The Guantánamo Art Scandal That Refuses to Go Away

'The Statue of Liberty' (2016) by Muhammad Ansi (aka Mohammed al-Ansi), who was released from Guantanamo in January 2017.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Two weeks ago, in my most recent article, for Close Guantánamo, I covered the latest scandal to involve the prison — the US military’s decision, prompted by an art exhibition of prisoners’ work being shown in New York, to threaten to destroy their art, and to insist that it does not belong to the men who made it, but, instead, belongs permanently to the US military.

As I mentioned in the article, the most troubling aspect of the authorities’ position was articulated by Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch, who stated in a powerful tweet that the development was “no surprise” because the “Pentagon has long claimed it owns detainees’ own memories of torture.” When prisoners are not even allowed to own their own thoughts by the US government, it is no surprise that the government also claims that it also owns their artwork.

Nevertheless, since the article was published, criticism of the US authorities’ position has not diminished. At the weekend, the New York Times published an editorial, “Art, Freed From Guantánamo,” which began by stating, powerfully, “The American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — where men suspected of terrorism are for the most part being held indefinitely without trial — has long been a stain on this country’s human rights record. Now the military has stumbled needlessly into a controversy over, of all things, art.”

As the editors proceeded to note, “There has been no claim of a security breach or risk to Americans. The military, it would seem, is simply unsettled by the attention that the John Jay exhibition has drawn from news organizations.”

In a letter to the Times, Mickey Davis, a professor of intellectual property law at Cleveland State University, put the government in its place, stating:

The United States military intends to burn and destroy all the art created by Guantánamo prisoners, claiming that the government owns it. The government can certainly destroy it. But it doesn’t own it at all.

The government cannot destroy the copyright that each prisoner owns in his works. Under United States copyright law, that right belongs to each prisoner-artist for the next 70-plus years.

That copyright cannot be divested by military forces. This may amount to nothing, commercially speaking, especially if the prisoners cannot photograph the works to acquire a permanent record.

But it is nice to know that as a moral and a legal matter, not a practical one, the Guantánamo prisoners have a right that their captors cannot touch.

In a further development, Erin Thompson, one of three curators (with Charlie Shields and Paige Laino) of the exhibition, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” at John Jay College, where she is an assistant professor of art crime, wrote a detailed analysis of what the prisoners’ work means, why it is so important, and how she became involved with it, for Tom Dispatch, in an article published on December 3, which we’re cross-posting below, as she is so eloquent on the topic — and the US government, in contrast, is unable to articulate its own position clearly, because it has no excuse for its heavy-handed approach.

Thompson explained her progress in understanding Guantánamo and the prisoners, moving from her initial lack of comprehension that the men “wanted people to see their art,” and “through it know that they are actual human beings,” which, understandably, she thought was rather obvious, to an eventual revelation, through talking to released prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, who wrote an extraordinarily powerful piece about the prisoners’ relationship to the sea, which I posted here, that “Guantánamo is a system designed to paint the men it holds as monsters, animals, sub-humans who don’t deserve basic rights like fair trials,” and “[t]hat was the reason those prisoners were speaking, but not speaking, in their art.” As she added, “Why would they say anything that risked a further fall from whatever precarious hold on humanity they still had?”

Thompson has also launched a petition, “Stop the Destruction of Art at Guantánamo,” directed to the US government, and you can also sign this petition by Reprieve, calling for Donald Trump to close Guantánamo, and to allow independent medical experts to visit and assess the health of the current hunger strikers, a story I wrote about here.

The Art of Keeping Guantánamo Open: What the Paintings by Its Prisoners Tell Us About Our Humanity and Theirs
By Erin L. Thompson, Tom Dispatch, December 3, 2017

We spent the day at a beach in Brooklyn. Skyscrapers floated in the distance and my toddler kept handing me cigarette filters she had dug out of the sand. When we got home, I checked my email. I had been sent a picture of a very different beach: deserted, framed by distant headlands with unsullied sands and clear waters. As it happened, I was looking not at a photograph, but at a painting by a man imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Of the roughly 780 people once imprisoned there, he is one of 41 prisoners who remain, living yards away from the Caribbean Sea. Captives from the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror began to arrive at that offshore prison in January 2002. Since Guantánamo is located on a military base in Cuba and the detainees were labeled “alien enemy combatants,” they were conveniently to be without rights under either United States or international law and so open to years of whatever their jailers wanted to do to them (including torture). President Barack Obama released 197 of them in his years in office, but was unable to fulfill the promise he made on his first day: to close Guantánamo.

