From a World to Win News Service:

"Ode to the Sea"—Art from Guantánamo Prison

February 9, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


February 4, 2018. A World to Win News Service. This was an unusual art exhibition in many ways.

For one thing, the paintings, sculptures and installations made by Guantánamo prisoners were not on view in a gallery or museum. They were hung in a corridor in New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which unlike other art venues has neither an exorbitant admission fee nor an unspoken dress code, but does require visitors to have their ID details recorded. A policeman was posted at the show entrance. (The exhibition closed January 28, but the visuals and texts can still be accessed at and

For another thing, as curator Erin Thompson points out in the catalogue, “Some of the detainees’ works look like art exercises produced by students anywhere—but they were made by men shackled to the floor of the art classroom.”

Further, for the eight artists included in this show, the sea means something very different than the kind of picturesque setting some people seek out as a suitable subject for open air painting. They didn’t seek their sea-side location at all. They were brought to Guantánamo in chains, some after months and even years of torture and solitary confinement, often beaten along the way, and when they got there, threatened with drowning. And despite the fact that since then they have spent 10 to 16 years in cells only a few meters from the water’s edge, they are not allowed to see the sea.

Their view of the bay is deliberately obstructed by fences covered with canvas. A prisoner quoted in the show texts says that when holes appeared and men tried to see through them, they saw more rows of covered fences. Only once, for a few days when a hurricane approached, were the tarps removed. For the most part, curator Thompson writes, these prisoners paint not what they see but what they wish they could see.

Thompson discusses why the sea—its waters and shores, sometimes soothing and sometimes devouring, and boats, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes terrifyingly empty—is such a major theme here, although not the only one. Seldom are there people in these works. We see hands and eyes, but rarely are full faces depicted.

One reason, of course, is that human portraits take more skill and imperfections ruin them. All the more because these prisoners most often work with brushes or their hands, not allowed to use pencils, palette knives or any other hard object. Thompson mentions that Islamic thought—all of these men are from Muslim-majority countries—often forbids human representation. She also says that many of the prisoners, particularly from Afghanistan, have never seen an ocean, and wanted to be shown what one looks like.

But the most striking reasons, she concludes, have to do with the conditions of their confinement. The U.S. military scrutinizes and scans every piece of paper leaving Guantánamo, supposedly to check for hidden messages. Any artwork considered to have political or ideological content is not allowed out. That means it’s forbidden to depict suffering. Prisoners understand that their artwork will be examined to determine their state of mind. Any display of anger—or any emotional expression the authorities deem a sign of a dangerous disposition—will be held against them. The majority of the 41 men remaining in Guantánamo have never been charged, and five have been “cleared for release” but remain imprisoned, so that any hope that they will not die there depends on the pleasure of the authorities.

No matter where any of these men may stand in relation to jihadi groups or Islamic fundamentalism in general, trends contending with Western imperialist domination with the goal of establishing extremely oppressive states and societies, that is not an apparent issue in any of the 36 pieces in this show. The underlying theme is how the criminal treatment inflicted on these prisoners has shaped how they see the world. For them the sea is a safe subject—and can serve as a screen on which their feelings, however deliberately muted, can be projected. Some of the pieces in this show are moving even if you didn’t know much about the context in which they were produced. A few are memorable.

One is by Ammar Al-Baluchi, a Kuwait-born Pakistani citizen held and tortured by the CIA for three and a half years before being brought to Guantánamo, where he is still being tortured, according to the UN Human Rights Office (Independent, December 14, 2017). His Vertigo at Guantánamo is an abstract drawing meant to show the sensations that have afflicted him since suffering brain damage during “enhanced interrogation”.

Ahmed Rabbani’s non-representational work is also powerfully evocative. A taxi driver from Karachi, he says, he has spent almost 13 years in Guantánamo after being detained and tortured by the CIA. He has gone on several hunger strikes to proclaim his innocence, and endured force-feeding through tubes inserted in a way meant to be very painful. He describes his Untitled (Binoculars Pointed at the Moon) as a response to his “infatuation” with the November 2016 “strange event where the moon was at its closest point to the earth since 70 years ago.” The catalogue adds, “The countless unseeing eyes at the end of binoculars seem to represent the authorities who have scrutinized every aspect of Rabbani’s life without, as he claims, understanding it at all.”

The show also includes more conventional but still effective work. Ghaleb Al-Binhani’s lighthouse has gone dark. Djamel Ameziane, a refugee from Algeria, made the watercolour Untitled (Shipwrecked Boat) after being held for five additional years, even though “cleared for release”, before being sent back to the country he had fled. He told his lawyers that at the time he felt like the empty, battered, storm-driven ship it depicts. Muhammad Ansi, the artist most represented in this show, also paints the sea as an all-consuming monster in Untitled (Storm at Sea). In Untitled (Alan Kurdi), after the famous photos of the drowned Syrian refugee child lying on a beach, the seething sea is not so much a force of nature as the tormented world where he and Alan and all of us live.

One last reason why this show was unique: Obama’s policy toward Guantánamo (and torture) was carefully ambiguous, as if it were an embarrassment and it would be best if the public didn’t think about it. Trump, the banner of Muslims and an extremely loud advocate of torture, has promised to “load it up”—making it emblematic of the way he intends to run the country and the world. Maybe that’s what this powerful exhibition was meant to warn about.

The show so enraged the U.S. military that it announced that from now on all art produced in its Caribbean hellhole would be considered government property. None of the art that has escaped can be sold, and no more will be allowed out. Journalists have been told that the U.S. government intends to burn it all. A few days after the exhibition closed, Trump announced the prison will be kept open for new arrivals


On March 17, 2017, A World to Win News Service (AWTWNS) announced its transformation into a more thorough-going tool for revolution based on Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism. Read its “Editorial: Introducing a transformed AWTWNS” here.


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