Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Discusses Prison Artwork with the BBC, While Lawyers for “High-Value Detainee” Demand His Right to Continue Making Art


Untitled (aka Crying eye) by Mohammed al-Ansi, who was released from Guantanamo to Oman in January 2017, just before President Obama left office (Photo: Andy Worthington).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.

Last October, an exhibition opened in the President’s Gallery, in John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, that might have attracted little attention had the Pentagon not decided to make a big song and dance about it.

The exhibition, ‘Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,’ featured artwork by eight former and current Guantánamo prisoners — four freed, and four still held — which was given by the prisoners to their lawyers and their families, and it was not until November that the Pentagon got upset, apparently because the promotional material for the exhibition provided an email address for anyone “interested in purchasing art from these artists.” The obvious conclusion should have been that “these artists” meant the released prisoners, who should be free to do what they want with their own artwork, but the Pentagon didn’t see it that way.

On November 15, as I explained in my first article about the controversy, a spokesman, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said that “all Guantánamo detainee art is ‘property of the US government’ and ‘questions remain on where the money for the sales was going,’” while, at the prison itself, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos said in a statement that “transfers of detainee made artwork have been suspended pending a policy review.”

Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law, whose legal clinic represents Guantánamo prisoners, said that one particular prisoner was told “art would not be allowed out of the prison,” and added that, if any prisoner were to be allowed to leave Guantánamo (which, crucially, has not happened under Donald Trump), “their art would not even be allowed out with them and would be incinerated instead.”

I subsequently followed up on the story, as Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime and one of the curators of the show, responded robustly. In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times, which I cross-posted here, with my own commentary, she 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.” 

Erin Thompson then wrote another article for Tom Dispatch, which I cross-posted here, and I also cross-posted a Washington Post op-ed by former prisoner (and best-selling author) Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and in January, on my annual visit to call for the closure of Guantánamo on the anniversary of its opening, I visited the exhibition myself, just before it closed, an inspiring occasion that I wrote about in an article entitled, Reviewing the Guantánamo Art Show in New York That Dared to Show Prisoners As Human Beings, and Led to a Pentagon Clampdown.

As I stated:

The show was powerful, but in a genuinely understated way. Some of the prisoners showed a real artistic talent; others less so. Of particular note was the work by Mohammed al-Ansi (aka Muhammad Ansi) and Djamel Ameziane, both released, and the elaborate sculptures of ships made of discarded materials by “forever prisoner” Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni still held not because he has ever been accused of any significant involvement with terrorism, but because he has been a long-term hunger striker, and is not regarded as having been sufficiently cooperative. In a similar position is Khalid Qassim, who has produced interesting paintings through a variety of media.

Above all, however, the prisoners’ work, generally featuring uncontentious subject matter, did nothing more shocking than daring to show that they are human beings.

Recently, an extremely powerful program about the prisoners’ art was broadcast by BBC Radio 4, and is still available on iPlayer, featuring, in particular, former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni who was resettled in Serbia in 2016, and who wrote a truly inspiring article about the significance of the sea for the prisoners, which was published by the New York Times in September (taken from the exhibition catalog), and which I cross-posted here.

As the introducton to the show on the BBC’s website states, Mansoor Adayfi “guides us vividly” through the exhibit. He “takes us behind the headlines and tells the story of his years at Guantánamo through the lens of art — the insight it gives us into the detainees’ lives and captivity and their imaginations.” 

The show also features contributions from Erin Thompson, Alka Pradhan, a defense attorney in the military commissions, and the painter Gail Rothschild.

More recently, Alka Pradhan submitted a motion to those responsible for the military commissions, calling for her client Ammar al-Baluchi (aka Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali), the only “high-value detainee” whose work featured in the exhibition, to continue to be allowed to make art and to make it available to his lawyers and his family. His piece, “Vertigo at Guantanamo,” described by the website artnet as “a series of multicolored dots in a pattern that evokes a tornado,” drew on his experiences of torture in a CIA “black site.”

As Alka Pradhan said in an email to artnet, “Both the creation and public dissemination of Mr. Al-Baluchi’s artwork has become incredibly important for his mental health; both in terms of mitigation value in his death penalty case, and for the therapeutic value to alleviate the effects of his torture.” She added, as artnet put it, that his artwork “could make him seem more sympathetic when it comes time to sentencing at the military tribunal.”

Since the Pentagon’s clampdown, artnet noted, al-Baluchi has not had “access to art supplies to make new work,” describing this as “a situation Pradhan hopes to rectify in the coming weeks,” and also explaining that he “has been forced to turn down numerous requests to exhibit his work since the New York art show.” I understand that other prisoners — the boat-maker Moath al-Alwi, for example, who made his boats relentlessly — have also had their artistic activities curtailed, even though there is nothing contentious about their work, and it is beneficial for their mental health, something that prisoners are allowed to have in the federal prison system, and as they clearly should at Guantanamo too.

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Following up on a story that emerged last fall, and that reflected badly on the Pentagon, here’s an update on the Guantanamo prisoners’ art, and discussing how it was shown in New York, and how the Pentagon took exception to it and threatened to destroy it, and have now prevented at least some of the prisoners from making any art at all, returning to the repression of the George W. Bush era. There’s a link to a powerful BBC Radio 4 show featuring the extremely eloquent Mansoor Adayfi, who was released in Serbia in 2016, and an update on efforts by lawyers for “high-value detainee” Ammar al-Baluchi to get him – and other prisoners, of course – to be allowed to make art again.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Sanchez Montebello wrote:

    I meant to ask you this question a long time ago, Andy. Of all the prisoners who have created these artistic expressions, how many were established artists prior-to their imprisonment? I’ve seen you post their work before and found the detailing on many of their creations to be quite deep and expressive. As a creative individual, I suppose I would have to turn to creating artwork if I had to be stuck in a prison cell for so, so, so long (just to keep my mind occupied). Having such a shared “trauma” in common, I wonder if they “influenced” each other’s artistic expression, or were they prevented from even seeing each other’s work?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good question, Sanchez. As far as I know, none of them had previously been involved in art. It seems to me that some were given suggestions for types of topics that might have been perceived as being suitable for Muslim sensibilities, and ended up showing a particular talent for emotional expression, while others went way beyond the generally understood parameters, like Moath al-Alwi and his extraordinary boats: https://www.artfromguantanamo.com/moath-alalwi/

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And to answer your question about shared trauma, Sanchez – it doesn’t seem that way to me. It looks like they found their own personal expression – and I would, think, in some cases, that this was quite liberating.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote, in response to 3, above:

    Andy, amazing work

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, quite a talent, Shahela – and all from recycled materials!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote:

    [Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law, whose legal clinic represents Guantánamo prisoners, said that one particular prisoner was told “art would not be allowed out of the prison,” and added that, if any prisoner were to be allowed to leave Guantánamo (which, crucially, has not happened under Donald Trump), “their art would not even be allowed out with them and would be incinerated instead.”]

    This is so sad Andy, I would have to agree with Erin Thompson regarding terrorist governments using these tactics. Sadly, this is what the US have come down to… thank you for sharing this article with us.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Shahela. I just wish there was better news to report. I hope to hear that these artists are allowed to resume their creative endeavors. I also should have mentioned that Erin Thompson’s petition calling for the end to the destruction of the prisoners’ art is here: https://www.change.org/p/department-of-defense-stop-the-destruction-of-art-at-guantánamo

  9. The 34 Estates Approved for Destruction By Sadiq Khan Despite Promising No More Demolitions Without Residents’ Ballots | The Land Is Ours says...

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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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