Excerpt from the "Game" Exhibition Catalog at LTMH Gallery
It’s almost 2011—I am in a battlefield—surrounded by explosions, grey smoke, and falling ash. It’s New Year’s Eve—I am on a balcony—the explosions so close that it is unbelievable. It’s New Year’s—I am a new country—the fireworks are equally exciting and frightening, and are ushering us all into the next year with thoughts that are hopeful and fearful about our family’s future.
The everywhere fireworks are not at all like those in NYC where only a very few organizations are licensed to use them.
It’s New Year’s Eve—I am in Amsterdam—reflecting back on my American culture.
Tonight among these explosions, I have been thinking about America’s obsession with violence and celebration of destruction. Even more so, I have been thinking about the finger pointing and outrage expressed by Americans about the brutality of Muslim suicide bombers. People ask, “How can they do it? How can they believe that they will be redeemed after death?” Indeed having lived in NYC during September 11th, I witnessed upclose the awful brutality, devastation and traumatic impact on our population.
I stood under the ash that was falling endlessly from our New York sky.
I think that part of the shock comes with an awful surprise as a bomb explodes in an everyday space. Hidden in plain sight: a plane in the sky, a parked car, under the dirt of an intersection, or under clothing.
Everyday objects and people become weapons, fatally charged with immense cruelty and gruesome power over innocent civilians.
Perhaps it’s the same concept of the deathly everyday space that captured my attention and remorse when I learned about America’s wide use of cluster bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years. Cluster bombs are similar to landmines, which have long been banned in warfare. They are large munitions, which release in mid-air as many as two thousand small submunitions that ‘carpet’ an enemy area. The submunitions or bomblets often don’t explode and remain hidden in the landscape for years, long after the conflict, maintaining their deadly potential.
Most victims are children, who often pick up the shiny bomblets and become maimed or are killed when they explode in the children’s curious hands.
America, who repeatedly refused to sign an international treaty banning cluster bombs, produces/owns/and uses the largest stockpile of Cluster bombs in the world. Although much of the Iraq war was hidden, I discovered that by 2007 America had already dropped 60,000 pounds of cluster bombs over Iraq. The ‘Coalition Forces’, according to Human Rights Watch, dropped almost two million cluster submunitions in Iraq in the first two months of the war in 2003. Unexploded bomblets littered the land and turned Iraqi landscapes into mine fields. A report by the campaign group Handicap International said that 98% of cluster bomb victims were civilians and a third of the casualties were children.
Lamiya Ali was one of these casualties.
In fact, on the very same day of my exhibition opening—April 26—eight years ago she was killed by a cluster bomb while she was playing with her four siblings outside their home in Baghdad. This was during the first two months of our invasion of Iraq and the result of just one of almost two million cluster submunitions that we had dropped over the country.
Lamiya Ali was six when her life was abruptly ended.
My own life was suspended when I encountered Lamiya’s photograph taken by Stephanie Sinclair (of Chicago Tribune). In the photograph, the young girl appears as an angel as she is being washed by a soft veil-like spray of water and prepared for burial. Another photograph (taken by Marco Di Lauro) that I found later in my research, shows Lamiya’s limp and lifeless body, covered in a soiled pink cotton dress, carried in the arms of a relative. Next to her is the half naked lifeless body of her brother Hamza. In the photograph, Hamza has only the sleeve of a blue sweatshirt remaining on his body. He is also being carried by a relative.
He was playing with Lamiya and was also six.
These images are so absolutely arresting to me that after I saw them, I committed myself to making a creative response. This is a similar beginning with which most of my work is initiated. I begin with an arresting encounter and I work to create an experience for the public to mark this moment.
My project is called “Lamiya’s Last Game.”
I began thinking about the connections to my own life: Lamiya is six, the age of my own daughter. My emotions rolled along with so many unrealistic wishes and questions: Who is responsible for the loss of this young girls’ life? I want to bring her back from the dead, I want to reverse history, stop the war game, block the invasion of the country, the brutalization of a generation of Iraqi children. And many people might respond, ‘The Iraq War is over, forget about it. There’s nothing you can do.’ But is that right? Do we allow these atrocities to be forgotten?
Don’t we have a responsibility to face up to the devastating invasion of Iraq?
In an article called “Iraq: The Unseen War”, Gary Kamiya seemed to answer my question and even included Sinclair’s photograph to prove his point: “A picture of a dead child only represents a fragment of the truth about Iraq—but it is one that we do not have the right to ignore. We believe we have an ethical responsibility to those who have been killed or wounded, whether Iraqis, Americans or those of other nationalities, not to simply pretend that their fate never happened. To face the bitter truth of war is painful. But it is better than hiding one's eyes.” (Published by Salon.com, December 2008).
This month, we celebrated my daughter’s sixth birthday.
We discussed making a piñata for her birthday party. She wanted me to make a piñata of a dog, fill it with candy and bring it in to school for a ceremonial game with a blindfold and stick. The idea is to blindfold and disorient each child by spinning them and sending them with a stick toward the piñata to try and smash it until the candy comes spilling out. It’s violent. It’s fun. The children rush in like wild animals to grab as much the candy as they can.
What my daughter doesn’t know about the piñata is the fascinating history. The pinata traditionally was made for the purpose of redeeming sinners. Pinatas were traditionally made as seven-pointed star, for seven sins, and at New Year’s time (and even before that during Lent) people would play the same game of smashing the piñata, or their sins. The promise of redemption -in the sweet here after of the future- was represented by the reward inside the piñata. The seven-pointed star was also known in Mexico to represent the devil and hitting the shape would make the devil let go of the good things he had taken hold of…allowing the winner to have hope for a new beginning.
In this exhibition, I have made two types of piñatas: seven-pointed star and dog shape.
The stars I made in ceramic and covered with the hand-cut and embroidered fabrics of traditional Muslim abaya. I tried to approximate the same abaya worn by Lamiya’s mourning relatives from Marco Di Lauro’s photographs. My embroidery is in Arabic of two popular Iraqi children’s songs: Happy Birthday and the other is ‘Koko’s Song’ about a little girl who is lost. Each of my star piñatas is filled with powdered sugar. Plus each piñata contains a type of date seed: one has a set of bronze cast seeds, one of gold seeds, one of real seeds. Each represent different stages of potential of life: which is more valuable?
My daughter and I played this piñata game together.
Seen documented in the exhibit photographs, as we each took turns striking the shapes, striking into the darkness with our blindness, we were each looking for something different. I was filled with joy but also violence and anguish. I wanted to break all of those piñatas and believe that I would be redeemed. And what if with all of my strength I could strike the piñata and redeem the loss of this little girl? I try to imagine the things she would have contributed to the world if she were still alive today. What would she have created? What might she and her family be celebrating today?
Why was she denied a chance to celebrate a new year?
In this horrible war in Iraq, what else could I wish for? Could I strike the piñata and magically make Americans understand the toll of war so that they never would allow the government to enter into another bloody conflict? Could I strike the piñata to redeem the 650,000 estimated Iraqis killed as the result of our invasion, that’s the same number as entire population of Boston? What of the 4,500 US military casualties? The wounded? The tortured? I would wish to strike the piñata and even redeem the miles of destroyed ancient date tree orchards.
I know it’s only a game, but if I would give you a stick, what would you wish for?
-Julia Mandle, 2011