PRINT September 2020


Ammar al-Baluchi, Vertigo at Guantánamo, 2016, graphite and watercolor on paper, 9 × 12".

SOON AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration issued several acts and orders authorizing the indefinite detention without charge of suspected terrorists and military trials with no civilian oversight of noncitizens. Like formally declared states of exception—the founding modern instance was Germany’s 1933 restriction of the individual and civil liberties guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution—such exceptional orders claim to protect democracy by suspending its laws, including, in this case, the cardinal principle of American justice: innocent until proven guilty. Subsequently, in 2002, the US opened a complex of detention camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that, in the words of Amnesty International, “has become emblematic of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the US government” in the name of the “war on terror.”

President Barack Obama amplified Bush’s legacy when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, affirming presidential authority to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely, including US citizens arrested on American soil, and thereby, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, making it more difficult to close Guantánamo. For sixteen years, Guantánamo’s detainees, of whom forty remain—though President Donald Trump once pledged to refill the prison—have been held incommunicado, so that those of us living in metropolitan centers receive little direct information from them. One exception is Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, which reached us in 2015 only after a six-year legal battle and, even then, with about twenty-five hundred black-bar redactions. It was, therefore, rather astonishing when, late in 2017, thirty-two vividly colored paintings and works on paper along with a handful of intricately crafted sculptures created by eight inmates living behind the walls of this monstrous institution made a public appearance at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice under the Romantic title “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay.”

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Hand Holding a Flower), 2016, acrylic on paper, 17 × 12".

The curators of the exhibition were Erin L. Thompson, an associate professor at John Jay; Charles Shields, a language artist; and Paige Laino, digital archivist for the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. They decided to pursue the project after discovering that lawyers who had worked with Guantánamo detainees had “file cabinets stuffed full of prisoners’ art,” which they had received as gifts or for safekeeping. Notably, as Thompson writes, half of the artists, like hundreds of detainees before them, were released when it was found that they pose no threat to the US. After “Ode to the Sea” received international press coverage, the Department of Defense decided that prisoners’ art belongs not to the artists but to the US government and can no longer leave Guantánamo.

The small size, modest installation, and off-the-beaten-track location of “Ode to the Sea” belied the show’s political gravity. Framed or placed in vitrines, the Guantánamo artworks were displayed in the President’s Gallery—little more than a hallway on the college’s sixth floor—with minimal contextualization other than the show’s title, printed on the wall; an eleven-page black-and-white xeroxed handout; and, serendipitously, the ubiquitous word justice, which visitors encountered throughout the John Jay building as they found their way, not without some difficulty, to the exhibition. There is, however, an informative, limited-edition catalogue available online that was not distributed at the show itself. This catalogue contains interviews with some of the artists; essays by Thompson, Laino (who compares the treatment of the detainees’ art with that of the paintings made by President Bush, which were reviewed by several prominent art critics), and Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee; an excerpt from a book wherein Trevor Paglen describes insignia designed and worn by military personnel working at black sites; moving poems, including one by a former detainee (which also appears in the exhibition); and, finally, color reproductions of all the artworks, accompanied by brief explanatory texts.

It is surprising to learn that most of the works originated in art classes, where shackled prisoners received art supplies and some kind of unspecified instruction. According to the catalogue, an official art class was started in late 2008 or 2009 on the camp authorities’ initiative. Before that, drawing was prohibited. Various detainees mention a Jordanian or Iraqi art teacher who, we might reasonably assume, had no art-therapy training. The bulk of the Guantánamo paintings are variations on a few themes most likely assigned by a teacher—still lifes, hands holding flowers, and so on. The only fully original work, and the only abstract painting, is Ammar al-Baluchi’s Vertigo at Guantánamo, 2016, which the artist painted in an attempt to explain to his lawyer the vertigo he suffers after a traumatic brain injury sustained during interrogation at a CIA black site before being transferred to Camp 7 at Guantánamo.

Moath al-Alwi, Giant, 2017, mixed media, 35 × 35 × 11 1⁄2".

As the show’s title makes clear, the majority of the paintings portray the sea, which is also evoked by Moath al-Alwi’s sculptures of ships and a gondola, all creatively fabricated from found materials such as cardboard, bottle caps, and glue-stiffened T-shirts sourced at the detention site. Of all the works held by lawyers and human rights groups, about a third depict the sea. The catalogue essay by Adayfi, who was imprisoned at Guantánamo for fourteen years, offers an explanation for the prevalence of the motif. Walls of tarpaulins and fences block Camp Delta’s prisoners’ views. “It was hard not seeing the sea,” writes Adayfi,

despite its being only a few hundred feet away from us. At the recreation area, if we lay on our stomach, we could get glimpses of the sea through small openings below the tarp. When the guards found out, they blocked the openings. In some cells, in some blocks, we could stand on the windows at the back of our cells to see the sea, but that was risky, because the guards punished us every time they saw us standing and looking out. Whenever any of us wanted to look at the sea, we needed to ask one of the other detainees to watch for the guards and warn us if they came around the block. It wasn’t long before the administration made higher covers, blocking us from seeing the sea.

