A Gulf War veteran suffering from PTSD gave Edgar Gonzalez-Baeza the idea for his contribution to “Radical Vulnerability” at the National Veterans Art Museum. As the veteran, a speaker at a panel discussion, attempted to discuss his memories, he became overcome by emotion and said, “They’re mine to keep,” pointing toward his chest. In Gonzalez-Baeza’s installation They’re Mine to Keep, several plaster arms emerge from a wall, each encircling the painted silhouette of a soldier.
Gonzalez-Baeza is a veteran as well, one of seven artists in “Radical Vulnerability” who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the War on Terror. Curated by Chicago artist and Iraq War veteran Aaron Hughes, the exhibition confronts PTSD and other problems soldiers face.
When Gonzalez-Baeza gave me a tour of the show, we stopped in front of Greg Broseus’s harrowing photographs. In his Re-Deployment series, Broseus, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, recalls returning from a stint in Baghdad in the Army National Guard. Self-portraits find the listless artist watching television, cleaning his gun, pointing his gun at the camera and, in the most disturbing image, sticking the gun in his month.
“Over there, it’s black-and-white,” says Gonzalez-Baeza, who was also posted to Iraq and now helps lead the Chicago chapter of the Vet Art Project. “It’s simple.” When soldiers return, he explains, they might feel alienated from friends and family who can’t grasp what they’ve experienced, or worried about reintegrating into families that managed without them for years.
NVAM executive director Levi Moore believes the museum can help break down what he calls the “wall” between soldiers and civilians. After 15 years on a quiet block in the Prairie District, the institution is preparing to move to the new Veterans Cultural Center of Chicago in time for Memorial Day. Moore, who joined the NVAM 16 months ago, won’t reveal where the Veterans Cultural Center will be located, but tells me the museum has a more “tourist-oriented” site in mind.
The Veterans Cultural Center will house not only the NVAM, but veteran support organizations such as the Warrior Arts Studio and Dry Hootch. According to Moore, most NVAM visitors are high-school students on class trips, but “our following really is people with a connection to the military,” so becoming part of “a community of veteran-related organizations” makes sense.
Moore is also eager to have more exhibition space than the 10,000-square-foot NVAM accommodates. “We don’t get to show anywhere near our 2,000-plus collection of [artworks],” he laments. The museum is expanding its presence online as well, assembling a searchable virtual museum containing images of all of its artworks and interviews with many of its 255 artists.
Veterans of the Vietnam War founded what became the museum in 1981. Though most pieces in its collection were made by Vietnam vets, Moore expects the mix to change. He realizes that art made by veterans “who grew up with computers, with video games”—and who served in a military with different demographics—won’t look the same. The first exhibit at the Veterans Cultural Center, Moore predicts, might “be dedicated to women combat veteran artists.”