Photos and Report: The Launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison” at CUNY School of Law in New York

26.2.20

One of the extraordinary ships made out of recycled materials at Guantánamo by Moath al-Alwi, who is still held, as shown in the exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” at CUNY School of Law in New York (Photo: Elena Olivo).

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Last week was the launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” a powerful new art exhibition featuring work by eleven current and former Guantánamo prisoners at CUNY School of Law’s Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice, in Long Island City in Queens, New York, which I wrote about in article entitled, Humanizing the Silenced and Maligned: Guantánamo Prisoner Art at CUNY Law School in New York

This is only the second time that Guantánamo prisoners’ artwork has been displayed publicly, following a 2017 exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also in New York, which became something of a cause célèbre after the Pentagon complained about it. That institutional hissy fit secured considerable sympathy for the prisoners — and criticism for the DoD — but in the end the prisoners lost out, as the authorities at Guantánamo clamped down on their ability to produce artwork, and prohibited any artwork that was made — and which the prisoners had been giving to their lawyers, and, via their lawyers, to their families — from leaving the prison under any circumstances. 

Since the launch, a wealth of new information has come my way, via Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represents around ten of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, and who was one of the main organizers of the exhibition, which is running until mid-March, with further manifestations continuing, I hope, throughout the rest of the year.

Shelby and I have known each other for many years, and when I visited the US last month, on my annual visit to call for the closure of Guantánamo on the anniversary of its opening, I visited CUNY School of Law, to see the early version of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored” that was showing at the time, featuring artwork by Khalid Qasim, one of Shelby’s clients, which I wrote about — and included photos from — in my article last week. Shelby and I later travelled to Harlem, to the Revolution Books store, for a speaking event that, after a day spent discussing the injustices of Guantánamo and the plight of the men still held, was highly-charged emotionally, and the video of that event is here.

Following last week’s launch, Shelby sent me her opening remarks, which I’m posting below, as well as some background to and observations about the exhibition, and a link to photos by Elena Olivo, which I’m scattering liberally throughout the article. The photo below captures some of the large crowd attending the launch, as well as the main organizers and speakers on the night.

From the left: Arpita Vora, Coordinator at the Sorensen Center (in black); L. Camille Massey, Founding Executive Director of the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice (in white); Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, Guantánamo lawyer and CUNY School of Law alumna; Aliya Hussain, Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR); and Ramzi Kassem, Co-Director of CUNY School of Law’s Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic (INRC), which also represents Guantánamo prisoners. CCR and INRC were also organizers of the exhibition, and, at the launch, Shelby, Ramzi and Aliya spoke, after an introduction by Camille.

Shelby’s opening remarks are posted below:

This is the art that the government tried to completely silence when they learned of its heightened visibility with the last gallery it was in. This is the art they banned and threatened to incinerate. Guantánamo has always been about dehumanizing those imprisoned there and erasing them. Coming out to see this art — and as a result, the artists — is an act of resistance and solidarity.

The stories told of those at the sharp end of the most powerful government in the world are often, almost inevitably, the facts of the oppression: their rendition, their torture, their lack of a trial. Their identities and the depths of who they are — what they want in life, what they laugh at, cry at, fight for and against, what they spend their days thinking about — is erased. Their artwork enables my clients to be heard, to reach audiences across the world in their own terms — by their merits, and not the reliability of their lawyers’ characterisations.

And like their artwork in the first gallery back in 2017, this event reminds the world that they are still there. So many people still don’t know that most have never even been charged with a crime; that these are men and not monsters.

They are creative, and humble, and bright, and loyal people, who have been kept from their families for decades. Their habeas cases may be stayed in futility but their days tick by.

The men our government threw into a dungeon, against every single law ever written—to preserve our “safety”—those men remind us with their artwork who they actually are; that they continue to have hope and dream dreams.

And artwork for them, as it is for so many across time and space, is the way to express those basic tenets of humanity.

Following up on her opening comments, Shelby wrote to me in an email that “the objective — of the entire exhibition — is to provide a platform for the men to be heard, on their own terms, rather than through the words of others, and to combat the purposeful silencing and identity-erasure that GTMO perpetrates.” And as she also explained, since the clampdown that followed the 2017 exhibition, most of the prisoners stopped making art, so “part of the purpose of our event is to facilitate their being heard and to inspire them to start making art again.”

Best known for his ships, Moath al-Alwi has also made more intimate works like this domestic scene (Photo: Andy Worthington).

In total, the work of 13 current and former prisoners is featured; nine artists, and four others providing contributions in other media. As Shelby explained, “CCR provided the art by Ghaleb al-Bihani and Djamel Ameziene [both released], Beth Jacob provided the art by Mohammed al-Ansi [also released], Ramzi that by Moath al-Alwi [still held], Mark Maher [of Reprieve] that of Ahmed Badr Rabbani [stlll held],” and the other artists’ work is a combination of my clients’ and that of former detainees with whom my clients put me in touch” — Khalid Qasim, Sabry Mohammed al-Qurashi and Assadulah Haroon Gul (all still held), and released prisoner Abdulmalik al-Rahabi.

At the launch of the exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” at CUNY School of Law in New York, a visitor looks at a painting by released prisoner Ghaleb al-Bihani (Photo: Elena Olivo).

