For all its notoriety, most Americans know very little about Guantanamo Bay. A decade and a half after 9/11, it remains shrouded in secrecy—a remote prison in Cuba where America sent alleged terrorists to rot indefinitely without due process.
Since 2002, 779 detainees have been held there—nine died in custody, 15 were minors, and only nine have actually been charged with a crime. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo when he was running for president in 2008. Since then, 730 prisoners have been transferred or resettled in other countries. But 41 remain, and if you believe Donald Trump’s threats to fill Guantanamo back up with "bad dudes," there may be more in the near future.
Under the Obama administration, the prison relaxed its covert practices a bit. Many aspects of the prison were still strictly classified, but more reporters were allowed to visit, offering new insight into life there. And in 2008, partially as a diversion to keep detainees busy, the military began encouraging prisoners to make art.
“At first there was an art instructor,” said Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Shackled to the floor of a cellblock, detainees passed the time copying nature scenes lifted from innocuous source material in the prison library. “A lot of the images came from magazines, including National Geographic,” Thompson told me.
Some of these pictures look amateur, with too-bright colors and messy composition—the kind of art a grandparent who’s into Bob Ross might paint. But others are detailed and nuanced. Almost all depict places detainees probably haven’t seen, like a New England beach or the Golden Gate bridge at sunset. “It’s sort of ironic that there was a reliance by these artists on imagery from the American heartland,” Thompson told me.
Much of the art made at Guantanamo over the years has been destroyed. In 2013, when nearly 100 detainees were conducting a hunger strike, the military raided the prison and seized art and legal documents from the cells. A couple of years ago, however, family members and lawyers began quietly extracting art from the prison for safekeeping.
Like anything allowed to leave Guantanamo, once the art was cleared, it was stamped “APPROVED BY US FORCES” in black ink, signaling its strange origin. And for the first time, some of this art is on display at John Jay College in New York City in an exhibition titled Ode to the Sea.
The exhibition offers an extremely rare opportunity to see works from Guantanamo—especially considering the US military has stopped allowing art to leave. On November 15, the Department of Defense issued a statement claiming the art was government property. And according to a dispatch by veteran Gitmo reporter Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, they plan to burn what's left at Guantanamo, erasing this meager line of communication between prisoners and the public. There are likely many Americans who see this practice as a good thing. The New York Post interviewed several families impacted by 9/11: they view the artists in Ode to the Sea as terrorists and are outraged that their work is on display.
However, Aliya Hana Hussain, an advocate for Guantanamo detainees at the Center for Constitutional Rights, disagrees. "[The destruction of this art] is a senseless policy intended only to further strip the prisoners of their humanity and what little agency they have, and it is alarming."
The group classes that produced some of the art on exhibit were offered to lower-security detainees—guys like Djamel Ameziane. He was sent to Guantanamo in 2002 when Pakistani authorities sold him to US forces, reportedly for a bounty. He was cleared for release in 2008, but waited five years before finally tasting freedom in 2013.
“Making art represented an expression of feelings about the unclear future—things we were deprived of, things we dreamed of," Ameziane told me through Hussain, who is part of his legal team. "It helped. Yes, it relieved the stress, made people less aggressive, and the beautiful thing is that instead of seeing things around you in a trivial way, it makes you see them with an artist’s eye, which gives you a feeling of spiritual evasion from the prison."
Ameziane is a skilled painter. His watercolors of an alpine cabin and a shipwrecked sailboat are meticulously rendered. The curators of Ode to the Sea told me he takes pride in being one of the best detainee-artists. Ameziane was forcibly resettled in Algeria after his release from Guantanamo, but making art was his first opportunity to rebuild his identity as something other than a prisoner.
Seeing the art helps viewers process the peculiar torment endured by the men at Guantanamo. In a recent essay for the New York Times, former detainee Mansoor Adayfi described knowing the prison was near water, yet never being allowed to see it until a hurricane hit in 2014, which caused the military to take down the tarps that blocked views of the Caribbean Sea.
“We all faced one direction: toward the sea… I heard an Afghan guy shout, ‘Allahu akbar!’ at the sight, thanking God for the wonder of the sea,” Adayfi wrote. “The tarps remained down for a few days, and the detainees started making art about the sea. Some wrote poems about it. And everyone who could draw, drew the sea… The sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.”
Not all of the prisoners settle for seascapes and flowers. Some make more political work, like Muhammad Ansi’s portrait of a drowned Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Few of these charged paintings make it outside Guantanamo.
“If these guys were drawing depictions of what had happened to them, or what was still going on at Guantanamo in terms of force feedings or anything else, those would almost certainly not be allowed out,” said Alka Pradhan, Human Rights Counsel at the Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions. She added that many artists self-censor their work, however. "I think part of it is escapism… When they draw, they want to imagine things that make them happy.”
Art is also a coping device for those grappling with the effects of torture. Pradhan's client at Guantanamo is Ammar Al-Baluchi, one of the five men accused of carrying out 9/11, based on claims that he ordered flight training videos and transferred large sums of money to the hijackers in the US. Al-Baluchi has been at Guantanamo for more than a decade, after previously being detained at a CIA black site for three and a half years.
“While he was there, he was absolutely brutally tortured," Pradhan told me. "He’s got a traumatic brain injury from being thrown up against concrete walls. He was water doused, which is similar to waterboarding. He was sleep deprived for the majority of his time in CIA custody, literally three years. It’s astonishing that he’s not completely lost his mind, to be honest, from everything he went through."
Unlike all the other artists in Ode to the Sea, Al-Baluchi is still held in solitary confinement at Camp 7, reserved for “high-value” detainees, “which is really just a euphemism for the guys who were tortured by the CIA,” Pradhan said. Al-Baluchi has never been allowed to attend an art class and has no prospect of a trial, but he’s a prolific artist nonetheless. His piece, Vertigo at Guantanamo, which features a vortex of primary colored dots, represents the lingering physical effects of his torture. Al-Baluchi told Pradhan it's what he sees when he closes his eyes during a dizzy spell.
“This is almost like a home remedy for him. It’s a way of exorcising the issues constantly churning inside his head,” Pradhan explained. “It’s a form of catharsis and self-medicating. Mostly because they won’t give him any medical treatment.”
Putting art like Al-Baluchi's on display isn’t an attempt to place blame or absolve sins on either side—the point is to remind Americans that the men there are human. “[Ammar] knows that everybody, particularly the American public, thinks he and the others are monsters, are subhuman,” Pradhan said. “The government’s done a really good job of making everybody believe that these are two-dimensional, evil, bad guys. Our way of doing things, traditionally, is you suspect someone of doing something, you charge them with a crime, they’re innocent until proven guilty, and you have a trial. That’s not what we did with these guys.”
Sixteen years ago, as the country was reeling from 9/11, America launched a hasty campaign in Afghanistan to root out terrorists and those who harbored them. Guantanamo is a byproduct of that pain, but it is a wound that festers out of sight. It was converted into a detention facility to hold bloodthirsty killers, but in practice used to warehouse humans who may or may not be guilty of anything.
The ratio of imprisoned to charged detainees backs up the idea of the prison as a containment device—a way to compartmentalize an endless and aimless War on Terror. The art from Guantanamo is a quiet reminder of the human cost of impulsive retribution.
"I would hope that people who don’t know very much about Guantanamo would leave the exhibition with really uncomfortable thoughts about how long these guys have been there,” Pradhan said. “Tangibly, for the guys who are being cleared, I would hope that people look at that and say, 'What the hell? They’ve never been charged, and you mean we’re just holding them? Based on nothing?'"
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