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By Erin Browner
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a docent at the de Young Museum strode into the exhibit hall for "Eye Level in Iraq," made a sharp left, then pointed at a series of photographs that showed a country preparing for war. That country was Iraq, and the docent asked her tour group whether it was the U.S. government or an independent media that really conveys the full scope of America's military events. "Who," the docent asked, "frames the war?"
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118-4502
Region: Sunset (Inner)
"Eye Level in Iraq: Photographs by Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson"
Through June 16 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, S.F. $6-$10, 12 and under free.
Driss Ouadahi: "Trans-Location"
Through March 23 at Hosfelt Gallery, 260 Utah, S.F. Free.
That inquiry is just as valid today as it was in 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a "shock and awe" campaign that — as is evident at the de Young — led to carnage against Iraqi civilians. Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson — the two U.S. photographers whose work is on display — documented the bloodshed while traveling in Iraq as unembedded journalists in 2003 and 2004. Rather than be beholden to the dictates of U.S.-led coalition forces, Alford and Anderson directed their cameras at average Iraqi families, average Iraqi schools, average Iraqi neighborhoods, and average Iraqi militants. Some of these militants wanted to kill American soldiers. Some of them probably succeeded. The first U.S. figure we see in "Eye Level in Iraq" is a soldier carrying an oversized baseball bat as he oversees American cash disbursements to Iraqi men who'd been on the U.S. military's payroll. It's a tense scene — for the Iraqi men, for the U.S. soldier, and for us, the viewer, as we survey a war zone that ultimately claimed more than 100,000 lives, most of them Iraqi civilians.
The 10th anniversary of the Iraq War's commencement is an ideal time to reflect on what transpired in the Persian Gulf. Alford's and Anderson's photography — artful, humanistic, and highly personal — tells stories that were generally overlooked by the mainstream media amid the chaos of the war's crucial years. Children and women are the focus of the exhibit's most memorable photos. In one by Alford from March 28, 2003, an 8-year-old girl named Zahra lies dead on a makeshift hospital-room table, surrounded by her mourning brothers, who also lost their mother and sister-in-law from an errant missile believed to be fired by U.S. forces; a corresponding image by Alford shows Zahra, mostly naked, being cleansed for burial.
The Bush administration sanitized the Iraq war by banning photography of U.S. coffins on their return to American military bases. The true cost of Iraq is in Alford's and Anderson's photos, which were originally collected in a 2005 book, Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, which also featured the work of Iraqi photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Canadian photographer Rita Leistner.
Even during the war's worst moments, Iraqis tried to maintain a normalcy that resonates in "Eye Level in Iraq." Alford captures a new Iraqi bride standing closely with her partner in the street. The woman, who has turned her wedding dress into a white niqab (the person-encompassing garment common in Saudi Arabia), refuses to show her face because of religious conservatism that flooded Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
The directive that Muslim women cover their hair, if not their faces, is noticeable in another de Young exhibit: "Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis," where Vermeer's famous 17th-century model sports a head scarf meant to evoke the aesthetics of historical Islam. In fact, Girl with a Pearl Earring has, in previous eras, gone by the name Girl in a Turban or Head of a Girl in a Turban — a reference to the old Turkish-style headscarf that Vermeer painted on his alluring model. The blue turban, art historians have said, helps "exoticize" the girl and gives Vermeer's painting its allure.
There's a lot more to Girl, of course, than just her head covering. Ditto the girls and women we see throughout "Eye Level in Iraq." Their hijabs and shrouds are entry points into complicated lives that Alford and Anderson have fleshed out. One woman completely covered in black told Alford she might become a shahid, or suicide bomber. We see the woman at home, standing in front of a mirror. The photo is from Sept. 3, 2004 — a time when Iraqi suicide bombings were regular occurrences. During the docent tour that slalomed in front of me, the de Young group saw that image and got into a public discussion about suicide and the parallels between the Iraq War and Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II. Every third photo at "Eye Level in Iraq" raised issues that the docent and her tour group addressed with each other. That may be the best part of the show: It stirs up questions about the price of war in a way that's rare in a major museum exhibit. It's never too late to consider these questions, even if the Iraq War has already receded in America's rearview mirror.
Urban isolation has never felt so mysterious as it does with Driss Ouadahi's paintings. In "Trans-Location," his collection of new work at Hosfelt Gallery, dense housing projects get a panoramic treatment — except each view is siphoned through an architectural grid that creates a kind of kaleidoscope effect. There are never any people in Ouadahi's canvasses — just intersecting grids, dynamic colors, and buildings that seem to go on forever. The result: a feeling of beautiful claustrophobia. A native of Algeria who now lives in Germany, Ouadahi can make a broken chain-link fence seem like the most captivating thing in the world.
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