The man whose painting I saw has been held for nearly 15 years without trial, without even having charges filed against him. The email came from his lawyer who had volunteered to defend a number of Guantánamo detainees. Some had been released after she helped them convince a military tribunal that they were no longer “threats” to the United States. The others remain in indefinite detention. Many of her clients pass their time by making art and, of all the unexpected things to come into my life, she was now looking for a curator who wanted to exhibit some of their paintings.

Collecting the Art of Guantánamo

I’m a professor at John Jay College in New York City. It has a small art gallery and so one day in August 2016 I found myself in that lawyer’s midtown Manhattan office preparing, however dubiously, to view the art of her clients. She was pushing aside speakerphones and notepads and laying out the artwork on a long table in a conference room whose windows overlooked the picturesque East River. As I waited, I watched from high up as the water cut a swath of silence through the city. When I finally turned my attention to the art, I was startled to see some eerily similar views. Painting after painting of water. Water trickling through the reeds at the edge of a pond. Water churning into foam as it ran over rocks in rivers. Calmly flowing water that reflected the buildings along a canal.

But above all, there was the sea. Everywhere, the sea. In those paintings in that conference room and in other work sent to me as word spread among detainees and their lawyers that I was willing to plan an exhibit, I found hundreds of depictions of the sea in all its moods. In some paintings, storms thrashed apart the last planks of sinking ships. In others, boats were moored safely at docks or scudded across vast expanses of water without a hint of shore in sight. Clouds bunched in blue midday skies or burned orange in mid-ocean sunsets. One detainee had even made elaborate models of sailing ships out of cardboard, old T-shirts, bottle caps, and other scraps of trash.

Puzzled, I asked the lawyer, “Why all the water?” She shrugged. Maybe the art instructor at the prison, she suggested, was giving the detainees lots of pictures of the sea. The detainees, it turned out, could actually take art classes as long as they remained “compliant.” But when there was a crackdown, as there had, for instance, been during a mass hunger strike in 2013, the guards promptly confiscated their art — and that was the reason the lawyer’s clients had asked her to take it. They wanted to keep their work (and whatever it meant to them) safe from the guards.

As it turned out, the art doesn’t leave Guantánamo that much more easily than the prisoners themselves. Military authorities scrutinized every piece for hidden messages and then stamped the back of each work, “Approved by US Forces.” Those stamps generally bled through, floating up into the surface of the image on the other side. The lawyer had even nicknamed one of the model ships the U.S.S. Approved because the censors had stamped those words across its sails.

So I found myself beginning to plan an exhibition of a sort I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would curate. And I began to worry. A curator makes so many choices, judgments, interpretations of art. But how could I make them with any kind of accuracy when I was a woman, a non-Muslim, and a citizen of the very nation that had detained these men for so many years without charges or trial? Wasn’t I, in other words, the ultimate Other?

Greek to Me

By training, I’m a classical art historian. I expand fragments. If I show my students a broken ancient Greek vase, I use my words to mend it. I pour in more words to fill it with the memory of the wine it once carried, yet more to conjure up the men who once drank from it, and still more to offer my students our best guesses at what they might have been talking about as they drank.

This mode of dealing with art was known to the ancient Greeks. They called it ekphrasis: the rhetorical exercise of describing a work of art in great detail. For them, ekphrasis was a creative act. The speaker often explained things not shown by the artist, such as what happened just before or just after the illustrated moment. The maiden in this painting is smiling because she has just received a declaration of love, they would say.

But faced with this art from Guantánamo, ekphrasis seemed somehow inappropriate. These artists are still alive, even if entombed. Their artworks are as they intended them, not the fragmentary remains of some past world that needs a framework of interpretation. And whatever interpretation these might need, how in the world was I to provide it? Who was I to pour my words over them?

