Mothers in agony over the death of their sons; a sky filled with a web of bomber planes; homes in piles of rubble; a close-up of a young girl seated quietly beside a window, seen through the scope of a gun.
These are just a few of the penetrating images on view at “Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan,” a thought-provoking exhibition at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum on the Queens College campus in Flushing.
Among the artists included in this traveling mural project are several with direct connections to the college and the borough. Others come from across the United States and a few from France.
It is likely that visitors will react strongly to the pieces on display. Some may feel sympathy, others outrage. More still may feel repulsed. However, most will gain insight and perhaps be motivated to seek further information. No one will leave untouched.
The 45 panels that comprise one section of the two-part exhibit measure 4 by 6 feet each and are created, symbolically, on parachute fabric.
Near the entranceway, setting the tone for the exhibition, is a quotation from French-Algerian author Albert Camus, written in calligraphy by artist Susan Harts, a sixth-grade English teacher in Queens: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves.”
Camus’ point — that man must reflect upon his actions and can, ultimately, choose a life of peace — seems to be in line with the entire exhibition.
The war in Afghanistan, which recently earned the distinction of becoming the longest in U.S. history, has been rendered largely invisible, according to the exhibition, which invites viewers to consider the impact of the war on the civilian population caught in the crossfire.
“At least three children were killed in war-related incidents every day in Afghanistan in 2009,” one panel informs. “When does it stop?” reads a caption beneath a montage of youngsters in various states of emotion.
According to museum assistant Jessica Mariano, approximately 400 people have passed through the exhibition since it opened on Dec. 9.
“It’s thought-provoking, very emotional. It gets people talking,” Mariano said. “They seem to really like it.”
Subtle and downright overt anti-U.S. government messages are interspersed among the art works.
“During the U.S.-initiated war in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghan men, women and children have been killed,” one poster proclaims.
The war in Afghanistan was launched in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. mission in the country was to decimate the al-Qaeda militants behind the attacks, apprehend their leader, Osama bin Laden, and overturn the Taliban government which harbored them.
Some visitors objected to what they saw as the exhibit’s anti-U.S. sentiments, while others said they were disappointed with its neutrality.
Brita Helgesen, research assistant at the museum, recalled one guest who was angered by what he perceived to be a lack of blame anywhere in the presentation. He wanted to be able to see who was right and who was wrong through the presentation and perceived its apolitical stance as a negative, rather than as an attempt at opening minds, Helgesen said.
But, according to Helgesen, complaints have been few and far between.
Some 150 visitors were on hand for opening night, she said, and “all of them were supportive. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War were here, and they were happy to see there’s been this support to have dialogue.”
Museum director and curator Amy Winter, who, in collaboration with Helgesen, designed the layout of the exhibition, finds the works “a very powerful group of images that show the depth of the artists’ empathy with the humanistic and humanitarian efforts in non-violent solutions to war.”
For Mariano, the single most memorable work is “Birth of Tragedy II,” which depicts a devastated young girl, hands and face smeared with blood, alone in the darkness.
“The shadow of the hand reaching out is haunting,” she said. “The darkness and how she’s crying sum up how many children feel. Maybe she lost her parents. It’s terrible. But it’s a wonderful piece.”
Mariano is also particularly touched by “Mountain Kites,” one of the few uplifting pieces on display, depicting a peaceful future in which children can, once again, play.
“It shows there’s a bright side. Children at peace, kids being kids, as it should be. It’s breathtaking,” she said.
Helgesen has her own favorite — an ironically colorful rendering featuring corpses, limbs and the debris of lives destroyed.
“I like the style,” Helgesen said. “It’s a very strong image and the message is very clear: the women of Afghanistan have had very different experiences from what we’ve experienced.”
Rego Park resident Rikki Asher, who serves as director of art education at the college, is represented in the exhibition by her piece entitled “Bamiyan Buddha and Weeping Women.”
The mural expresses a sense of loss over the colossal statues of Buddha that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. A weeping woman, repeatedly depicted, in increasing size from left to right, represents all women who have lost loved ones to war.
Helgesen recalled that one of Asher’s students came to the exhibition in support of his professor, and said that he was so profoundly impacted by the work that his understanding of patriotism changed. In some cases, exercising freedom of speech and expression provided by our Constitution may be the most patriotic of gestures.
In addition to the murals, the exhibit features artwork by students in Kabul, who created drawings of their daily activities.
Among the images is one of a child calling for help from a rooftop as his building is being bombed and a frowning sun shining down upon barren trees.
The exhibition, which was created by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, has already been seen in Philadelphia, and will next head to cities in California and North Carolina.
Related upcoming attractions at the museum include “Artists and Poets Speak Out,” featuring a poetry reading and panel discussion with activist veterans, poets and artists in pursuit of peaceful and constructive solutions to current conflicts, on Jan. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m., and “The Circle Unbroken,” an interfaith discussion on the Afghan war on Jan. 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission to the museum is free.
‘Windows and Mirrors’
When: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Jan. 30
Where: Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, 405 Klapper Hall, 65-30 Kissena Blvd.