`Moving' pictures on display

ART

Clash of religion, weapons is focus of MAP exhibit

May 04, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Moving Walls, the revelatory exhibition that opens tomorrow at Maryland Art Place, is a serious show about a serious subject that too often gets short shrift in an art world obsessed with celebrity and glitter.

The show presents works by two photographers, Edward Grazda and Lori Grinker, whose images engage the clash of arms and religion that marks so much of the history of our time.

The golden age of photojournalism lasted roughly from the founding of Life magazine in 1936 until its demise as a weekly publication in 1972. Since then, photojournalists have had to find new ways to tell their stories.

Many, like Grazda, have turned to books, publishing extended sequences of images that loosely trace a narrative arc. Grazda's Afghanistan Diary: 1992-2000, a devastating portrait of life under the Taliban, appeared in 2000 but was largely ignored until the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington nearly two years later.

Earlier, Grazda had begun another project documenting the Islamic community in the Queens section of New York City, where he grew up. The MAP show presents about two dozen images from this series, pictures of ordinary men and women in mosques, on the streets and in private homes.

One of the pictures, for example, depicts a group of Muslim women walking along the sidewalk near an elevated subway line. Their billowing garments and veiled faces seem to offer some protection from the world around them, but at the same time they mark the women as different even in New York's polyglot ethnic culture, and therefore potential targets.

Yet overall the portrait that emerges suggests that Muslims in New York are little different from any other immigrant population in a city that has long prided itself on welcoming people from around the world.

The Sept. 11 attacks made them suddenly suspect in their adopted land, however, and Grazda's images subtly convey the irony of their predicament, surrounded by curious or distrustful neighbors and possessed of a well-founded fear of political and religious persecution - presumably precisely the situation they sought to escape by coming to America.

Grinker's sensitive essay on the physical and psychological scars left by the shattering experience of war, by contrast, borrows from conceptual art's strategy of teasing complex narratives out of the inherent ambiguity of images.

Grinker pairs her photographs with texts transcribed from interviews with her subjects in which they describe their memories of the conflicts in which they were involved. One image shows a tight shot of the face of an older woman holding a photograph of a young soldier in her hand.

The accompanying text identifies the woman as Shirin, who as a student leader during the Bangladesh war of independence in the 1970s dressed as a boy to take up arms for her country.

"We were an organized student group and were trained as freedom fighters ... but I could not fight because I was female," Shirin Banu Mitil recalls. "I thought, `I am a woman, that is my barrier, but it's only the dress that is the obstacle, and I could change my dress and join with my team.'

"My brother and I had very similar features," she continues. "I cut my hair, put on my brother's shirt and pants. Dressed like this I asked my aunt if I looked like a boy or a girl. She said nobody could tell that you're a girl. After I joined with the group I heard the other members say that the brother of Mitil has joined with us."

The poignancy of the image stems from the unexpected contrast between the mature woman's gentle face, only partly visible in Grinker's portrait, and the hardened warrior who stares out from the photograph in her hand.

One begins to understand that war is a transformative experience that in every way is unimaginable in normal life, and that the imprint it leaves in later life may be all the more deep for being invisible.

Other images in Grinker's series depict an African boy orphaned by Liberia's civil war, a Russian woman who fought the Germans during World War II and a woman who was tortured by Ethiopian troops during Eritrea's 30-year war of national liberation.

Grinker's images force the viewer into an often uncomfortable identification with people who have seen the worst the world has to offer, and survived it. One can't help but honor her subjects' experience even as one shudders at the extremes of violence and cruelty to which they have been subjected.

A companion exhibit presents photographs by area youths mentored by local photographer Marshall Clarke. Both shows run through May 29.

Tomorrow MAP will hold a public discussion of the issues raised by Moving Walls in the gallery from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Participants will include Grazda and Grinker, Leon Faruq of the Open Society Institute and Susan Goering of the American Civil Liberties Union. The discussion will be moderated by WYPR radio personality Marc Steiner.

The gallery is at 8 Market Place in the Port Discovery Plaza. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-962-8565.

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