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January 02, 2018


‘Giant’ model ship by Moath Al Alwi.—Courtesy John Jay College
‘Giant’ model ship by Moath Al Alwi.—Courtesy John Jay College

In Witnesses of the Unseen, a published account of life at Guantanamo by former detainees Lakhdar Boumedine and Mustafa Ait Idir, Boumedine recalls how his neighbours in the prison didn’t initially know where they were. One thought they were in Korea. Another assumed Oman, since the Gulf country had similar birds. Instead, they were at Guantanamo, in southeast Cuba, at a detention facility on a US naval base.

A brief reflection of what goes through the minds of the men detained there — and how they imagine the world outside — is currently on display at a remarkable art exhibit called Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo. The exhibit, currently ongoing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, displays artwork by eight current and former detainees held at Guantanamo.

When a lawyer for a detainee approached Erin Thompson, an art crime professor, about exhibiting the work, she was surprised to hear that there was art produced at Guantanamo at all. And while Thompson expected that the work might contain themes of anger, or torment, instead she came across beautiful seascapes, and images reproduced from National Geographic.

Art has been produced in other prisons and detention camps: during the Holocaust, in internment camps after the Second World War, even at Karachi’s Central Jail. But what is different about the art produced at Guantanamo, the exhibit’s co-curator Thompson says, is that for a long time it was made for “no one at all” — the work couldn’t be shared with the world.

‘Vertigo at Guantanamo’ by Ammar al Baluchi —Courtesy John Jay College
‘Vertigo at Guantanamo’ by Ammar al Baluchi —Courtesy John Jay College

The Ode to the Sea exhibit opened in the fall of 2017 to a slew of press and visitors. But in recent weeks, the artworks have gained new significance. The Miami Herald reported last month that the US government has stopped the release of art made at the prison, and is considering it government property, after it emerged that the exhibit’s website had an address for potential sales. After the Herald reported that a detainee was told the art might be burned when they left Guantanamo, the US military said there were no plans to incinerate the work.

For now, the exhibit exists. It seems surreal to step off the streets of New York and into a world inhabited by people as a result of events that transpired in the city. It is even more surreal to come face to face with the art created by people held in such a remote space, and how they depict this distance. That comes through in the imagery of the sea — which Guantanamo detainees cannot see from their cells, or visit, but can hear. There are depictions of coastlines, and reproductions of iconic images: the Statue of Liberty, the Titanic, the body of the Syrian child Ayman Kurdi washed up on a beach. The sea, which to others might represent summer holidays and happier times, is an unending expanse in some of the work. The art is left open to interpretation: one has to wonder whether the artists see the ocean as an escape route to which they have no access to, a constant reminder of a world outside, or a force of nature.

This is no ordinary exhibit either: there are restrictions on what can be depicted, and every work is cleared by the prison authorities. “You have to think about what’s missing from the art as well as what’s there,” Thompson says.

“A lot of the art does not make its way out,” says lawyer Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, from the international human rights organisation Reprieve. “What makes it through is a small sampling that the government has deigned capable of being released. What it ends up being is artwork that’s non-political in nature and it doesn’t depict their treatment whatsoever. We have clients who’ve depicted everything from their torture to their loneliness or sarcastic messages — I remember seeing one with a sign with a picture of a heart and a line through it saying ‘no hearts allowed in here’.”

‘Crying eye’ by Muhammad Ansi —Courtesy John Jay College
‘Crying eye’ by Muhammad Ansi —Courtesy John Jay College

It is remarkable, then, to see the ingenuity that has gone into a painstakingly detailed model ship created by Moath al Alwi by using scraps of cardboard and rags, with a sail bearing a military stamp, or in Khalid Qasim’s model of a ‘Hall of Enlightenment’ bearing the phrase: “Time is invaluable”. A painting by Muhammad Ansi shows hands with flowers behind jail cell bars, but there is an evident pencil outline of his initial drawing, which depicted hands reaching to the bars. In Qasim’s depiction of the ocean, there are shark fins visible above the surface. Ammar al Baluchi’s drawing is striking: it is a series of colourful dots, drawn over and over again, as al Baluchi tried to describe his condition of vertigo. One of two works by Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani detainee, depicts glassware: a still life that wouldn’t look out of place in an art class, but belies the fact that Rabbani is one of the prison’s most well-known hunger strikers.

The curatorial decisions behind this exhibit are significant. In any art show, there are detailed guides; but the curators kept information minimal, and chose not to write about the accusations against the detainees. “I’m also a lawyer as well as an art historian,” Thompson said, “and I know that seven out of the eight prisoners never even had charges filed against them. That’s just me proving my ‘innocent until proven guilty’ idea.”

Since the exhibit opened, Thompson has received more art and images from Guantanamo that she is currently archiving. And while she believes the decision to stop artworks from leaving the prison is “horrifying”, lawyers of detainees have told her the attention has renewed focus on the prison.

“It’s been astounding to me how many people have come to the exhibit and said ‘What do you mean Guantanamo is still open?’ It’s almost like it’s become this forgotten issue in America,” Thompson said.

It also seems to be just as forgotten in Pakistan, where Guantanamo or the Pakistanis held there are largely missing from political or social discourse. Sullivan-Bennis, whose clients include Saifullah Paracha, who at 70 is the eldest prisoner at Guantanamo, said there was nothing to show that the Pakistani government was pushing for a trial or release of any of the men held there. Paracha, who has heart disease and diabetes, has had two heart attacks at Guantanamo and is yet to be charged with a crime 14 years after he was first captured. It’s almost as if once the men disappeared over the seas, they went away forever.

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist currently based in the Middle East.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2018