Darkness Before Dawn at the Freedom Tower

In order to understand light, it is said, we must also understand its opposite. In art, that can be translated literally as well as metaphorically. Although artworks have often been viewed as objects that bring beauty into life, they have also been vehicles to question our sense of aesthetics, and of humanity.

To call “Instruments of Torture Through the Ages,” currently at Miami Dade College‘s Freedom Tower, an art show is misleading. But as a vehicle to examine the darkness that hopefully can lead us to light, it is unparalleled.

Several years ago, on a dreary winter day in Tuscany, our family took an outing to see a torture exhibit in the perfectly preserved Medieval town of San Gimignano. It was not a pleasurable excursion — it truly put “evil” into the pronunciation of the period’s name. But it left such a powerful impression that all the Renaissance art we would subsequently see took on new meaning; to see such extremes of dark and light in one place and time left no doubt about which side was worth fighting for.

In fact, “Instruments of Torture” comes from the Museo Toscana in Tuscany, and the beautiful and also historical Freedom Tower might, on this side of the ocean, be the perfect vehicle for your own exploration. The Freedom Tower was the first stop here in Miami for many fleeing oppression, an iconic structure symbolizing the opposite of that oppression.

Warning: there are brutal pieces in this exhibit, many of which are from the Middle Ages, such as the famous Iron Maiden, a sarcophagus of spikes adorned with the face of a German maiden. There are also reproductions of famous paintings from that time depicting such brutality.

Yet the exhibit drags us to the present, and to our own culpability. We don’t have spiked chairs anymore, but we have electric ones. As Abu Ghraib and orange jump-suits in Guantanamo remind us, torture is not an ancient artifact nor one that only exists in “unenlightened” lands. “The quest to strengthen human rights and foster fundamental freedoms can be attained if people become aware of those circumstances where even today rights and freedoms are violated,” according to MDC Art Gallery Director Jorge Gutierrez. Without understanding the darkness, it is hard to get to the light (it’s not a coincidence that the exhibit is in conjunction with Amnesty International, along with the Centro Cultural Español and the Dante Alighieri Society in Miami).

This is not an easy exhibit, but art isn’t easy either — in its essence it should challenge us, make us question beauty and form and life, and what it is to be human. Throughout the summer, MDC will continue a series of lectures as part of this questioning, including from a Cuban torture survivor, an interpreter and legal council for Guantanamo inmates, and a Holocaust panel. Go to for more information.

“Instruments of Torture Through the Ages,” through Aug. 29 at MDC’s Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7700;