Mourning Has Broken – Joseph DeLappe
Written by Genie Davis
The inspiration to take on projects focused on elements of mourning and remembrance has been a part of artist Joseph DeLappe’s work for many years. According to DeLappe, his most recent work, The Atone Project was “a quite spontaneous reaction to finding myself in New York City during the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.”
Currently living in Scotland, on a visit to see his daughter in the New York area, his thoughts became focused on the anniversary only after arriving in the city. At the same time, he’d been closely following the military exit from Afghanistan the month before and was aware of “the horrible drone strike on the Ahmadi family on the 29th of August in Kabul. My work over the past decade has largely focused on drone warfare, working on drone related projects, and doing my best as an artist to call attention to the moral implications of the use of these remote killing machines and the devastating effects their use has had on civilian populations.” He notes that the strike in Kabul was not atypical; the difference in the exposure of the mistaken “over the horizon attack” that killed the Ahmadis, was due to members of the press already nearby.
DeLappe went to the 9/11 memorial to make rubbings of the names of the Ahmadi family. He made a rubbing of each family member’s first name, taking letters from the names inscribed on the memorial to create composite names in their honor.
The artist’s work links the memorialization of the 2,983 civilians named at the 9/11 memorial and the estimated 71,000 civilians who have been killed in the Afghan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. DeLappe says the project is all about who is remembered and mourned, as well as why and in what way. The question of whether atonement and forgiveness can truly occur is something he wishes to answer.
The idea behind The Atone Project began ten years prior to his most recent visit to New York. “[At that time] I was in New York for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I had directed a project called iraqimemorial.org, an online open call and exhibition of imagined memorials to the many hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the Iraq war. This project was a direct reaction to the 9/11 memorial, addressing themes of memorial and atonement.”
He explains that “The iraqimemorial.org project was featured at an exhibition at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, opening on 9/9/2011. It was several days later, after the official opening of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site, when …I had the idea of making rubbings, but to build the names of Iraqi civilians who had been killed. I didn’t follow through on the idea at the time. This idea resurfaced while in the city this past September – making rubbings of the names of the Ahmadi family just seemed entirely fitting and necessary.”
DeLappe asserts that in his ongoing, 20-year conversation about just who is remembered, he’s struck by the fact of, “Our inability as Americans to truly own up to the devastating effect our foreign interventions have had on civilian populations.” He explains that “I was moved to engage in my work over these past decades largely from reading endless reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the American press. U.S. soldiers’ deaths were constantly the focus – civilian deaths, which vastly exceeded those of our soldiers, were often not mentioned or literally secondary if mentioned at all.” He adds that “The murder of the Ahmadi family is part of a larger and systemic use of technologized violence. The sad constant over these past twenty years is that we as Americans are incapable of moving beyond our belief in our exceptionalist status in the world, that we are the ‘good guys’ in all things – there is an ideology in place that simply seems to block out any deep consideration of our actions on the world stage.”
As to atonement itself, DeLappe says “Atonement is basically something that you do to express your sorrow for something that you did. I’m not entirely sure what I have discovered about atonement, save that in sharing actions such as The Atone Project with others, it is an opportunity to both personally make a gesture of atonement but also to perhaps pass the sentiment on to others.” He explains that “…it is a way to express something that is profoundly important and largely missing from the current dialogue regarding our actions abroad. My act of atonement at the 9/11 site is about the Ahmadi family – creating their names at that very loaded site. This was meaningful and an intensely personal way of making a gesture of remembrance and sorrow.”
As an artist, DeLappe believes this work is a logical culmination of his work as both an artist and activist over the past two decades. As with other projects, he says he seeks a way “for me, as an individual, to create work that hopefully connects, informs and moves others to think and maybe take action against the injustices of U.S. militarism and to call for the deep consideration of our common humanity.”
Interested in memorials since the early 80s, when Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was controversial, DeLappe made his first memorial in 1992 about the first Gulf War. Regarding his current project, he wants viewers to “see that it is crucial to think beyond the accepted narratives of remembrance we have so embraced as Americans. How we look at recent events and who we choose to remember says something deeply disturbing about who we are as a nation.” He notes “The 9/11 Memorial is an important site for remembering and mourning this incredible loss. What I am doing is simply saying, wait, there is a larger context, these others who we have killed are worth remembering and entirely connected to how we chose as a nation to react to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. These events are bookends in a way – one has led to the other. Two wrongs do not make a right.”
DeLappe intends to exhibit The Atone Project rubbings as artifacts in an April 2022 survey exhibition of his work at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Oklahoma. “I hope the website and documentation, stories such as this, and the catalog for the exhibition, which will feature this work and others, will continue to serve to inform about the project and continue to raise questions about remembrance, atonement and creative activism.”