In gross anatomy, Howard U.'s Ashraf Aziz sees nothing but grace
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
At 71, Ashraf Aziz has spent half his life cutting open cadavers and initiating medical students at Howard University into the pungent mysteries of human anatomy. He likes the heads. Extracting the muscles of chewing is one of his specialties. There is little about the body that can faze him anymore.
And yet, here in a little art gallery across the street from the Rosslyn Metro station, this most eloquent and loquacious man of science has been rendered almost speechless.
"I, I'm really a little bit -- " he stammers.
He sounds like a first-year medical student about to be overcome in the embalming room.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Tears well in his eyes.
Surrounded by red-wine-sipping artists and art students on a recent evening, the anatomist is contemplating their renderings of the human body. The nudes not only have no clothes, they also have no skin. The subjects are cadavers -- cadavers from the lab where Aziz teaches gross anatomy.
"I'm so deeply moved," he says. He never thought he would find such kindred spirits.
This exhibit, "Anatomical Art: Dissection to Illustration," is just one outcome of an unusual year-old collaboration between Howard's College of Medicine and the Art Institute of Washington. The cross-disciplinary ping-pong continues strong in both directions:
There is talk of enlisting animators from the art school to enhance lessons on locomotion at the medical school. An Art Institute sculptor presented Aziz with some fancy modeling clay, which he used to take an impression from the inside of a chimpanzee skull as part of his comparative chew-muscle research.
Meanwhile, at the art school, to such curriculum standards as "life drawing" -- portraits of live, nude models -- has been added the informal option of, well, dead drawing, in the cadaver lab. Some artists have taken to exploring -- and memorizing the Latin names of -- complex muscle groups that invisibly influence the supple motions of the living torso.
Perhaps most striking has been seeing the life and career of one of Washington's singularly passionate scientists come full circle.
The son of amateur artists in the Indian diaspora, growing up in Tanzania, Aziz, too, once wanted to become an artist. But his poet-carpenter father and his henna-painter mother feared there wasn't a secure future in art. So Aziz became a zoologist and a human anatomist, an associate professor at Howard.
The choice was apt, for the study of anatomy has embraced art -- and vice versa -- at least since Leonardo da Vinci performed dissections and drew the results. From "Gray's Anatomy," the seminal 19th-century illustrated text, to latter-day sensational exhibitions of plasticized cadavers such as "Bodies" and "Body Worlds," the dissected corpse continues to fascinate, repulse, instruct and inspire.
Aziz believes that when science and art diverge, both lose. He draws his own illustrations. To conclude his regular medical lecture on the hand and forearm, he has had traditional Indian tabla drummers demonstrate the dexterity of the muscles and tendons that his students will tweeze in the cadaver lab. In 1999 he co-wrote a 19-page academic journal article in which he cited Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Marshall McLuhan, along with medical authorities. The ostensible subject was to defend the relevance of the "real" cadaver in medical education despite the rise of digital "cyber cadavers" -- but really the piece was a stirring meditation on authenticity. Away from the lab he reads poetry and writes essays on popular Indian cinema.
Aziz's dream has been to see what a new generation of artists would bring to a new generation of cadavers. Even if the results were nothing revolutionary, he thought, the process itself would be illuminating for all involved: Where life has ended, insight might begin.
Anatomy for art students
As Aziz was casting his thoughts from the realm of science to art, an artist named Marie Dauenheimer was thinking in the other direction.
In 1979, five years after Aziz began teaching at Howard, Dauenheimer was sitting in a class, Gross Anatomy for Artists, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. What a concept, she thought: The students would spend a couple of hours in a studio life drawing, then cross the hall to the anatomy lab. They would shuttle back and forth from living to dead, surface to structure, skin-deep to skinless.
"That was a turning point for me," she says.
She got a master's in medical illustration at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she took gross anatomy and dissected a cadaver. "I loved every minute of it," she says. "To explore the human body and then being able to draw it."
She built a career as a freelance illustrator -- drawing surgical procedures, molecular structures, physiological processes. Four years ago she joined the faculty of the Art Institute, teaching classes in life drawing and human and animal anatomy.
Last year she conceived a summer sabbatical to realize one of her own dreams. She wanted to conjure those epiphanic student days in the anatomy lab. She proposed to develop a more powerful way to teach principles of anatomy to art students.
One of the best friends and collaborators of her husband, anthropologist Samuel Strong Dunlap, was none other than Aziz. Dauenheimer paid a visit to Howard. She expected just to have coffee with Aziz, and brainstorm how they might work together. Aziz surprised her.
"Your cadaver is waiting for you," he said.
He encouraged Dauenheimer to do the dissection herself, with help from Dunlap. All summer she cut and drew, inviting art students and colleagues to make their own sketches and sculptures. That work is in the exhibit.
The anatomist imposed one condition on the artist.
"He had dibs on the head," Dauenheimer says.
Dissection puts Aziz in a philosophical mood. In the lab one recent afternoon, he grasps the left hand of a cadaver and holds it up for inspection. The flexible assemblage of bones, muscles and tendons rests in his rubber-gloved palm.
