The US prison at Guantánamo Naval Base, Cuba, remains a significant unresolved legacy of the Global War on Terrorism begun in 2001. Since the prison opened in January 2002, roughly 780 men have been detained there as part of US counter-terrorism policies. Today, 35 men remain there, with their ultimate fate yet to be resolved.
One lesser-known aspect of the Guantánamo detainees’ experience is the art they created in prison. Art classes have been offered at the prison since 2010, but by their own account prisoners there have made works of art even before then. Who owns this art — and what will ultimately become of it — is a subject of controversy, however.
An open letter to President Biden from eight former detainees states that “From the very beginning, we made art… We drew with tea powder on toilet paper. We painted our walls with soap and carved Styrofoam cups and food containers. We sang, danced, recited poetry, and composed songs.” The art classes gave them greater power and freedom to continue these activities.
Some detainees gave artwork to their lawyers as gifts. One lawyer, Beth D. Jacob, was impressed by her client’s paintings and reached out to Erin Thompson, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, about possibly putting them on display. The eventual result was a 2017 exhibition at the college of 36 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by men who had been or were still detained at Guantánamo. The exhibition’s theme was depictions of the sea, which detainees were generally not allowed to view from the prison.
The John Jay College exhibit apparently attracted the attention of the US Defense Department, which suspended further transfers of detainee art from Guantánamo. A department spokesman told the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.” The Defense spokesman also expressed concerns about where money from sales of the art might go. Thompson, an exhibition curator, responded that only art by detainees who had been released was available for sale.
Ramzi Kasem, a lawyer for several detainees, said that “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.”
Further exhibitions of Guantánamo detainee artwork have been held since 2017, including one at DePaul University in Chicago this year. The DePaul exhibition curators supported former detainee Mansoor Adayfi in organizing the open letter to Biden, which was released in October of this year.
The letter appeals to the president to “Please end the Trump-era policy of preventing artwork from leaving Guantánamo and release the captive art from the prison.” The signatories note that “Arriving at Guantánamo was like entering a state between life and death. We were completely isolated from the rest of the world and became numbers in orange jumpsuits, caged 24/7.” They go on to explain the art’s importance to them:
[W]hat we got wasn’t just paper, pens, and paints. These were our tools to connect to our memories, to our previous lives, to nature, to the world, to our families. Art was our way to heal ourselves, to escape the feeling of being imprisoned and free ourselves, just for a little while. We made the sea, trees, the beautiful blue sky, and ships. We painted our hope, fear, dreams, and our freedom. Our art helped us survive…
Art from Guantánamo became part of our lives and of who we are. It was born from the ordeal we lived through. Each painting holds moments of our lives, secrets, tears, pain, and hope. Our artworks are parts of ourselves. We are still not free while parts of us are still imprisoned at Guantánamo.
Being able to sell artwork may help former detainees seeking financial support. Thompson commented that “The amounts are modest, but proved very helpful to men struggling to find their feet and make a living after losing 10 or 15 years of their lives.” She argues that since inmates serving sentences in federal prisons are allowed to make and sell art, the same freedom should be given to Guantánamo detainees.
Some former detainees value the art beyond any money it might earn them. Moath al-Alwi, who has been imprisoned since 2002 but has been recommended for transfer to another country, commented that “as far as I am concerned, I’m done, my life and my dreams are shattered. But if my artwork is released, it will be the sole witness for posterity.” Khaled Qasim, who was also recommended for transfer after roughly 20 years imprisonment, has said “My artworks are part of me and my life. If the US government does not agree to release my artwork, I will refuse to leave Guantánamo without my artwork.”