The US military prison at Guantánamo Bay has been notorious for civil rights violations for decades. Some of the detainees at Guantánamo were children when captured, throughout the prison’s dark history there have been multiple cases of children as young as 12 or 13 years old who were tortured and held without trial. In fact, although the prison still holds over 100 people, almost 1000 have passed through, and many of them were proven innocent and released years after being declared an “enemy combatant” and submitting to torture and imprisonment.
Some of the remaining prisoners who have been there for most of their lives pass the time by creating beautiful works of art, which were recently put on display at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Detainees at the United States military prison camp known as Guantánamo Bay have made art from the time they arrived. Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay displays over thirty of these evocative works, made by men held without trial, some for nearly 15 years. The eight artists include both current (Moath Al-Alwi, Ammar Al-Bluchi, Ahmed Rabbani, and Khalid Qasim) and former (Muhammad Ansi, Djamel Ameziane, Abdualmalik (Alrahabi) Abud, and Ghaleb Al-Bihani) detainees.
Only two of the works in the exhibit have ever been displayed before. Many of the rest were taken from Guantánamo by the detainee’s lawyers specially for this exhibit after a laborious process of searching, scanning, and analysis for hidden messages. A stamp reading “Approved by US Forces” signals that the works have been cleared, and its ink often bleeds through to the image on the other side, a ghostly mix of art and authority.
The exhibit includes drawings and paintings as well as three-dimensional works crafted from the few materials permitted to detainees, including model ships made from parts of shirts, prayer caps, razors, and mops. As former detainee Mansoor Adayfi explains in an essay written for the exhibition catalog, the theme of the show was chosen because the sea “means freedom that no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.” Although detainees were held close to the sea, tarps blocked their view until they were removed for four days in 2014 in anticipation of a hurricane; after that, Adayfi recalls, “all of those who could draw made drawings about the sea.”
However, once news of the exhibition reached The Pentagon, the US Department of Defense stopped all shipments of art from Guantánamo and also threatened to take away and destroy the inmates’ art. The agency “effectively eliminated transfer of detainee produced artwork from the detention facility”, Maj Ben Sakrisson, a DoD spokesman told the Guardian.
This artwork is sadly the only thing that these inmates really have in their lives.
“In prison, you are so deeply connected to your stuff that taking away your artworks is like taking away your children,” former detainee Mansoor Adayfi pointed out.
Over the years, the military dungeons at Guantanamo Bay have become largely forgotten by the general population back home in the US. To make matters even worse, the practices at Guantanamo have been exported elsewhere, so even if the prison does eventually close down, the culture of violence and torture that it represented will continue to live on in prisons and military bases across the world.
Below are a few examples of the art that will be on display at the college through Jan. 26, 2018.
Images: Guantanamo Art Exhibit