And yet I knew that they needed help or why would that lawyer have come to me? The detainees certainly couldn’t curate their own exhibit in New York because they would be barred from entering the United States even after being released from Guantánamo. So I told myself that I would have to help them realize their desire for an exhibit without inserting my own judgments. I told myself that I would instead be their amanuensis.

From the Latin: a manu, servant of the hand, the term once referring to someone who aided in an artistic project by taking dictation. Consider, for instance, John Milton’s daughters, Mary and Deborah, who took down his seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost after he had gone blind. They were his amanuenses. He composed the verses in his head at night. Then, in the morning, as a contemporary of his wrote, he “sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it” while they wrote down what he recited. If they dawdled coming to him, he would complain that he needed to be milked.

I would similarly let the artists speak for themselves through me, or so I thought. I wrote out a list of questions for their lawyers to ask them, including “What do you like about making art?” and “What would you like people to think about when they are looking at your art?” Then I waited for those lawyers to pose them during their Guantánamo visits in the midst of conferences about legal matters.

The answers were strikingly uniform and seemingly unrevealing. They wanted people to see their art, they said, and through it know that they are actual human beings. Really? I didn’t get it. Of course, they’re human beings. What else could they be?

At first, I wasn’t too concerned that their answers didn’t really make much sense to me. That’s part of the role of an amanuensis. Milton’s daughters were ten and six when he began Paradise Lost. It would take them all nearly a decade to finish it. In those years, their father also taught them to read books aloud to him in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, of which they couldn’t understand a word.

I was used to being an amanuensis myself. When I was a year and a half old and my mother was still pregnant with my sister, my father had an accident and broke his neck. The fractured edge of a vertebra sliced into his spinal cord, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed. As soon as we were old enough — and I can’t remember a time when we weren’t considered old enough — my sister and I would spend hours a day being his “hands.” We opened mail, paid bills, slid computer disks in and out of the desktop that he operated by stabbing at the keys with a long pointer held in his mouth. Through us, two daydreamy little girls, he did all the work of a stereotypical man of the house — fixing broken appliances, hanging Christmas lights, grilling steak.

To be an amanuensis is, by the way, anything but a passive act. After all, there wouldn’t be enough time in the world if you had to tell your own hands what to do in every situation: reach for the coffee cup, close that finger around its handle, bring it to your mouth. In the same way, an amanuensis must anticipate needs, prepare tools, and know when something’s missing.

And this sense that something was missing — honed from my years with my father — was growing in me as I looked at the artwork and thought about those responses. It was the midsummer of 2017 and the exhibit was set to open in the fall. The file cabinets in my office were filled with paintings, overflowing into piles on the floor that came up to my shins. After the struggle to pry those artworks out of Guantánamo, I didn’t know how to say that one piece should be seen by the world and another should stay a prisoner in some dark drawer.

Freedom of the Seas

So I asked again — this time by emailing Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee working on a memoir about his time at Guantánamo. He explained that the cells of detainees were right by the sea. They could smell and hear the surf, but because tarps blocked their view, they could never see it. Only once, when a hurricane was coming, had the guards removed those tarps from the fences that separated them from the water. A few days later, when they went back up, the artist-inmates began to draw pictures of the sea as a substitute for what they had glimpsed during that brief moment of visual freedom.

Suddenly, those endless visions of water — that is, of freedom — made sense to me. And I understood something else as well. Guantánamo is a system designed to paint the men it holds as monsters, animals, sub-humans who don’t deserve basic rights like fair trials. That was the reason those prisoners were speaking, but not speaking, in their art. Why would they say anything that risked a further fall from whatever precarious hold on humanity they still had?

They hoped someday to be released, which was unlikely to happen if the authorities became convinced that they bore any anger towards the United States. And even release would not mean freedom of speech, since they would be sent to countries that had agreed to host them. Dependent on the good graces of these governments, they would continue to live constrained lives in constrained circumstances, needing never to offend these new sets of authorities either.

I was indeed the Other. I might misinterpret and misrepresent, but so undoubtedly would anyone else in our world speaking for those artists. And they were incapable of speaking for themselves.

