A man takes a picture of artwork made by detainees of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp at an exhibit at at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. AP

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Terrorist

An exhibition of works by Guantánamo Bay detainees, currently on display in Manhattan, has triggered a storm involving the Pentagon, artistic freedom and American guilt



NEW YORK — The current wave of sexual harassment accusations in the film and television industry brings into question to what degree we can enjoy works involving people who have since been revealed as sexual predators or rapists. A new controversial exhibition in New York City offers an interesting perspective.

“Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay” has been on display for several weeks in the President’s Gallery at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan. It includes 36 works by eight terror suspects or convicted terrorists. According to the exhibition’s website, four of the artists have been “cleared and released” from the infamous U.S. military prison camp while the other four remain detained there. All of them have one common thing in common: They drew inspiration from their foul-smelling cells, the high barbed-wire fences and the sound of crashing waves near the detention camp, located in Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay.

The notorious prison camp was built on land leased from the Cuban government after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, on Manhattan’s World Trade Center. In the eyes of many Americans, its detainees are the embodiment of the evils of humanity, but for many the facility also symbolizes the moral decay of the American legal system. Some of the prisoners have never been charged or gone on trial. Since President Barack Obama promised to close the facility – a promise he failed to keep – the number of detainees has dropped from 250 to 41, ten of whom have been accused or convicted of engaging in terrorism.

“Many of the [works] were taken from Guantánamo by the detainee’s lawyers specially for this exhibit after a laborious process of searching, scanning, and analysis for hidden messages,” wrote the college, which is named after the first president of the U.S. Supreme Court, in a press release. Organizers of the exhibit do not conceal their bitterness over the government’s involvement and watchful eye, which to them is tantamount to defiling the purity of art.

Muhammad Ansi and John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The press release continues: “A stamp reading ‘Approved by US Forces’ signals that the works have been cleared, and its ink often bleeds through to the image on the other side, a ghostly mix of art and authority.”

It is also hard to ignore the provocative name that curator Erin Thompson, an expert on art by criminals at John Jay, chose for the exhibition – the symbolic meaning of the sea as representing freedom in a place that in her eyes represents profound injustice. The presence of the sea is also prevalent in most of the paintings on view: the Titanic sailing through a stormy sea; a sailboat turned on its side and surrounded by giant rocks; a small fishing boat sailing into the sunset. In one painting, visitors can see seagulls flying above stormy waves. In another one, three colorful parasols are planted in the beach, overlooking the ocean.

Students at the college, nearly all of them minorities, pass through the gallery and barely show any interest in the paintings. Two armed security guards watch from the side, prepared for any possible protest.

Cleared and released

While one can understand the detainees’ longing for the sea, some critics interpret several artists’ decision to mix American motifs into their paintings as a form of provocation. A painting by Muhammad Ansi shows the Statue of Liberty in front of the stormy Hudson River. In another of his drawings, an eye looks at waves while tears streaming out of it fall into the water.

Ansi, a native of Yemen, is the exhibition’s most prolific painter. He was held at Guantánamo for nearly 15 years on suspicion of being one of Osama bin Laden’s body guards. He was released at the beginning of the year after he was cleared of wrongdoing. A bridge reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is visible in a painting by Abdualmalik Abud, another Yemeni who was released last year after spending almost 15 years at the military prison. Another of his works shows a river with a highway on one side and skyscrapers reminiscent of the Manhattan skyline on the other.

Charles Dharapak/AP

The most prominent name in the exhibition is that of Ammar Al-Baluchi, the only artist convicted for being directly involved in the World Trade Center attacks. Al-Baluchi, who is originally from Kuwait, is not only the nephew of another detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – considered one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks – but was also bin Laden’s personal emissary and right-hand man. He has been held in Guantánamo for over a decade. Al-Baluchi has two works in the exhibition, “Seashore” and “Vertigo at Guantanamo.” The latter is a collection of blue, yellow, green and red dots spinning into a kind of whirlpool.

It is surprising to discover that the detainees almost never saw the bodies of water that appear in their works.

“I’ve noticed all of this water and they told me that although Guantánamo is located a few yards from the ocean, they can’t really see it because of all the fences surrounding it,” says Thompson. “But only in 2014, for four days, when a hurricane approached the camp, the guards took down the tarps, this was the only time – for four days – when the detainees could look at the ocean. Then, after this incident in 2014, the detainees started to put the ocean in their works because they wanted to recapture what they said was this feeling of calm, of peacefulness. They spent that time just staring at the ocean.”