The other contributions, collected by Shelby, were from former prisoner (and talented writer) Mansoor Adayfi, who provided audio anecdotes about life in the prison, poetry from Towfiq al-Bihani, who is still held, and prose from Abdullatif Nasser (still held) and released prisoner and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi. 

A poem by Guantánamo prisoner Towfiq al-Bihani, who is still held, despite unanimously being approved for released by a high-level government review process established by President Obama in 2009. The poem is being shown in the exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” at CUNY School of Law in New York (Photo: Elena Olivo).

As Shelby also explained, the entire project — “a GTMO art gallery hosted by CUNY Law whose scope expanded upon John Jay’s ‘Ode to the Sea’ theme and incorporated as many artists as we could find” — had been in the works for at least three years, and it seems appropriate that it has ended up at CUNY, because as Shelby also explained, “I initially reached out to CUNY Alumni Relations when I noticed professional artwork on display at CUNY and asked if they’d consider a GTMO exhibition and my beloved CUNY community leapt at the idea. Camille Massey and Alizabeth Newman (Int. Executive Director, Alumni Engagement & Initiatives, CUNY Law) paid me a visit and looked through the enormous collection of artwork that I had from my clients alone (collected pre-ban, but not showcased in John Jay just due to the sheer volume of it, and consistency with their theme).”

In addition, Shelby explained that the organizers also “plan to have a series of events while the gallery is up, including one centering on ‘storytelling’ and countering the predominant government narratives,” and, hopefully, “a final event with a distinguished speaker in conversation with Ramzi as part of the Sorensen Center’s ‘Critical Voices’ series.”

In the meantime, please help to get the prisoners’ voices heard by sharing this article as widely as possible, and do get in touch if you have any ideas about how those of us who recognize the importance of getting the wretched prison at Guantánamo Bay closed down once and for all can build momentum from this exhibition, and get some significant mainstream media coverage.

Art by various Guantánamo prisoners, as featured in in the exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” at CUNY School of Law in New York (Photo: Elena Olivo).

* * * * *

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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven 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 the 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 2017 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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on what I posted last week about the launch of – and the significance of – “Guantanamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” an extraordinary exhibition of Guantanamo prisoners’ artwork at CUNY School of Law in New York.

    This update features more photos of the prisoners’ work – and photos from the launch – as well as the introductory comments made on the launch night by Shelby Sullivan-Bennis​, one of the main organizers of the exhibition, who told those attending the launch, “This is the art that the government tried to completely silence when they learned of its heightened visibility with the last gallery it was in. This is the art they banned and threatened to incinerate. Guantanamo has always been about dehumanizing those imprisoned there and erasing them. Coming out to see this art — and as a result, the artists — is an act of resistance and solidarity.”

  2. Anna says...

    “to provide a platform for the men to be heard, on their own terms, rather than through the words of others” is essential. No matter how well-meaning and full of empathy we – the free ones – are, we cannot tell their story for them. There must be few things worse than being locked up and feeling that no one even remembers you exist, let alone under what circumstances.
    This exhibition lets these men not only remind us of their name, but introduce themselves to us as individual human beings and reclaim their rightful place among us.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very well said, Anna, and I too find it very reassuring that the drive behind the exhibition is to enable the prisoners themselves to be heard. And to that end, I was pleased that the exhibition also includes some poetry and prose by the prisoners, as well as audio recordings of Mansoor Adayfi. I think there may be the potential for even more of a multi-media approach, to augment the more visceral power of the art.

  4. Anna says...

    Andy, responding to both the posts on this subject at the same time, I am flabbergasted that there is no one except me who shows any interest in this? I was late too, but not everyone had a moth invasion while having a lot of woolen kilims, blankets etc :-). More seriously, I think that most of your readers would jump on the occasion if offered the opportunity to go to Guantanamo and meet prisoners, bring them flowers and presents and somehow communicate with them, show support.
    That of course is impossible and this exhibition is a rare opportunity for any communication at all. They’re talking to us, the homely picture of the cosy interior may not be among the items a fancy gallery would take on, but it is a heartbreaking message, as it screams to us : I’m craving for a home, without shackles, with my mother, my family, kids and the mother of my kids. A fireplace and potted plants, so little yet so totally out of reach.
    If even your faithful readers seem to take this for granted and not worth commenting on, what can we expect from mainstream media?

    One more reason to hope that Bernie becomes the next US president. He has not spoken about Guantanamo – but no one has asked either – but judging by his outstanding human rights record I would think that he’d be in favour of closing it and certainly would allow artwork to leave that hellhole for starters.

    Most of my friends in NYC are our common ones who I suppose already know about the exhibition, but I’ll try to interest others in DC and PA, they do visit NYC sometimes :-).

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    People have shown interest, Anna – but the problem, I think, is that there’s much more interest in, for example, the testimony of James Mitchell about the torture program or the proposed extradition of Julian Assange than there is about the inner life of some of Guantanamo’s most insignificant prisoners.
    But we’ll keep working on it, of course, trying to figure out some new angles. I’m particularly committed to the stories of Khalid Qasim and Moath al-Alwi, both as individuals and because their work is so powerful. Maybe what’s needed is a foreign jaunt for some of this artwork, so that the US feels the heat from abroad. External pressure on the US is something that some of my American friends always emphasise as being of great significance.

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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 (The State of London).
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