In the silence, the image crystalized in its grotesque clarity.
Deryk Houston was describing the effects of a bomb blast on a shelter in Iraq, where hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were hiding.
For weeks, the transmissions out of the shelter were monitored, eventually leading the coalition forces to believe – mistakenly – that it was a military target. Two missiles were unleashed, tearing a perfect, cylindrical hole in the roof, burning alive everyone on the first floor.
The second missile followed the exact path of the first, tearing into the basement area, where thousands of gallons of water was stored for drinking, cooking and bathing purposes. The water spilled and boiled immediately … and that’s when Houston falls silent.
The artist toured the Ameriyha bomb shelter in Iraq as part of a fact-finding mission with doctors and senators from the U.S. He wanted to see for himself the effect of sanctions imposed from the first Gulf War in 1991.
“I was quite interested in what was happening there,” he said. “It didn’t really match with what our governments were saying.”
The people he met in Iraq’s art community and the hospitals told him about Ameriyha.
“They said if you do nothing else, you have to go there,” Houston said. “To actually witness it is something I’ll never forget.
“It tore me up for probably 10 years.”
Images of claw marks on basement walls, residue on the walls from where the water touched, and an imprint on the wall of a mother nursing her baby refused to go away.
“When I came out of there, I was very angry at the world,” Houston said. “It took me a while to get over that.”
As he focused on art, his message was not expressed in anger but rather gentleness. He found people more receptive to a calm, peaceful message rather than a graphic, violent one.
His exhibit at the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s campus location is a direct result of his experience touring Ameriyha. The room is draped in white sheets with shadows of people in the display.
Houston’s guide at Ameriyha survived because she left that morning to return to the “unsafe” part of town to do her laundry, which is part of the inspiration for the sheets in the installation.
Houston said he wants people to understand the brutality that humans are capable of inflicting on each other and, hopefully, inspire viewers to foster change toward a more caring and peaceful world.
“Maybe people will say, ‘we’re better than that’,” he said. “It’s up to the people.”
The exhibit, Illuminating Peace, Seeking Peace, with Amy Loewan, opens Friday (Jan. 13) with a reception from 5-7 p.m. at the gallery. The exhibit will be up until April 14. Please call 250-740-6350.