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Artist: Tatiana Garmendia

On Lamentation 4 (Lift Me Up Let Me Go)

By Tatiana Garmendia

“Lamentation 4 (Lift Me Up Let Me Go)” is one in a series of Sumi Ink on handmade Okawara paper drawings that I began in 2011. I am still actively engaged in the series.

All the lamentations explore notions of pietà in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike agit prop, these drawings are not invested in proclaiming a political agenda or philosophic truth. Instead, they wrestle with the conflicting moral intuitions and intractable violence that mark our age, asking questions that do not necessarily have clear-cut answers. Traditionally, the pietà intends to inspire pity and sorrow in the viewer.

The models for this drawing, as they are for all the lamentations in my series, are veterans from the War on Terror or family of veterans. An intangible element of the work is getting seasoned veterans and their families to assume postures of exaltation or despair. My intention is for the role-playing to provide a way for their bodies to express fear, guilt, and relief in a context of creative collaboration. If there is any power in the ensuing work to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, it comes from this place.

For this piece, I showed my models a picture of Carracci’s Pietà and although they did not copy his composition, they ended up mirroring the pyramidal principle that organizes the original.

In Lamentation 4 (Lift Me Up Let Me Go) a woman wearing a burqa sits in the role of what in the Western art cannon would be the Virgin Mary, the sorrowful mother cradling the dead Christ. Behind her stands a figure clothed in white. I think of her as Lady Liberty, looking beyond the pitiful scene at her feet to peer anxiously at an uncertain future. In real life, this young woman’s father is still in active duty. Like the figure in this composition, she waits tensely for news of his tour. Reaching forward as if to help is another figure. It is not clear whose uniform he wears.

The wounded soldier in the foreground, the subject of all this mourning and worry, leans his head into the body of the woman in the burqa. One of her hands supports his head as the other holds his arm up. Below him, like spilled blood, blooms a red ink pattern culled from an Islamic prayer rug. Behind them all, written in white ink are lyrics culled from Linkin Park’s song, The Catalyst:

Lift me up, let me go
Lift me up, let me go
(And it can’t be out fought, it can’t be outdone)
(It can’t be outmatched, it can’t be outrun, no)
Lift me up, let me go

I created this series because I live in a country at war with radicalized Islam. Through my work as a teacher, I keep coming into contact with young men and women returning from the war front. Bidden or not, they have sacrificed much to defend the freedoms and privileges I enjoy each and every day. I meet the lucky ones. The ones who have returned alive.

But I have yet to meet any who were not powerfully transformed by their experience of war. Most bear deep psychological scars. In the same teaching capacity, I keep coming into contact with wonderful Muslim students whose bright eyes and bright minds immediately cast aside the mask of the enemy that war would thrust upon them.

The first time I showed “Lamentation 4 (Lift Me Up Let Me Go)“ was as part of an installation of six lamentations at the very college where I met all my models. A young Marine, recently returned from the war, wrote this to me after seeing the installation:

I have been in to see them five times….They are moving and inspiring, and they fill me with sorrow and rage.

They make me want to go back there into the fight, and they make me want to never be a part of anything like it again.

The way you can communicate exactly that which aches inside of me is beautiful.

I can think of no better aim for my studio practice than to give voice to that which aches inside this difficult subject.

The Last Judgment, Prophet 9

By Tatiana Garmendia

In 2010 I began a series of portraits in which veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan assumed poses directly taken from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, The Last Judgment. They posed as savior, martyr, saint, damned and demon — and I painted them. Usually they wore camo, sometimes they wore battle gear. I titled these pieces The Prophets. Each painting portrays one or more soldiers in front of a contour line landscape that has become a pattern akin to camo. Only the fracturing is caused by an explosion.

Each soldier takes on the role of prophet not by quoting from a holy book, but from a well-known Hollywood movie or televised image. The mythologizing function of war movies and televised images reveal a kind of Eternal Return, as the sacred intrudes upon our world with its archetypes and heroes. These are narrative arcs that often define our complex attitudes towards war.

