.
Here the missing picture has been replaced by a small, plain portrait-sized canvas depicting the number equivalents of the 308 victims names. Numbers, from the first Mesopotamian signs/numbers to the Abjad system where each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned numerical value, have been crucial to my practice for a long time. It is a simple form of encryption, rendering legible information into a secret which requires a key to decode. It has been used in magic and numerology and variations of it exist in many ancient cultures around the globe. I have always been intrigued by archival numbers painted onto objects in museums and I have the number equivalent of my name tattooed onto my left forearm. It reads 220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.30.30.5. Note that I have just revealed a part of the key to crack the code of the victims’ names and their gender.
I have been contemplating the ever diminishing gap between human consciousness and artificial intelligence for some time and, in the course of sourcing the portraits of the 100 victims with pictures for the bas-reliefs, I realised its creative potential for the fourth part of this project. By coding and feeding the available information of victims without a picture into a computer program, digital portraits may be (re)constructed with the aid of suitable algorithms. We will never know if the resulting image approaches the likeness of the long-deceased, but there will be a virtual human face carrying a name, gender, age, occupation, status and place of residence. An idntity. These disembodied avatars were conceived to realise an online presence.
Memorials, as public sites for aesthetic engagement are of profound social and political relevance. A large-scale reproduction of the comprehensive list of victims’ names on the wall of an exhibition space, however, creates only a temporary site for reflection and mourning. Fleeting and ephemeral, it will be white-washed the moment the exhibition ends.
The names and details of each person killed by the American ‘smart’ bombs were originally listed in the attendance ledger of the Al Amiriyah Public Shelter Nr. 25 for the night of the 12th to the 13th of February 1991. The ledger survived. It was reprinted in the previously mentioned small booklet I found again on the internet – where it is stored in a state of digital permanence. Those names represent the largest loss of civilian life in a single incident in the intensive bombing of Iraq that spearheaded Operation Desert Storm. Outside of Iraq, this tragedy has all but faded from memory.
This text is based on research and discussions of the artist Hanaa Malallah, written by Christa Paula, London, July 2019
Copyright: © 2019 Hanaa Malallah