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AARON HUGHES

AUSTIN HAPPEL • PHOTO

WITH

Aaron Hughes stands in front of a painting from his exhibit “Dust Memories�. TATYANA SAFRONOVA

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• STAFF WRITER

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aron Hughes was a junior in industrial design at the University of Illinois when he was called to report to the National Guard Unit in North Riverside in Chicago on January 30, 2003. In April, after two-and-a-half months of training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Hughes flew to Arifjan, Kuwait with the 1244th Transportation

Company. There he spent one year, three months, and seven days — extended beyond the six months his company had originally expected to stay — hauling old M818 flat-bed tractor trailers full of supplies for contractors, the Marines, and for other units. Delivering generators, air conditioners, tents, watch towers, scud busters and personal supplies Hughes traveled from camps and ports to

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bases in Kuwait and on two to three week missions to bases in Iraq like Camp Anaconda, the Talil Airbase and Baghdad. After he returned to the University, Hughes became a painting major. With the nearly 200 photos he took in the Middle East with disposable cameras and his 35-milimeter Pentax camera that soon collected sand and stopped working, Hughes created over fifty artworks that hang on the walls of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities building on 805 West Pennsylvania Avenue in Urbana until May 5. His photos included views from the M818 trucks, shots of the often-empty horizon, children begging for food on the side of road, and images of military machinery and of soldiers. Unlike the simplified portrayal of the war by the mass media — death counts and timelines of events — Hughes attempted to avoid narration with his art. Narrative, he said, is linear. “It creates absolutes and I don’t have one.� Instead, memory acts more like art, he said, with the “abstractions and complexities that are in images or in poetry too.� In a photo that became one of his two large oil paintings for the exhibit, number 52, Hughes and a sergeant posed in front of a burnt Humvee, only its charred metal frame remaining. Three soldiers died when the car was hit in an ambush. They died heroes you know. I got the photo to prove it / They burnt to death for us you know, Hughes wrote in a poem that accompanies the painting. “We were tourists,� he said. “We were taking pictures of everything. That’s messed up in a lot of ways.� In the other oil painting, number 53, Hughes posed against the barren desert background, tancolored sand splattered onto the canvas, a few fence

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posts sticking up like spikes out of the ground, and green brush peaking out from the horizon. The kneeling soldier, painted in black and white, in uniform and holding his gun, looks oblivious to the silhouettes of two Iraqi boys standing behind his shoulder. Ghost-like, the children are faceless, their figures blurred into the desert. “It was very huge disconnect between us and them,� Hughes said. A few of the camps were open to Iraqis who were there often selling souvenirs, cigarettes, alcohol, and food. But most of the time, the Iraqis and Americans remained separated. In “Do not stop ... ,� a charcoal and watercolor work, the order that was given to the soldier not to stop during an accident on the road depicts the most apparent, most unbearable, and even forced disconnect that existed between the soldiers and the Iraqis. The painting is a view from above of a soldier’s boot next to the body of a dead child, lying twisted on the ground with wideopen eyes. “Safwan is the city that you cross the border into, in Iraq,� Hughes said, “and I’d say there’s a convoy going through about every ten minutes, or less actually ... and these convoys have between 20 and 100 trucks in them. So that’s like between a quarter mile to two miles long convoys, and these trucks are huge trucks. And there’s a lot of kids on the road and ... it was really hard to control those kids. So there were some things that happened there with kids getting hit by trucks and stuff.� Keep the truck moving and don’t stop. Forget the kids! Hughes wrote in the poem that accompanied painting number 53. Now, now I can’t forget the kids. Damn kid. I’m not even there. Hundred thousand miles away and it’s still in my fucking head.

        

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We can do that. For your next planned event or weekend meal. E-mail Jim: Foudinis@hotmail.com sounds from the scene

Buzz Magazine: May 4, 2006  
Buzz Magazine: May 4, 2006  

May 4, 2006

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