In The Last Judgment, Prophet 9, three US Army soldiers gesture in response to Robert Oppenheimer’s famous edict in the 1965 televised documentary, The Decision to Drop the Bomb. Oppenheimer speaks about his response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then goes on to quote from the Bhagavad Gita: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8H7Jibx-c0

Oppenheimer never makes eye contact with the viewer or the camera during his rationalization of the use of nuclear weapons in civilian centers. Although he was a scientist, not the head of the armed forces who made the decision to do just that, it is very clear Oppenheimer feels a deep sense of responsibility for the suffering and destruction caused by his work on nuclear fusion. He even quotes Shiva, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In Prophet 9, each soldier gestures in front of a contour line drawing of a mushroom cloud. One reaches for his helmet which has dropped to the ground. Another looks down in apparent dejection, while the third turns towards the explosion and points in our direction, perhaps implicating us in some way. Did we give the orders that detonated the explosion he looks at?

Three veterans posed for this piece– one black, one brown, one white– and they were all US Army. Despite different ethnic and racial backgrounds, each wore the same uniform, became part of the same family united in a common military action. Each suffered severe trauma as a result of their experience of war, which included the terrifying and soul destroying decision to kill or be killed.

A profound connection occurs between an artist and her models. As I painted Prophet 9, I saw myself in them. Perhaps because war and political conflicts caused so much suffering in my immediate family. Perhaps because under my skin, run brown, black, and white ethnic and racial blood lines.

And as I painted Oppenheimer’s quote, the prophesy in this piece, I also felt a deep sense of complicity. Perhaps because I live in and love a country that is at war, and war always causes death and destruction. Perhaps because these young heroes became destroyers of worlds to defend the freedoms and privileges that I get to enjoy at no mortal cost. Maybe, because like Oppenheimer said, I am like most people, and too often remain silent.



 


On Lamentation 10 (The Burning Times) and discovering my Self in the Other

By Tatiana Garmendia

In 2012, I created a series of gouache on Lokta paper images in response to the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hero in these small paintings is a woman shrouded in a burqa. A burqa is a lose garment that covers a woman from head to toe, and is worn by Muslim women, especially in Afghanistan. This piece is entitled Lamentation 10 (The Burning Times).

I had been working for some time with veterans from the War on Terror in an ongoing exploration of the effects of war, when I became interested in the Muslim Other. I use the term Other as a philosopher would, to describe someone different from the Self. One thing that I discovered while creating the Lamentations is that the more I learn about an Other, the more I realize they are like my Self.

I often rely on the synchronicities life throws my way to indicate what direction my art practice should take. About the time I began portraying the woman in the burqa, I heard the a most disturbing account from one of the veterans that had entered my classroom. He sadly recounted an instance when an Iraqui man offered to sell his veiled wife to him in exchange for a goat. I was horrified!

Around the same time, France passed legislation forbidding the wearing of full-face coverings in public. The Islamic scarf controversy (l’affaire du voile) goes back to the late 1980s, and precedes more recent waves of anti-Islamic sentiment, but the 2011 ban was a clear response to the continuing struggles between the West and radicalized Islam.

There were more nudges. The return of a long-lost acquaintance, now married to a Muslim man. Growing numbers of young women wearing scarfs and veils at the college campus where I teach. Some entered my classroom. They were bright, engaged, and perfectly not Other.

I had also just begun reading the book A Theory of Justice by John Rawls,and come across a thought experiment that profoundly moved me. The thought experiment is called veil of ignorance. This proposition reconciles liberty and equality as it aims to represent the perspectives of all members of society. The idea of the veil overcoming its stigma to become a requisite for true justice resonated deeply and inspired me to look deeper.

In Lamentation 10 (The Burning Times) a woman in a burqa holds a wounded soldier in her arms. He is dressed in desert camo. We can’t see her expression, but the gesture of her hands as she cradles him, how her veiled face touches his unconscious cheek, reveals much emotion. A fire glows red behind her figure and even the hand-made paper on which the figures are painted seems to be scorched.

My mother was born as bombs fell during the Spanish Civil War. As a girl in Cuba I played in abandoned missile trenches. Like many others kids growing up after the revolution, violence and brutality were common political realities we learned to live with. Those who have never lived through extreme violence cannot comprehend that the burning times are carried in the heart long after peace has flourished. Both models for this painting know the burning times intimately. The woman behind the veil is a bona fide survivor, and the young man is a returning vet.

If only in the reality of this painting, all political paradigms are set aside so that the burning times can include love, compassion, and trust.

About the Author: Tatiana Garmendia is a Cuban-born artist living and teaching in Seattle. She exhibits widely and is in public collections in the US and abroad. Her work is figurative and driven by existential questions that probe history and culture.

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