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.”

For an accompanying New York Times article, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ben Sakrisson confirmed to Jacey Fortin by email that the government’s position remained as follows: that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government.” Fortin also noted how he had told the Miami Herald that “questions remain on where the money for the sales was going,” referring to a line on the exhibition’s website, stating that the prisoners’ art was for sale.

Erin Thompson explained that “the only paintings for sale were the ones whose artists had been cleared and released from Guantánamo,” as the Times put it, and stated, “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare.” She added that she would be “distressed” if US officials destroyed any of the prisoners’ art.

One of the prisoners’ attorneys, Beth Jacob, explained how the exhibition came to be. She stated that her client, Muhammad al-Ansi, freed in January, had shown her his paintings when they had first met, and said, “I was impressed by it, and he told me that the art teacher there had complimented him.” So last year, as the Times put it, “she reached out to Ms. Thompson about putting them on display. Several other Guantánamo detainees agreed to participate, and the exhibition was unveiled last month.”

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, a lawyer with the international human rights organization Reprieve, confirmed that “news of the rule change came from clients, not from the Defense Department,” as the Times put it, adding:

She called the decision “confusing and confused,” adding that officials at Guantánamo Bay once touted the art program — despite restrictions on what content went public. “The ban on art that made the U.S. look bad was absurd already,” she said. “But a ban of painted flower pots is just inane.”

Below is Erin Thompson’s hard-hitting op-ed, which, I suspect, contributed directly to an apparent climbdown today, reported just a few hours ago by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, when she stated, “The idea of incinerating artwork made by wartime captives at Guantánamo Bay has stirred such alarm that the US military is now discussing keeping and cataloging detainee art rather than burning it.”

Army Col. Lisa Garcia of US Southern Command, which oversees the prison and its staff, said today that Southcom “is recommending to the prison that the staff archive detainee artwork” rather than destroying it.

Attorney Ramzi Kassem, whose clients include Moath al-Alwi, the maker of extraordinary models of ships, “described the idea of archiving rather than destroying the works of art as a cynical move,” as Rosenberg put it.

“They’re still going to redact the art out of existence. They’re just not going to burn it because that looks bad,” he said, adding, “But if no one gets to see the art, they might as well be incinerating it. Guantánamo has always been about dehumanizing its prisoners and erasing them. This is only the latest example.”

Below is Erin Thompson’s op-ed. I hope you have time to read it, and that you’ll share this article if you find it as powerful as I do. I find her passages about creativity, and about the prisoners’ relationship with the sea, to be very moving, as, I’d like to add, are the memories of the sea of former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, published in September, and included in the catalog for the exhibition.

Art Censorship at Guantánamo Bay
By Erin Thompson, New York Times, November 27, 2017

Moath al-Alwi’s prayer rug is stained with paint. Every day, he wakes before dawn and works for hours on an elaborate model ship made from scavenged materials — one of dozens of sculptures he has created since he was first detained at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in 2002. Mr. al-Alwi is considered a low value detainee, but is being held indefinitely. His art is his refuge.

The sails of Mr. al-Alwi’s ships are made from scraps of old T-shirts. A bottle-cap wheel steers a rudder made with pieces of a shampoo bottle, turned with delicate cables of dental floss. The only tool Mr. al-Alwi uses to make these intricate vessels is a pair of tiny, snub-nosed scissors, the kind a preschooler might use. It is all he is allowed in his cell.

Three of Mr. al-Alwi’s model ships are currently on view in an exhibit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, along with 32 other paintings and sculptures from other prisoners or former detainees. My colleagues and I curated this exhibit after learning that many lawyers who have worked with detainees have file cabinets stuffed full of prisoners’ art. In the atmosphere of surveillance and control that is Guantánamo, these artworks are among the only ways detainees have to communicate with the outside world.

But last week, the Miami Herald reported a change in military policy: The art of Mr. al-Alwi and the other remaining Guantánamo prisoners is now U.S. government property. The art will no longer leave prison confines and can now legally be destroyed. Attorneys for several prisoners were told the military intends to burn the art.

Art censorship and destruction are tactics fit for terrorist regimes, not for the U.S. 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.

Through this art, you can see what Guantánamo prisoners dream of in their cells, held for years without trial or without even having charges filed against them. They paint the things they wish they could see: sunsets, meadows, cityscapes and their homes. But most of all, they paint and sculpt the sea, rendering beaches, waves and boats in delicate colors and shapes. These prisoners have heard and smelled the sea for years, since the camp is only yards away from the Caribbean. But only for four days once, when a hurricane was approaching, did the guards take down the tarps that cover the fences, and allow prisoners to see it. The sea is central to their art, a symbol of freedom.

Making art is a profoundly human urge. Viewing this art has allowed thousands of visitors at John Jay College and elsewhere a chance to see that its makers are human beings. These detainees have been treated in fundamentally dehumanizing ways, from torture to denial of fair trials, and their art reminds us that we cannot ignore their condition.

Half of the artists featured in in our exhibit, like hundreds of other detainees before them, were released after showing that they pose no threat to the United States. Burning Mr. al-Alwi’s ships won’t help the war on terror. Making art is the only form of therapy available at Guantánamo. Art helps detainees keep sane, meaning that those who are guilty will one day be fit to stand trial. And restricting and burning detainee art offers another excuse for terrorist groups to encourage their followers by pointing to an irrational exercise of absolute power.

For each of his model ships, Mr. al-Alwi ruffles cardboard into feathers to create an eagle-shaped prow. As he spends months creating each one, he imagines that he himself is an eagle, soaring over the sea. Unless the military reverses its cruel new policy, he can no longer even launch his fragile creations into the world, to be free in his place.

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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, updating the story of the US military’s threat to destroy artwork created by Guantanamo prisoners, which has led to sustained criticism, including a powerful New York Times op-ed by Erin Thompson, one of the curators of an exhibition of prisoners’ art in New York, cross-posted here. Today the military said it was now recommending that the artwork should be archived rather than destroyed, but as the attorney Ramzi Kassem explains, “They’re still going to redact the art out of existence … Guantanamo has always been about dehumanizing its prisoners and erasing them. This is only the latest example.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I do hope this is getting out to people with an interest in Guantanamo. The US establishment is on the back foot over its plans to destroy prisoners’ art, but the battle is not yet won. We need to keep highlighting how the entire basis of Guantanamo is to dehumanise the men held there – almost all, as we know, given no chance to demonstrate meaningfully whether or not the US even has a case for holding them!

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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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