Courtesy of the artists and John

How did they begin painting?

“In 2009 the Department of Defense established an art class for the detainees, which is in line with a lot of research on prisons, and they said that they are doing it to distract them from thoughts about self-harm and anger [and] lashing out at the guards. At first they could only make art at the art class and then things loosen up and they could make art in their cells.”

And how did the works get to you?

“A lawyer had a lot of art from some of her clients and she was looking for a while for a place to show it and asked her cousin if she knew anybody. She put us in touch, I curated her art in my previous shop so that’s how the cousin knew me.”

I suppose that from your perspective, this isn’t just about a passion for art but also about a professional interest.

“At the beginning it looked to me like a side project that had nothing to do with my main research, which deals with the deliberate destruction of art, but with the Pentagon policy change, saying that they are going to start to destroy art, it became much closer to my research.”

Thompson is referring to the Pentagon's sudden change in policy regarding Guantánamo detainees' artwork, which went into effect last month, after “Ode to the Sea” had opened. According to reports in American media, art classes for prisoners have been canceled and they are no longer able to transfer their work outside the facility. “My clients were told that their art would no longer be processed for release,” Ramzi Kassem, an attorney who works with detainees in the prison camp and is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, told The New York Times. “And then one of my clients was told that, even if he were ever to be released, that he would not be able to take his art with him, and that it would be incinerated.”

Courtesy of the artists and John
Ammar Al-Baluchi and John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Art therapy

Aside from the authorities, many Americans did not look kindly on the new exhibition. They were particularly outraged over the fact that some of the paintings are for sale and the exhibition gives information on how to contact the detainees’ lawyers to make the purchase.

“I’m shocked that John Jay would allow such a thing, it’s disgusting and should be trashed,” commented Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son and who sits on 9/11 Memorial & Museum Board, to NBC. “It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists, and how do you put a price on it?”

In the wake of the media storm, the Pentagon announced that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Ben Sakrisson, commented that from the moment it learned about the new exhibition, the Defense Department decided to suspend transfers of any art made by detainees pending a policy review.

In certain circles, the Pentagon’s decision was perceived as an attempt to thwart freedom of art – even if the painters were convicted terrorists or suspects. The announcement reverberated in the United States and a petition calling on the Pentagon to lift the new regulations has been circulating in recent days.

Beth Jacob, a lawyer who represents two of the Guantánamo detainees, told CBS that the inmates "know they've been penalized. They know they have been called the worst of the worst. ... Some of them say that when they're creating art, it removes them from their situation."

Does in matter to you who is behind the work? If he is a terrorist or not?

Lucas Jackson/REUTERS
Andres Leighton/AP

“At John Jay College we study terrorism and radicalization and detention, whether it’s wrongful or justified, so this work is valuable information for us. If the artist is indeed a terrorist, then it’s a window to their soul, it’s a source of valuable information. We interrogate these guys for 15 years, shouldn’t we use this as a source of information as well? And for those who are not terrorists, who are wrongfully detained, it’s evidence to the effect it has on the human spirit, so I think these works are valuable whether they are terrorists or not.”

Are there works that for you would not be worthy of being exhibited?

“There is a difference between publicly displaying things and privately studying them, so if it was a work made by a murderer who graphically depicts the murder, that’s not something the public should see, but these works are proper for the public to view and make up their own minds and for us as professors and students to analyze. The vast of majority of the art made by detainees depicts a peaceful, calm scene; they told me they use art to distract themselves, to imagine themselves elsewhere.”

Can you understand the protest sparked by the exhibition and the Pentagon’s reaction?

“I understand the reaction of those who lost family members in terror attacks. Of course they are angry, I think they have a mistaken idea of what the purpose of the show is. Some news reports put it out as if this is glorifying terrorists ... but this is not at all the case. I think this show is a small step in the direction of helping understand terrorism and obtain justice for these families.

“The reaction I don’t understand is that of the Pentagon, because as they said when they established the art-making program, this is a program that helps protect the guards by channeling detainees’ energies into making art. And I don’t understand why you would want to cut off this source of information into the mind of these men, if we are so interested in obtaining the information by other means. Why interrogate them but say, ‘let’s not look at their art because it’s too pretty’?

“So many people have visited the show and told me, ‘wait, Guantánamo is still open?’ I think that too many decisions made by the government regarding Guantánamo are kept in the dark. We all want justice, we all want convictions for these terrorists, but indefinite detention without charges against most of these detainees doesn’t advance this goal.”

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