Poignant Artworks by Guantánamo Bay Prisoners Get a Show in New York

The detainees' artwork often depicts scenes from the ocean, which surrounds the prison but is blocked from their view.

Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Houses Reflected in a Bay (2015). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Houses Reflected in a Bay (2015). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

A new art exhibition offers a glimpse into life at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay detention camp, operated by the US government since 2002. At New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, over 30 works of art created by prisoners at the military prison camp are included in “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay.”

Detainees, who are held indefinitely without trial, often paint the ocean, which surrounds the prison but is usually blocked from their view. The sea “means freedom that no one can control or own, freedom for everyone,” former Guantánamo detainee Mansoor Adayfi writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Muhammad Ansi, Titanic (Recalled from Viewing during Interrogation), 2016. Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Muhammad Ansi, Titanic (Recalled from Viewing during Interrogation), 2016. Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

When the tarps obscuring prisoners’ view were temporarily removed ahead of a 2014 hurricane, “all of those who could draw made drawings about the sea,” Adayfi recalled. He was held at Guantánamo from February 2002 until July 2016, when he was transferred to Serbia.

Under President Barack Obama, Guantánamo introduced prison art classes in 2009, albeit with strict restrictions prohibiting any supplies that might be used as a weapon—no sharp pens or pencils, or paintbrushes with metal components.

Moath al-Alwi, Model of a Ship (2015). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Moath al-Alwi, Model of a Ship (2015). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Only two of the works on view—which include drawings, paintings, and sculptures such as model ships—have ever been exhibited in the past. All of the art has been carefully screened to ensure that it contains no secret messages and is marked with a stamp reading “Approved by US Forces.”

Today, 41 men still remain imprisoned at Guantánamo, including exhibition artists Moath Al-Alwi, Ammar Al-Bluchi, Ahmed Rabbani, and Khalid Qasim. Their works are shown alongside those of former detainees Muhammad Ansi, Djamel Ameziane, Abdualmalik (Alrahabi) Abud, and Ghaleb Al-Bihani.

Djamel Ameziane, <em>Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea</em> (2010). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Djamel Ameziane, Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea (2010). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The works often depict scenes of the ocean. Ansi’s paintings feature the Titanic, the Statue of Liberty, and the tragic scene of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore in September 2015 while his family fled ISIS, among other images.

“When I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison,” Al-Alwi told his lawyer, Beth Jacob, according to the Guardian. “Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art.”

Muhammad Ansi, Drowned Syrian Refugee Child (from Images seen on TV) (2016). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Muhammad Ansi, Drowned Syrian Refugee Child (from Images seen on TV) (2016). Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Art crime professor Erin Thompson, who curated the show with Charles Shields and Paige Laino, 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.”

Ode to the Sea: Art From Guantánamo Bay” is on view at the President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 10th Avenue (at 59th Street), New York, October 2, 2017–January 26, 2018. A symposium, with reception to follow, will be held on Monday, October 16, 2017, 6 p.m.–8:30pm. 


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