EXHIBITION: RESISTANCE IN CONFINEMENT

Published May 21, 2023
Untitled (2017)
Untitled (2017)

The Unforgotten Moon: Liberating Art from Guantánamo Bay’ curated by Natasha Malik is an artistic endeavour that focuses on the tragic 21 years of a taxi driver from Karachi, Ahmed Rabbani, who was imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay as he resisted false accusations of being a terrorist affiliated with one of organisations behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States (US). The show, held at the Indus Valley School (IVS) of Art and Architecture Gallery, exhibits some of the artworks that he created while he was tortured and detained, without charges, a trial and a case. The show also contains the works of 10 participating artists who responded to Ahmed’s paintings, that were censored at the time, via detailed descriptions of his work penned down by Ahmed’s lawyer.

There are works that are still withheld by the US government, with the rationale that the paintings are a direct threat to national security. When I ask Ahmed why this is so, he replies, “Because they don’t want the world to know that the United States of America lacks basic humanity.”

The show is an act of telling and unforgetting. On the surface, it contains Ahmed’s personal story, but on the whole there is a message for the collective and an emphasis on the larger issue of the barbaric workings of the governments from both US and Pakistan, the stalled shutdown of Guantánamo Base and ideas around justice, censorship, innocence and “forever prisoners” (US’ torture policy where detainees are indefinitely imprisoned without charge).

On September 10, 2002, Ahmed would suddenly find his entire life uprooted forever. Alongside his brother, he was abducted by his own government and sold off to the US for a total sum of $5000 during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s presidency. The US and Pakistani governments later claimed to have mistaken him for a wanted terrorist, Hassan Ghul, but Ahmed claims that both governments clearly knew from the very start that he was in fact not Ghul.

After years of wrongful imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay, Ahmed Rabbani and his artwork serve as both a reminder of the atrocities committed by the US government and as a testament to the endurance of the human spirit

What started off as a means to earn some side income alongside a small livestock business during financially tough times turned out to pay him quite handsomely. However, after spending 21 years of his life in confinement, Ahmed is in need of financial assistance. It is with this understanding that 100% of the proceeds generated from pieces sold by participating artists at the show will be transfered to Ahmed, which he has not received yet but hopes to soon. Ahmed chose not to sell his own pieces at the show in Karachi — a home he merely returned to two months prior to the opening of the show.

 Untitled (2018)
Untitled (2018)

According to the curator, the scale of abuse Ahmed endured goes beyond comprehension, from visualising medieval torture techniques to being witness to an innocent man’s tragic unfolding. The more Natasha read, the more sleepless and restless she grew. This is in direct contrast with Ahmed who, minutes before our interview, gently made me aware of the fact that he had only slept for two hours in the past 48 hours — just as a measure of caution in case he ceases to make sense. Wondering if I should even be there, he immediately responds, almost telepathically, assuring me that it is alright; that he can only sleep standing up and that he cannot, at all, sleep on a bed because the moment his head rests upon a pillow, he is wide awake. He can often be seen sleepwalking, an activity that provides him with some solace and a measure of rest.

Ahmed officially began painting in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he got his first canvas. How did he paint before then? What did he paint on? Basically everything and hardly anything — scraps of denim, clothing from inmates’ uniforms and, of course, the surrounding boundary walls. Before paints were permitted in the prison, he used coffee, tea powder and gravy as art material. He would draw on paper, tissue rolls and the walls of his prison cell. Sometimes, out of restless desire to seek revenge and annoy the prison guards, he would make use of human faeces.

 Ahmed Rabbani
Ahmed Rabbani

Ahmed attributes all of his skills to a Yemeni inmate, Sabri al-Qurashi, from his block who he calls his ‘ustad’ [teacher]. It is interesting to note that one can identify some similarities in Ahmed’s style with Yemeni art — such as the repetition of cityscapes in backgrounds and the way of painting a subject. Although Ahmed initially used pastels as his medium, because that was what Sabri used, after much experimentation, Ahmed later found acrylics to be much more satisfying and it is his primary medium of choice now. He then taught acrylic painting to Sabri — a poetic touch and an ode to their friendship as artists.

In the piece, Untitled (2018) where Ahmed symbolically paints the Statue of Liberty as fruit hanging from a tree, the contrast between fantasy and reality is never clearer. Ahmed questions the fantastical notion of the US as a centrepiece for the universal symbol of liberty. According to him, this couldn’t be further from the truth and the piece stands out as being satirical. He denotes the US as the illusion of freedom, stating that it acts as a loudmouth and stands on a moral high ground in policing and lecturing countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea while failing to gaze at itself in the mirror from time to time.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of freedom recurs in his paintings. Where in Untitled (2018) there are worshippers who appear to be Muslims bowing down to the tree that produces the fruit of liberty, in another untitled painting from 2017, we witness fire worship. One wonders if the fire originates from the torch that the lady from the Statue of Liberty holds, or whether Ahmed is alluding to a oneness of religion and hence equating it to a oneness of humanity, a sentiment he holds almost in sacredness.

Ahmed states that Guantánamo Bay acts as the “black thread” that binds all of his paintings. Confinement and censorship are also major themes in his artworks. From the depiction of a room in the detention centre where a skeleton holds a remote and attempts to change controlled TV channels, to a faceless Ahmed drenched in blood from top to bottom sitting in what he calls the “torture chair”, the paintings forgivingly showcase the various methods of torture and censorship that the prisoner-artist had to undergo. I say forgivingly because, despite the enormity of abuse, Ahmed’s gentle smile and evident sense of humour mimic the optimism and hope felt through his vibrant and bold colour palette.

Lastly, Ahmed requests that the following message be relayed to the readers and the authorities, “I will not consider myself free until each and every one of my brothers is freed from Guantánamo. With even one imprisoned, my chains return.”

Note: The proceeds from the fundraiser will be collected by the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and remitted to Mr Ahmed Rabbani once the normal gallery processes of sales are completed.

‘The Unforgotten Moon: Liberating Art from Guantánamo Bay’ was displayed at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture Gallery from May 2-15, 2023.

The writer can be reached via Twitter @zehrajabeenshah or via email at: zehra1593@hotmail.com

Ahmed Rabbani can be reached at: Instagram and Twitter: @Rabbani1461 Email: rabbaniahmed1461@gmail.com Website: https://badarguant.com/

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2023

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