First Glimpse of Guantánamo Prisoners’ Art


I hesitate to do anything that might create the impression that Guantánamo is a humane, well-functioning prison, because it is, of course, an experimental project in detention without charge or trial, in which the men held have no idea of when, if ever they will be released. In this particular respect, it is unlike any other prison, and remains an abomination, distinct from any other facility where those held have been convicted after a trial, and are also allowed family visits.

As such, it is to Barack Obama’s undying shame that he has not followed through on his promise to close the prison (however much that might stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy) primarily because, as long ago as October 2003, in a break with protocol, Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the New York Times that, at Guantánamo, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

This will not change until Guantanámo is finally closed, however many articles are written about how well-fed the prisoners allegedly are, or how eagerly they are devouring the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling, but in terms of the day-to-day living conditions of the majority of the 176 prisoners still held, it is also apparent that there has been a modicum of change under President Obama, leading to a greater degree of communal living, and “privileges” that would have been unthinkable for all but the most compliant prisoners under President Bush.

As an example of these improvements, Tim Fitzsimons of Slate recently returned from a tour of the prison, where, although reporters are still forbidden from talking to a single prisoner, or photographing them so that they can be recognized, he discovered that the rules prohibiting reporters from taking photos of the prisoners’ artwork had been relaxed. As he explained:

These drawings were from prisoners’ art classes, the soldier [escorting Fitzsimons and other reporters] explained. Prisoners were allowed to take art classes as a reward for good behavior. Some of the drawings and paintings were quite impressive. The prisoners had a lot of time to practice, he admitted.

Until recently, taking photos of these drawings was forbidden. But in the weeks before a planeload of journalists arrived in Gitmo to cover the trial of Omar Khadr, the 23-year-old prisoner whose case is being heard by a tribunal court after nearly eight years in detention, that rule changed. The drawings were deemed safe for public consumption.

Navy Cmdr. Bradley Fagan, the chief of Guantánamo’s Public Affairs Office, declined later to explain exactly how the art was screened. But the guards at the library suggested that it was checked for identifying information, references to violence, or any sort of coded message.

Some of this artwork is reproduced below (and at the top of this article), and more images are available in a slideshow on the Slate website, and I’m cross-posting the images because they provide an insight into the prisoners that we are normally prohibited from seeing: that of men, deprived of their liberty in a monstrously unjust manner, turning their attention, when allowed, to creative and artistic expression.

These pictures also remind me of the artwork produced by Muslim prisoners in Britain, held without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence relating to purported terrorist activities, which were exhibited in London two years ago, in an exhibition entitled, “Captivated: The Art of the Interned” (photos here and here), which was organized by Cageprisoners and Together, a charity that supports people with mental health needs.

I hope that the Slate article receives wide coverage, as it provides an all too rare demonstration that, behind the veil of secrecy that still shrouds most of the Guantánamo prisoners, are real human beings, most of whom have nothing to do with terrorism, but who have been written off by those too lazy, or too gullible, to challenge the cynical portrayal of them by the Bush administration as the “worst of the worst.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Facebook:

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Although I wrote about the terrible conditions and treatment, it is good that the Pres. O is beginning to care what citizens think, but freedom is still what the boys and men need the most.
    I am always glad to repost on FB & twitter the about what is happening with the victims of Guantanamo. I would really like to know who did which pictures so that I could write to them about how wonderful the pictures are — full of colors and creativity.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    I’d like to know too, Susan, but that would obviously be a step too far for the authorities. I am so glad to see these pictures, though — anything that humanizes these long-dehumanized men is extremely important.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Tinham wrote:

    not dissimilar to some of the art that came out of terezin

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    A disturbing, but probably not inappropriate analogy, Dave:
    I’m not comparing Guantanamo to the Holocaust, of course, although I do think, eight and a half years after Guantanamo opened, with its original purpose (coercive interrogations) largely abandoned and the men’s ongoing detention only justified by the Obama administration’s reliance on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (rather than on the US criminal law or the Geneva Conventions), that it’s appropriate to regard Guantanamo as a “ghetto” for Muslims.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    James Klakowicz wrote:

    That so many of those pictures depict the outdoors, beaches, and the sea speaks volumes. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Sasha Crow wrote:

    Thanks for this, Andy. You’re absolutely correct that viewing the detainees’ art is beneficial in exposing their “humanity” but, since it is censored and we are only allowed to see the images that portray lovely scenes — either remembered or imagined — and their art that expresses the assaults on their humanity is banned from our view, we are only given a peephole into a narrow aspect of their humanity — and one that they can no longer experience.

    I was especially struck by no 6 because it seemed to me to be an image of a place found during a wandering, a place where one might rest for a moment or as long as one wanted. It implied, to me one of the subtle but potent freedoms — to walk to and arrive at wherever our whims might take us. For the artist, this image/ this freedom is just a remnant of a dream now. A dream from the past and perhaps there is enough hope behind it that it is a dream for the future.

    But we can’t know. We cannot even know his name, where he is from, who he was and what he left behind — who is waiting for him and who and what has been lost to him while he’s been shackled in orange. His humanity is compromised even further to me by this exhibit; he has been dissected and his captors have eliminated most of him and rearranged what’s left into a narrow single-dimensional still life that has been painted by the captors. Art is freedom and this comes across to me as more a PR stunt for this heinous denial of the artist’s basic freedoms. It makes me want to cry for what he — and all of us — have lost.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Farah Damji wrote:

    Art humanizes but we are ALL responsible.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Graham wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Ryan Hunt wrote:

    Also, it would obviously also be relevant and interesting to all of us to see which artwork the U.S. military decided was NOT safe for public consumption …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Thanks for the fascinating and heartfelt comments, everyone. So many different interpretations …
    For what it’s worth, I’d be surprised if most of the prisoners would consider using art as a vehicle to express what has happened to them, although I may be wrong. I have seen very little artwork by released prisoners, and only a few examples (by British prisoners) depicting torture and abuse, and have the feeling that, throughout the Muslim world, it would not generally be considered appropriate.
    An analogy would be the poems by Guantanamo prisoners, published in 2007, in which most of the political comment came from Western prisoners, whereas those from Muslim countries tended towards themes involving nature and often complex metaphors. One example is here:
    And here’s an interview I conducted with Marc Falkoff, who compiled the book:
    As a result, I found myself, in looking at the artwork, drawn to the processes (seeing the minds behind the hands that drew or painted the work), and also to what I perceived as the consolations involved in the prisoners’ immersion in some of the themes. It seemed to me to be a much more heavily-charged context than you would typically find in a Western still-life art class, as befits the circumstances in which these classes took place.

  11. Jan says...

    Andy – THANK you for bringing attention to the art of the detainees – their expression may be the only REAL voice heard by the people of this country who have chosen deafness.
    The work should be exhibited in the HALLS of Congress and the walls of the Oval Office…exhibited wherever WE the PEOPLE go…
    voices should ring loudly until they are released from their unjust captivity

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. I couldn’t agree more, and I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your support of my work.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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