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ART REVIEW : ‘NHI’: Images of 45 Victims Exact a Toll

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in Washington, in the battle over the survival of the National Endowment for the Arts, politicians are debating what is art and what isn’t . The nation’s artists, however, left that issue behind decades ago. They want to know: “What matters?”

Five San Diego artists have produced an extraordinary four-part art event that cuts to the heart of the question. “NHI,” a multimedia project with billboards, an exhibition, book and performances, looks into the deaths of 45 local women, all of them prostitutes, transients and drug addicts. In it, the artists ask: Why aren’t these deaths, which involve brutal sexual assaults and other gruesome forms of violence, being treated like other murders? Why are these women being lumped together? Why don’t we know more about them as individuals so the public can help to piece together evidence?

Why are these women being treated as if they fit the old-time police category for marginal deaths: NHI--No humans involved?

Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco, Carla Kirkwood, Scott Kessler and Louis Hock--an informal collective with no institutional affiliation--produced this compelling project. And the power of its cumulative message is equaled, if not exceeded, by the professionalism of the presentation.

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The presentation has been unveiled in layers, and it takes the sum of the parts to reveal the meaning behind the individual elements. Last Wednesday, a billboard went up in two prime downtown locations. Its compelling graphic image initially is inexplicable to just about anyone but the local police: On the right is a picture of a pretty, unidentified woman. On the left nothing but the letters NHI. The artists subsequently explained that the woman is Donna Gentile, a prostitute and police informer whose nude and battered body was discovered seven years ago. Gentile had been strangled and gravel was packed into her mouth, suggesting that she had been murdered because of her testimony in a civil-service commission hearing against two San Diego police officers.

Gentile’s name has since become well known through reports about the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, which, since 1988, has been investigating her death as well as that of 44 other women. But as no answers have been found by the task force, many critics have complained that because the officers are investigating some of their peers, the effectiveness of the task force is dubious.

The artists--all of whom have long been active in public art projects that criticize San Diego’s Establishment--decided to do some exploring on their own, in part because of news reports that the term NHI was being used in references by police about the murdered women, an allegation police on and off the task force have vehemently denied. The term became a graphic peg for what the artists wanted to explore: These women, the artists claim, are not being treated like other humans. First, they were brutalized. Now, they are being lumped together and forgotten, as higher-profile cases get more attention and are resolved.

The billboard becomes a teaser for an exhibition at a downtown space where 45 photographs have been installed, all set in identical black frames. Under each is an identity plate with the name of one of the women.

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The show is deceptive, however. Only eight of the photographs are of the actual victims. Thirty-seven others are stand-ins: San Diego women who chose to replace the faceless victims for whom no photos were available. This tactic was not the artists’ original plan. They sought out photos of all the 45 women from the police and any other possible source, including known relatives and newspaper reports. But despite the publicity that the task force has garnered, only seven photos were available. And the artists turned the impasse to their own advantage, making the absence into an issue of feminist-style solidarity.

What we see are 45 women--the victims are indistinguishable from the others--no more or less pretty. The difference between them is made clear in the exhibition only through a subtle difference in typeface: the real victims’ names are printed in italics, the other victims’ names in Roman letters (to be clear, the actual victims’ names were used, not the stand-ins’).

The weight of this many women’s photographs makes the impact of the investigation more clear. As a number, 45 is abstract. As a group, the tragedy is overwhelming.

But the most heart-rending component of the project was Saturday night’s performance “MWI--Many Women Involved” by Kirkwood, done with the help of Colleen Roberts. Kirkwood read a gripping first-person tale about the sexual abuse of two female cousins--one of whom ended up a feminist, the other a drug addict in prison. Although we are not told how much of the tale is true, it was read with a passion and authenticity that made the audience feel that it was more true than not.

The tale of a young girl attempting to understand differences between what constitutes a good girl and a bad girl, her standing up to sexual advances from her grandfather, her making sense of the senseless death of a girlfriend, her experience of rape in Balboa Park, her subsequent redemption through the women’s movement and then, later, her feelings about her cousin’s problems are enough to make anyone want to turn away in painful empathy.

But the most emotional moment of the evening--and perhaps of the entire project--came as Kirkwood finished her story. “To those who murder us, we are all the same,” she repeated over and over, as she read, her voice cracking, the names of all of the 45 dead women, saying she is glad that her cousin is still alive and still in prison.

Nothing could make these dead women more real than this series. And nothing could make one feel more hopeless and powerless.

This is art that matters.

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* The NHI billboards, installed at Cedar Street and Pacific Highway and at 14th and G streets downtown, will remain on view through mid-March. The photo show at 622 5th Ave., open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., continues through March 14. The performance “MWI--Many Women Involved” repeats March 7 and 14 at 8 p.m. at the gallery.


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