Detainees paint an alternative picture of time at Guantanamo

The pieces are all part of a surprising exhibit in New York with an unlikely source – the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Paintings made by a Guantanamo detainee

The art is striking, a miniature three-masted ship in cardboard, with bits of a T-shirt for the sails and threads from a prayer cap for ropes. A picture of a huge mosque at a water’s edge and a shadowy and faceless Statue of Liberty.

The pieces are all part of a surprising exhibit in New York with an unlikely source — the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is offering art lovers a chance to examine the works of eight presumed jihadists now or once held at the detention center, which has become a symbol of America’s “War on Terror” — and of the excesses committed in its name.

The prison was opened in 2002 at the US naval base on Cuba’s southern coast. Some 800 suspected jihadists, swept up by American forces in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, have passed through its cells.

Former US president Barack Obama promised to close the prison amid reports of torture or arbitrary treatment. But 41 detainees remain, and President Donald Trump, vowing a relentless war on extremists, wants to keep them there.

The exhibit of paintings and other objets d’art made by detainees is called “Ode to the Sea” and the water is indeed an omnipresent theme.

A 2014 hurricane briefly forced the US military to remove the tarps blocking the detainees’ view, said Erin Thompson, a co-curator of the exhibit and an assistant art professor at John Jay.

While the sea apparently fed the dreams, and nightmares, of detainees, it is also a theme that passes the rigorous standards of Guantanamo censors, who have rejected some artworks as “overtly political or angry,” Thompson said. Censors did, however, approve a drawing entitled “Vertigo at Guantanamo,” a dizzying spiral of blue, green and red dots.

Pakistani detainee Ammar al-Baluchi, the exhibit’s only artist to have been charged formally over the 9/11 attacks, wanted to convey to his lawyers the precarious feeling he says he has suffered since being “tortured by the CIA,” Thompson explained.

“This art is not here to glorify him as an artist, it’s here so we can learn about his experience, his life,” she said.

Of the 30 works displayed, 16 come from Muhammad Ansi, a Yemeni. Released from Guantanamo and transferred to Oman in January 2017, Ansi is the man behind the exhibit, said his lawyer, Beth Jacob.


A model made by Moath Al-Alwi while being detained at Guantanamo


During their first meeting, Ansi spoke to her at length about the art courses that Guantanamo first offered in 2009, and he asked if his work could eventually be displayed to the outside world.

Jacob received clearance from Guantanamo officials to take a few of his works off the island, and she showed them to artist friends in New York.

Thus was born the idea of an exhibit. Other detainees, or former detainees who had left Guantanamo along with their artworks, asked to take part.

These men “know they have been demonized,” Jacob said. “What they hope by this is that people will see them not as the worst of the worst but as people, as humans, as people who have feelings and emotions, who appreciate beauty, who try to create that beauty. It’s almost a cry for understanding.”

For other detainees, the exhibit is a chance to “reaffirm (their) existence,” said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.

Yemeni detainee Moath al-Alwi, the creator of the three-masted cardboard ship, was one of the first to arrive in Guantanamo, in January 2002.

“He has seen other prisoners leave, and he is still there for no real reason. He has never been charged, never been tried, so it is a form of disappearance, a form of erasure,” Kassem said.

Caged bird sings

Judging by the exhibit’s guest book, visitors often leave feeling both surprised and moved.

“The caged bird sings,” wrote one who did not leave a name.

“To be there all this time, and to be alone and just having an art class — how important that must have been just to keep you sane,” Robert Fulmer, a coffee importer from San Francisco, said.

The exhibit has apparently caused a stir at the Pentagon, after reports that some patrons wanted to buy the works on display.

Spokesman Benjamin Sakrisson confirmed that the release of artworks from Guantanamo was being suspended amid a “re-examination” of the policy.

The Defense Department had not realized before the exhibit opened that the works considered US property “could be sold,” he said.

Thompson confirmed that some visitors to the exhibit, which runs through January 26, had expressed an interest in purchasing certain works. But only those by former detainees would be made available for sale.

Kassem said he feels certain the sales are only a pretext for the Pentagon to change course.

“The moment these prisoners begin to express themselves, that they are able to show that they are human beings like everyone else... that’s a threat,” Kassem said.

“It runs immediately counter to the narrative that justifies not only Gitmo but the entire war on terror.”

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