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.

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Laughing at the President: Philip Guston Draws Richard Nixon

As the US presidential inauguration approaches, provoking revulsion and celebration in various quarters, an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s New York gallery is reminding visitors of a Cold War precedent for the current political turmoil. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 is devoted to the American artist’s satirical images of Richard Nixon, whose controversial presidency was brought to a premature end in 1974 following the infamous Watergate scandal.

Philip Guston’s art had always been influenced by contemporary politics. Early in his career, as a mural artist, Guston created works in support of the falsely imprisoned Scottsboro Boys and travelled to Mexico to learn from revolutionary Communist artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the 1930s, Guston worked for the New Deal art programmes, before joining many of his contemporaries in the late 1940s to pioneer Abstract Expressionism, typified in the painting of his high school friend, Jackson Pollock.

Guston began his Nixon drawings soon after he had returned to New York from a prolonged stay in Italy. He had fled to Europe in 1970 following a savage response by the New York art world to his abandonment of abstraction in favour of a dystopian and comically vulgar figurative style. This imagery, for which Guston is now best known, was prompted by the divisive atmosphere in the United States as the country faced up to its failure in the Vietnam War, social unrest raged in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and neoconservatism began to  permeate government organisations. Guston later recalled, “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? … I am weary of all this purity”.

As Guston adjusted to life after abstraction, he turned to drawing to express his anger at the Nixon administration, just as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ scandal was uncovering the lies told to the American public about the military campaign in Vietnam. Guston took inspiration from his conversations with the writer Philip Roth, whose own aversion to Nixon simultaneously resulted in the satirical novel Our Gang.

The 180 pen-and-ink drawings on display at Hauser & Wirth are surreal, cartoonish and at times juvenile. Guston’s highly unflattering portrayal of Nixon sees the president depicted as a monstrous phallic figure, that in turn morphs into other ridiculous characters including a cat, a cookie, a lost astronaut, and a stone monument. The display includes both the Poor Richard series of 1971 and the Phlebitis series of 1975. These series respectively pour scorn on Nixon’s self-mythologisation through exaggerated tales of his youth and use the physical ailments of the by-then-resigned president to allegorise his moral decay. [Watch the ‘Poor Richard’ series on YouTube.] The exhibition also features several paintings on a similar theme, such as San Clemente, as well as more contemplative self portraits of the artist, lying alone in bed, unable to sleep.

There is still a month left to see the exhibition that Hyperallergic describes as “a tool kit for satirizing loathsome presidents”. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 continues at Hauser & Wirth until 28 January 2017.

All images by Philip Guston. Untitled from the series Poor Richard, 1971, ink on paper; San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas; Alone, 1971, oil on canvas. © Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

From Disintegration to Silence: Drawing the Hungarian Revolution

Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.

The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.
jozsef-stalin-dove

One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).

Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.

Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:

“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]

Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.

Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.

Painting the Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was a defining moment in the Vietnam War. The series of surprise attacks were launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army against South Vietnam and their allies on 30 January 1968. During one of the largest military campaigns of the war, more than 80,000 soldiers attacked targets in over 100 towns and cities across Vietnam. Although the operation eventually resulted in defeat for the North Vietnamese, it is remembered as the moment when the United States government and public belatedly realised the power of their enemy.

The response to the Tet Offensive was depicted in a series of paintings and drawings by Ken McFadyen. In August 1967 he had been posted to Vietnam for 7 months as an official war artist recording Australia’s involvement in the conflict. McFadyen had undergone jungle warfare training in Queensland before his departure, as he was expected to wield weapons as well as paintbrushes should it be required.

The life of a war artist in Vietnam was both emotionally and physically demanding. In stifling heat, humidity and torrential rain, McFadyen had to carry full combat equipment on top of his art materials while risking his life alongside his fellow soldiers. He recalls at one point feeling “very tired, wet and muddy, covered in small black leeches competing with thousands of amber coloured ants for a place on my body”.

Despite these challenges McFadyen was able to produce vivid oil paintings and technically accurate drawings depicting troops heading into battle, search and destroy missions, daily life on the bases, and military vehicles. The artworks are now held in the Australian War Memorial near Canberra. In 2010, a selections was published under the title Vietnam on Canvas. You can watch a slideshow of the images here:

Images: Ken McFadyen. Top – Disembarking from Chinook helicopter, 1967. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 45.2 x 39.2 cm; Bottom – Blindfolding a Viet Cong, 1968. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 96.4 x 81.5 cm. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

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

The United States Air Force Art Collection

ESPIONART has previously reported on the art collections of some unlikely American institutions, including the NASA Art Program, the Navy Art Collection and the DIA Military Art Collection.

Another to add to that list is the United States Air Force Art Collection, which was created in 1950, just as the Cold War was beginning to heat up. Soon afterwards the USAF Art Program was also founded, arranging for selected artists to travel with the Air Force to locations around the world and record its activities. The artists were chosen from professional groups across the country and in particular the Society of Illustrators.

Today the collection, held in the Pentagon, contains nearly 9,000 works. While the majority of the paintings and drawings are aviation art, with detailed depictions of everything from bombers and missiles to gunships and cargo planes, there is also a large number of more general military scenes, portraits of noted Air Force personnel, images of civilians affected by warfare and original artwork for Air Force recruitment posters. Key events from the Cold War include the Berlin Airlift and the Fall of Saigon.

The United States Air Force Art Collection has been digitised and is now available to view online.

Images: Top – Emilio Arias, The Collapse of Viet Cong, n.d. (1975); Bottom – Gil Cohen, Berlin Airlift / Staying Power – Berlin, 1948–49. Courtesy United States Air Force Art Collection.

Unforgettable Pictures of Hiroshima

The atombic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 set the scene of the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War. Yet while the world would at moments come to the brink of nuclear war, the devastation wrought in Japan remains a unique tragedy.

In May 1974 an old man walked in to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation studio in Hiroshima with a picture recording his experience of the bombing. When it was shown on television the enormous interest it generated among viewers resulted in the studio receiving almost 1,000 more pictures drawn by survivors of the atomic bombings. The collection was exhibited at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum later that year.

1977 saw the publication of 104 of the illustrations in the book
Unforgettable Fire. As the quote on the front – by John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Hiroshima – recognises, this group of drawings is “more moving than any book of photographs of the horror could be, because what is registered is what has been burned into the minds of the survivors”.

The book is now available to be viewed online and can be downloaded for free, with the aim of raising awareness of the human side of the tragedies and the ongoing need for nuclear disarmament.

Images: From Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, ed. Nippon Hoso Shuppan Kyokai, 1977.