So I added an essay of my own to the catalog, becoming ekphrastic. I pointed out what was movingly missing in their artwork. It wasn’t that there weren’t people in their paintings. It was that those works had invisible holes where the people should have been. All those unmanned boats, sailing across those open waters, were carrying invisible self-portraits of the artists as they hardly dared to imagine themselves: free. Even when there were no boats, the famously mutable sea served as the perfect disguise. Its winds and waves and rocks represented the all-too-human emotions of the artists without ever making them visible to the censors.

It was, of course, so much less dangerous for me to interpret what they were saying than for them to say it directly. I had held many doors open for my father when I was his amanuensis, running ahead to make sure the path was clear and that there were no surprising flights of stairs. If there were, it was up to me to find a new way.

This is what I wanted to do for the artists. Open doors, scout out paths — but their choice of doors, their choice of paths, not mine. They had told me they wanted people to see them as human beings and that was the case I tried to make for them.

As it turned out, I evidently succeeded a little too well. After the exhibit opened and received a surprising amount of media attention, the artists’ lawyers noticed that the authorities were taking longer and longer to clear artworks to leave Guantánamo. Then, three weeks ago, the Department of Defense declared that all art made at Guantánamo is government property. Detainees reported that their guards then told them any art left behind if they were ever released would be burned and works in their cells deemed “excess” would simply be discarded.

As with so many policy decisions about Guantánamo, the true rationale for this one remains hidden. My guess: the U.S. authorities there were surprised that the artwork they had been scrutinizing so carefully for hidden messages had a unifying one they had missed: that its makers were human beings. Which is precisely the realization the authorities need to stop the rest of us from having if Guantánamo is to remain open.

Erin L. Thompson, co-curator of “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo” with Charlie Shields and Paige Laino, is an assistant professor of art crime at John Jay College. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present, was an NPR Best Book of 2016. The exhibition “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo” is on display in New York City at the President’s Gallery of John Jay College, 899 10th Avenue (6th Floor) until January 28, 2018.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

Curator of Guantánamo Art Show Responds to Authorities’ Threats to Burn Prisoners’ Work: “Art Censorship and Destruction Are Tactics of Terrorist Regimes, Not US Military”

"Shipwreck," a 2011 painting by Djamel Ameziane, a Guantanamo prisoner released in 2013.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Stung by criticism of its paranoid and heavy-handed approach to Guantánamo prisoners’ art, the Pentagon now seems to be involved in a rearguard damage limitation exercise, but it may be too late.

Last week, as I explained here, the Miami Herald reported that “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” a show of prisoners’ art in New York, featuring 36 works by eight prisoners, four of whom are still held, had led the US military to say that it would be stopping prisoners from keeping any artwork they have made, and to threaten to burn it, prompting widespread criticism.

In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times, which I’m cross-posting below, Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime and one of the curators of the show at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, stated, “Art censorship and destruction are tactics fit for terrorist regimes, not for the US military. The art poses no security threat: It is screened by experts who study the material for secret messages before it leaves the camp, and no art by current prisoners can be sold. Guantánamo detainees deserve basic human rights as they await trial. Taking away ownership of their art is both incredibly petty and utterly cruel.” Read the rest of this entry »

Persistent Dehumanization at Guantánamo: US Claims It Owns Prisoners’ Art, Just As It Claims to Own Their Memories of Torture

"Empty glassware" (2015) by Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Rabbani.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article (as “The Persistent Abuse of Guantánamo Prisoners: Pentagon Claims It Owns Their Art and May Destroy It, But U.S. Has Long Claimed It Even Owns Their Memories of Torture“) for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

After years of letting Guantánamo prisoners keep the artwork they have made at the prison, subject to security screening, the Pentagon has suddenly secured widespread condemnation for banning its release, and, it is alleged by one of prisoners’ attorneys, for planning to burn it.

The story was first reported on November 16 by Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, and updated on November 20. Rosenberg explained how, for years, prisoners’ art had been released “after inspection by prison workers schooled in studying material for secret messages under the rubric of Operational Security.”

However, as Rosenberg explained, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” an exhibition in the President’s Gallery of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice until January 16, 2018, which features “paintings and other works by current and former captives” — and “which garnered international press coverage” — “apparently caught the attention of the Department of Defense,” because of an email address provided for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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