"Look at this here," he says, manipulating the sinewy thumb. "What Aristotle called the organ of organs, the opposing thumb."
His rubber fingers glide down the flayed forearm, and he lightly presses and pulls stringy cords that cause the thumb and fingers to move, puppetlike.
"The body is organized in layers of muscles," he says. "Look at the silvery tone of the tendons! Beauty is not skin-deep, it is deep-deep. . . . The cadaver opens itself up to reflection. This is where data and information lead to knowledge and insight."
Aziz is standing in the center of a vast space filled with 46 stainless steel platforms, each supporting a cadaver in a blue or white body bag and connected to black ventilation tubes.
The atmosphere is not morbid, but reverent. The bodies have been donated by the families of the dead. For six months, students work with the cadavers. Then the remains are cremated and returned to the families, or interred in a plot in Beltsville. No personal details about the cadavers are revealed to the students. The cadaver that Dauenheimer dissected and that most of the artists drew belonged to a 94-year-old woman.
Before dissection, the bodies are embalmed in a room next to the lab. The blood is drained out and preservative chemicals are pumped in. During dissection, the skin is peeled back and fat and other tissue is cleared away to reveal the purple-brown muscles and iridescent tendons.
In Aziz's view, the anatomy lab is not the end of anything, it is the beginning of something.
"The cadaver is a medical student's first patient," he says.
It is like a message from the physician who signed the death certificate to a new generation of doctors. "The novice begins training where the trained physician leaves off," he wrote in his manifesto celebrating the cadaver.
A cadaver is unwieldy. It will not fit in your laptop for later reference. Hence the need to depict and describe it -- the artist's role.
Yet Aziz stakes his worldview on this point: Just as the medical student must begin his initiation with the original flesh and guts, not with a pristine digitized reflection, so the artist -- engaged in creating yet another reflection -- must begin at the source.
Moment of insight
Pen and sketchbook in hand, Geoffrey Moore was paying close attention to the skinned and stripped lower leg and foot of the cadaver. He noticed that one of the toenails was still tinted with polish. Fuchsia. A sudden powerful consciousness of this departed life flooded his imagination.
"I had to stop drawing for a minute," recalls Moore, 21, a third-year animation student.
Then he went back to work. He was trying to solve an artistic problem. In his animation exercises at the institute, he had been having trouble with the "toe-roll" or "foot-roll" motion, when an animated character is taking strides. Now in the lab he was drawing -- and mentally absorbing -- those muscles and tendons that make that roll possible.
"We're all kind of differently shaped, but motion is universal," Moore says. He was accustomed to rendering the surfaces of things, where appearances vary so much. The cadaver lab reveals the universal in the particular. "Instead of seeing the differences, you see the similarities in our bodies," he says. "The more you learn about what's under the skin, the more you can apply that when you see someone walking down the street."
Moore's sketches of the leg and foot hang in the exhibit organized by Dauenheimer, along with the work of eight other students and professional artists.
At the exhibit opening, having recovered his composure, Aziz walks from picture to picture, pausing delightedly at each. Courtly and cheerful, he wears a sports coat and a striped tie with little skulls on it. He is joined by his wife, Barbara Dunn, an oncologist with the National Cancer Institute. They live in Mount Pleasant.
"This is fantastic," Aziz says to Charl Ann Brew, who has made an eight-inch sculpture of a gesturing cadaver whose bones and muscles are revealed to different degrees on different limbs. Aziz lingers over the head.
"You have the forehead muscle . . . the smile muscle . . . then the kissing muscle right there . . . and in order to give a French kiss, the muscle there to get deep suction. Exquisite detail!"
Brew, an art instructor, says the project has inspired her to look deeper. "I'm memorizing a different sent of muscles every quarter."
As he walks through the exhibit, Aziz cites a few lines by the Urdu poet Ghalib, about how the awareness of death adds intensity to life: "If the candle did not immolate itself in all its brilliant colors, the night would not be illuminated."
These are his most important anatomy lessons.
"We have the gift of language, the gift of making memories in words and pictures," Aziz says. "The bodies are gone, but by making these memories, we, to an extent, resurrect them. This is the antidote to death."
The exhibition--which looks not-to-be-missed--will be on view until May 8th at the Art Institute of Washington Gallery (“Gallery 1820”), 1820 N. Fort Myer Drive, Street Level, Arlington, Virginia. You can read the entire article in context on the Washington Post website by clicking here. You can see the photo gallery--from which the above image was drawn--by clicking here. You can find out more about the show by clicking here.
Image: Nikki Kahn-The Washington Post; Caption reads: "The son of amateur artists in the Indian Diaspora and growing up in Tanzania, Aziz, too, once wanted to become an artist. But his poet-carpenter father and his henna-painter mother feared there wasn't a secure future in art. So he became a zoologist and a human anatomist, and is now an associate professor at Howard. Here, Aziz spritzes a solution on a cadaver to keep it moist at the gross anatomy lab in Northwest Washington." You can see the full photo essay by clicking here.