Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. 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”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.


Featured Artist: Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck

Venezuelan multimedia artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck has in recent years been bringing the Cold War back into contemporary galleries and international biennials. His eclectic installations incorporate historical documents, media sources and the work of other artists to dissect the role of power and propaganda in artistic narratives after World War II.

Balteo Yazbeck’s hybrid practice casts him at once as researcher, archivist, historian and curator. He has often teamed up with New York-based Iranian curator and art historican Media Farzin on a number of projects exploring America’s efforts to access oil reserves in Venezuela and Iran during the Cold War.

The duo’s 2009 exhibition Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect – named after a 1954 opinion piece published in the New York Times – brought together maps, photographs and replica artworks in a tale of international intrigue which placed Alexander Calder at the centre of US diplomacy in Latin America and the Middle East.

In 2013 one of Balteo Yazbeck’s latest projects, Chronoscope, was a highlight of the Cold War-themed Statue of Limitation exhibition in Dubai. This exciting and informative work proves that the Cold War remains a rich source of inspiration for contemporary artists.

Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin. Top – Didactic Panel for Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943 (detail); Bottom – Eames-Derivative (small version). From the series Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect, 2006–13. Courtesy the artists

Exhibition of the Month: Involuntary Memories

Former US President and devoted Cold Warrior Richard Nixon is the inspiration behind a current exhibition in his home town of Yorba Linda, California.

Involuntary Memories is a collection of large-scale pen and ink drawings by American artist Deborah Aschheim, woven together with text drawn from a series of oral interviews. Deborah Aschheim conducted the interviews and produced the illustrations during a 7-month residency at the studios of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, CA. The park was formerly the site of El Toro, a Marine Corps airbase which Nixon used as an airport when travelling between Washington, DC and his ‘Western White House’ in San Clemente.

As part of her wider project to develop a “sprawling bi-partisan tapestry of community memories of that era”, Aschheim gathered personal recollections from visitors to the park of the 37th President and the Vietnam War. This project in collective memory provides a novel insight into a far-reaching moment in Cold War history.

The exhibition continues at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA until 28 September 2014. You can see further examples of Aschheim’s illustrations on her website, along with installation shots of the exhibition.

Images: Deborah Aschheim. Top – November 20, 1964 (UC Berkeley), 2013; Bottom – April 30, 1970 (Washington), 2012. Courtesy the Artist

Featured Artist: Sean Snyder

Sean Snyder is a contemporary American artist living and working in Berlin, Kiev and Tokyo. Acclaimed for his unique ‘research-based’ art, Snyder works predominantly in film and video to explore the role of images in the global circulation of (dis)information.

This fascination has repeatedly led him to engage with the politics of images produced during the Cold War. Using montages and cut ups of content drawn from official news channels to clandestine websites, Snyder challenges our understanding of what we see by questioning the lines between truth and propaganda, transparency and manipulation.

Some of Snyder’s recent Cold War themed artworks have included Exhibition (2008) which reappropriates footage from a 1965 Soviet documentary about an art exhibition in eastern Ukraine; Two Oblique Representations of a Given Place (Pyongyang) (2001–4) which juxtaposes screens showing official footage celebrating the technological advances of Pyongyang with a tourist-filmed video that gives an altogether more eerie view of the North Korean capital; Afghanistan, circa 1985 (2008–9) which captures the strange banality of war using footage shot by soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania (2001) which recounts the bizarre role of the American TV series Dallas in bringing down the USSR.

Snyder’s work is informative, compelling and unsettling, as we are confronted by our susceptibility to the wealth of images we are exposed to on a daily basis.

For a more in-depth account of Sean Snyder’s work, read Stranger than Fiction on Frieze.

Images: Sean Snyder. Top – Exhibition, 2008 (video still); Bottom – Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania, 2001 (video still). Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Lisson Gallery, London; and Galerie Neu, Berlin.

Exhibition of the Month: To Warn Other Canadians

In 1959 Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker secretly commissioned the construction of an underground bunker in Ottawa, intended to house key members of the government and military in the event of a nuclear attack. What is now known as the Diefenbunker is today a Cold War museum and has recently hosted its first ever artist-in-residence, Gail Bourgeois.

For six months from November 2013 Bourgeois was given exclusive access to the 100,000 square foot bunker, the permanent collection, library and archives. The results of this unique residency is now on display in the exhibition To warn other Canadians. Throughout the four levels of the building the artist has arranged over 100 site specific artworks alongside existing museum exhibits. The new works explore the theme of communication by reflecting on the bunker’s Cold War history and the people that inhabited it.

To warn other Canadians remains at the Diefenbunker until 31 August 2014 and the artist is hosting monthly public tours. You can find out more and sign up to follow the Diefenbunker blog on WordPress.

Image: Gail Bourgeois, Means of Survival, inkjet print of original drawing in pencil, 2014.

Exhibition of the Month: D-0 ARK Underground

130805 D-0 ARKAs part of the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina you can currently visit an art exhibition in the unique setting of an atomic bomb shelter inside a mountain. The D-0 ARK Underground project originally opened for 3 months during the previous Biennale in 2011, and this 2nd edition adds the work of 30 artists from 19 countries to the original collection of 40 pieces.

Construction of the 6,500-square-metre anti-nuclear bunker, known as Military Installation D-0, began near the town of Konjic in 1953 and lasted almost 3 decades. This ongoing military facility was originally intended to protect the headquarters of the Yugoslav Army and the country’s Cold War leader, Tito, as well as 350 men and women, selected to be saved in the event of a nuclear war. Its existence remained a secret until after Communist rule ended in the 1990s.

This year’s exhibition is set to close on 26 September, but plans are afoot to turn D-0 ARK Underground into a permanent exhibition space.

You can read a thorough report in All Art News here. But if you plan to visit, book ahead as access to the bunker is restricted.