Aaron Hughes didn’t know he wanted to be an artist. He was just twenty years old in 2003, a student studying industrial design at University of Illinois, when he was suddenly summoned to fight in the United States’ second war with Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I was a truck driver,” Hughes says, recalling his early experiences in the war. “I would do these missions over and over again, hauling supplies to different bases in Iraq and back out.”
When Hughes arrived he first noticed the Iraqi children. “As soon as you cross the border there’s kids,” he says. “They were willing to jump on a semi truck to get food and water. I was really excited at the time because I thought these are the kids we are going to help. These are the kids we are going to provide humanitarian relief to. We’re going to pass out food and water. We’ll help fix some roads and go home.”
But things weren’t going to be that simple.
Hughes admits that he began his military career with a lot of patriotic fervor. Like many U.S. citizens he believed the United States was in Iraq to promote democracy, find weapons of mass destruction, and provide humanitarian aid. But as the war lingered Hughes began to question why he and his fellow soldiers were occupying a country halfway around the world.
“I quickly learned that we weren’t there to provide any humanitarian relief,” he says. “If anything we were there simply to build out the military infrastructure and support the contractors working for the military, not leaving much space for the humanity of the Iraqis or my fellow soldiers.” The war for Hughes had simply become a year and a half of the dehumanization of the Iraqis, “of pointing my weapon at them and telling them to get the fuck away from my truck” – completely counter to the humanitarianism that he imagined had brought him to Iraq in the first place.
It was during monotonous convoy missions that Hughes seemed to lose a piece of himself. He had grown up in Chicago, was raised by a Chicago public school teacher, and had ambitions to be a product designer. “I went to church every Sunday and I brought my bible with me when I deployed,” Hughes says. “I had a lot of ideals about America as a country, about my education and what I thought I knew about the world, about my religion – about what I thought was important.” But he started to have doubts. “I joined the military to serve my country, but I’m not serving my country,” he thought. “I joined the military to serve my community, but I’m not serving my community. I joined the military to help people, but I’m helping to kill people.”
But from that loss sprang something new: the desire to create art. “I decided that I wanted to be an artist,” he recalls. “I was a part of a lot of destruction and I just wanted to be part of something creative.”
When Hughes returned from his tour he pursued his ambition. He had a collection of photographs from his deployment and had the idea of making a picture book. But the photographs somehow failed to capture the complexity of what he had experienced. “They were really tourist pictures, they were taken as a voyeur, taken as a tourist in Iraq.”
Looking for advice he brought the photographs to his professor who instructed Hughes to blow up and shrink the images with a photocopier. What he discovered when he altered the images was the power of transformation. “All of the sudden these pictures became something I could manipulate. I can try to create something that’s more real and more honest by going back and complicating these pictures.” Ultimately this project became his Dust Memories series, which Hughes describes as having “moments of beauty, but also the emptiness, anxiety, tension, and pain that my experience had in it.” Through Dust Memorieshe found he could rewrite his experience and create new meaning out of the trauma of war.
Creating meaning out of trauma – that’s an important theme in Hughes’s work and one he’s been thinking about as he curates Surrealism & War, a new exhibit opening Memorial Day, 2014 at Chicago’s National Veterans Art Museum. Like many postmodern movements, Surrealism grew out of the trauma of the two world wars. An aesthetic of disjuncture, Surrealism encapsulated the fallibility of the social and political structures that caused nations to engulf themselves in war, while also challenging the supremacy of rational thought, which now seemed dehumanizing and meaningless. “Trauma is described by psychiatrists as this black hole of meaning,” Hughes explains. “And if trauma is really the actual break in meaning, the break in relationship linguistically, then every time a new relationship is established, a new connection is made and meaning is created.” For him and the Surrealists alike, art’s aim is to rewrite the trauma of war, replacing dehumanizing narratives of the past.
“When I talk about beauty, I’m talking about making meaning,” says Hughes, for whom art is an expression of beauty, poetry, and connection. “Desert flowers embody that for me,” he says. “Sparrows in the midst of an urban jungle. A small moment of tea.” These moments are what inspired Hughes’s TEA project, a performance in which people gather and sip tea together, sharing their experiences of the Iraq war. The idea for TEA came about from an experience Hughes had during the 2009 First International Labor Conference in Erbil, Iraq. Hughes was representing Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was speaking during a panel discussion when a man from the back of the room suddenly stood up, shouted in Arabic, and began rushing the stage. He thought the man was about to hit him and anxiously waited for the translation to come through his earpiece. “And just as he walks up on stage the translation comes through, and it says I just want to come up on stage and give these gentleman a hug! And he grabs me. I started to cry. I started to bawl. This gentleman was an Iraqi military. He had fought against the invading forces in 2003. And he saw past all that. He was just embracing me as a human being.”
Afterward Hughes was whisked backstage and served tea.
“It came out of this moment of this man reconciling our differences.” Hughes says. “And I wanted to share that. I thought it was something that was important for people to hear in the United States – about the compassion of the Iraqi people, despite everything that’s happened to them and to their country.” Thus began the TEA project, which is also inspired by the art Guantanamo Bay detainees reportedly drew on styrofoam teacups, which for them were their only possessions. “I think that that amount of humanity – a desert flower drawn on a styrofoam cup in the middle of Guantanamo Bay where there is no beauty – transcends all those preconceived notions people have that allow us to dehumanize other human beings,” Hughes adds.
Of the desert, the poet Edmond Jabès once wrote: “You do not go to the desert to find identity, but to lose it… You become silence. You become more silent than the silence around you. And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.” Artists and poets have long invoked the desert as an image of silence – the very embodiment of the absence of meaning. Stark, ashen, charcoal gray, the desert in Hughes’ 21 Days to Baghdad/Chicago series (a reaction against TIME Magazine’s book by a similar title) represents a very real absence: the absence of those who lost their lives and of the untold experiences that soldiers and civilians carry long after the conflict is over. For Hughes the war isn’t over yet. The landscape of the desert merges with the cityscape of his hometown of Chicago because “war isn’t just in an other space,” he says. “It isn’t just in Iraq, it’s also in Chicago. It’s in California. These experiences are carried on.” They are carried on anew as he fills the silence of the desert with meaning. Perhaps that’s what Jabès meant when he said silence could speak.
To see more of Aaron Hughes’ art, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and the artist’s website.
Annie Pentilla is a former Tikkun intern. She has a BA and MFA in creative writing from University of Colorado and San Francisco State University. She co-edits Highway 101 Press and her work has appeared in Montana State’s Read This. Her twitter handle is @AnniePentilla.