A new policy of the Department of Defense threatens to shut down an exhibition of artworks by Guantánamo Bay prisoners at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, provoking a heated debate over art censorship and the appropriateness of displaying art by suspected terrorists.
The show, titled “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” opened on October 2 and features 36 paintings and sculptures by current and former detainees, many of whom have been held indefinitely without trial. Art crime professor Erin Thompson, who co-curated the show with archivist Paige Laino and artist/poet Charles Shields, told the Guardian she hoped the works would help viewers reexamine how they think about Guantánamo detainees. “In the era of Trump, who is saying he wants to expand Guantánamo, the exhibit now has a more activist purpose,” she added, “which is showing that indefinite detention harms detainees and the people working in the prison.”
The artworks on view, many of which depict scenes of the ocean, are available for purchase through the detainees’ respective lawyers. Each of the works was examined for hidden messages and cleared by the military. Many of the pieces still bear the stamp “approved by US forces.” Nevertheless, the Department of Defense reportedly wants to shut down the exhibition and incinerate the works. Staff of the publicly funded college are preparing for the art to be seized, according to the New York Post.
In an abrupt shift in policy, the Pentagon has decided that art made by wartime detainees is the property of the US government, according to a report in the Miami Herald. Accordingly, the Guantánamo Bay detention center has stopped releasing security-screened prisoner art to the public. (Under President Barack Obama, the military introduced prison art classes for Guantánamo detainees in 2009, albeit with strict restrictions prohibiting any supplies that might be used as a weapon.)
Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer and professor at CUNY School of Law, believes the new policy means government intends to do more than just seize the art, telling the Herald that the works would be incinerated. The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to artnet News’ request for comment.
A John Jay College professor has launched an online petition to protest any government plans to burn the artwork. “Let them know that burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes—but not by the American people,” the petition states. “Art is an expression of the soul. This art belongs to the detainees and to the world.”
Opponents of the show, meanwhile, believe that it should never have been allowed to take place. “I cant understand how this college, in particular, would allow such a thing,” Michael Burke, whose brother, firefighter Billy Burke, died on 9/11 and was a John Jay alumnus, told the New York Post. “Where’s their decency? Where’s their dignity… It’s denying and softening what happened.”
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