Entering Henze Lounge on the second floor of Paresky, where the opening of “Faces of Witness” was held, I was immediately drawn to the slightly-larger-than-life-size portraits of faces hanging on the glass panels.
The portraits are of men and women from all walks of life in the troubled South American nation of El Salvador. As I stepped closer to examine their features and the name tags below the portraits, I was astounded to see that the drawings were made of texts, testimonies to the personal stories and words of the sitters. The artist, Elaine Denny ’04, spoke to a small group of people gathered around the “witnesses” on Saturday. She emphasized that the portraits were not depictions of anonymous people; they are everyday El Salvadorians, each with their own unique story. Alicia, Salvador, David, Beatrice, Cirila, Noemi, Guadalupe and others all express their own sorrows and joys. “That is why I act as a broadcaster, so that their powerful stories do not lie buried and unheard,” Denny said.
Denny first discovered her passion for human rights promotions and activism, as well as for Latin America, on a trip to Nicaragua during her sophomore year at the College. Since then, she has been committed to engaging human rights issues and social justice, whether via sustainable development in the Middle East or immigration rights in South America. Exploring different modes of narration, she found photojournalism, combined with an interview-based approach, to be the most effective means of understanding and combating injustice. For her, the idea and the creative process did not happen simultaneously; she had originally intended to write a book about the “ordinary” masses she encountered in El Salvador, but found that words written on paper were simply too static to convey the appropriate intensity of emotion.
As the words are somewhat difficult to discern in the pictures, there were scripts of all the texts available. As I flipped through and read Salvador’s story, I began to understand the mysteriousness of his smile. One of Salvador’s stories told of a time when he helped his partner in resistance. When his partner was captured by the police and tortured, he visited the hospital where she was staying dressed in two layers of identical clothing. He pretended to be her husband and insisted that he have moments of privacy with his “wife.” Eventually, she was able to slip out in the clothes he brought and escape the country to safety. When I glanced at his portrait I could appreciate the sparkle of intelligence as well as the wise mischievousness in his eyes that demonstrated his spark of rebellion.
Under close observation, the portraits reveal an extraordinary attention to detail. Denny explained that she had crammed each person’s darkest secrets and revelations in the pupils of their eyes, the windows to their souls. In opposition to the illegible dense scrawls of the eyes, the mouths have words flowing freely out, and it is easier to read the horizontal lines. I could not help but delight at the deliberate construction of what came from Salvador’s mouth: “One cannot keep silent in the face of injustice.”
Denny was not embarrassed to admit the difficulties she had to overcome involving technique. “I could clearly see myself making progress as I started to grasp the ways of indicating different shades, by using different fonts and spacing between letters,” she said. “Realizing how hard it was to draw dense strands of hair, in the end, I just resorted to outlines instead.” Just as the fact that revolutions and changes could not take place in one night, neither did Denny’s creative process.
Looking at the diverse faces of students listening eagerly and the faces hanging on the walls – not without finding striking resemblance – humanity’s universal nature was made apparent. As best expressed by one of the subjects, Alicia: “Our children now are faced with the challenge of living with the same cruelty that we suffered, but hopefully the future generations will find a different world where there is hope, peace and respect for human life.”
The series on El Salvadorians shed a microscopic view on macroscopic matters, broadcasting voices that could be understood by all, united by a defiance for suppression and irrepressible struggle for freedom and equality. “Faces of Witnesses” will be on display in the Henze Lounge through April 30.