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Alan Kurdi), 2016, acrylic on paper, 22 × 28".

For a few days, however, after reports of an approaching hurricane, the tarps were removed and then “each of us found a way to escape to the sea,” writes Adayfi. “The sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone,” he says, a sentiment echoed by the curators, who also treat the sea as a symbol of freedom. But this interpretation of the motif is misleading, and it is contradicted by other works in the show. For example, the introductory painting by Muhammad Ansi reproduces a widely circulated 2015 news photo of the body of Alan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned at the edge of the Mediterranean while fleeing Syria. Djamel Ameziane’s watercolor of a shipwrecked boat reflects the artist’s remark to his lawyers that at his “worst moment” he felt like “a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms.” Even the catalogue blurb contests the association of the sea and freedom, observing that Ameziane’s painting expresses anxiety about the future. Ameziane was right to be worried. Having fled as a refugee from Algeria before being detained for eleven years at Guantánamo, he was returned to Algeria over his lawyers’ objections. Not particularly optimistic representations of the sea are also found in two paintings of the Titanic, known to the detainees because the movie about the ship’s sinking was screened at Guantánamo. Finally, Ibrahim al-Rubaish’s title poem reads: “O sea! You taunt us in our captivity / You have colluded with our enemies and you cruelly guard us.”

Djamel Ameziane, Untitled (Shipwrecked Boat), 2016, watercolor on paper, 20 × 25".

The catalogue treats the Guantánamo works primarily as a form of therapy that helps detainees cope with stress and traumatic experiences and increases their self-awareness. It follows that the writers, seeking to uncover the artists’ hidden feelings and messages, tend to interpret individual works as vehicles of self-expression. Here are two typical examples, both describing paintings by Ahmed Rabbani:

Untitled (Still Life of Glassware), 2015: Upon first glance, this works appears to be the result of a still life assignment that could have been given in any painting class. But the empty vessels also serve as an oblique reference both to Rabbani’s absent family and to his acts of self-denial and resistance.
Untitled (Binoculars Pointing at the Moon), 2016: Initially, this appears to be a simple memento of the Super Moon, a much-reported cosmic event in November 2016. However, it is difficult to ignore Rabbani’s parallels with the moon: the countless unseen eyes at the end of binoculars seem to represent the authorities who scrutinize every aspect of Rabbani’s life without, as he claims, understanding it at all.

Of course, self-expression is a crucial aspect of the detainees’ artmaking. As Theodor Adorno writes in the context of another atrocity, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” Yet everyone, artists and commentators alike, agrees that the exhibition of the Guantánamo works has a broader purpose: to show the world, especially Americans, that the works’ creators are human beings. That they are might seem obvious, but, given the massive dehumanization detainees have suffered at the camp and in Western media and propaganda, it is a significant goal. “To be detained at Guantánamo is to be dehumanized,” reads the introduction to Paglen’s catalogue essay. “Creating artwork is one of the few means for detainees to fight this dehumanization, by expressing emotions and a love of beauty.” “Let the sea remind you we are human,” writes Adayfi. “We are not extremists, we do not hate nice things,” says al-Alwi. “I want [an American audience] to think about us in this way.” Ameziane communicates through his lawyer:

For many years we Guantánamo prisoners were pictured by many US government officials as monsters, the evilest people on earth, the worst of the worst, and I am sure many Americans believed that. Displaying the artwork is a way to show people that we are people who have feelings, who are creative, that we are human beings. We are normal people and not monsters.

Abdualmalik Abud, Untitled (Sunset with Bridge), 2016, acrylic on paper, 12 × 18".

What exactly is the connection between the quest to establish the humanness of the artists in “Ode to the Sea” and the effort to obtain justice for Guantánamo detainees, an effort implicit in if not emphasized by the exhibition and catalogue? Had the curators engaged explicitly with this question, they might have framed the exhibition not only within a rhetoric of individual emotional expression that offers evidence of human status but also as a collective declaration of what Hannah Arendt called the right to have rights, which, in democratic societies, is a correlative of human status. When individuals or groups are counted as human beings, they become eligible for human rights. But they do not simply “have” rights; they must claim them, for, as theorists of radical democracy argue, rights, like democratic society itself, have no transcendental or immanent foundation. We don’t simply possess rights that belong to us by Nature or are bestowed by God or conform to Supreme Reason. Precisely because of the lack of extrasocial guarantees, democratic rights and democratic society are open to debate. Rights must be claimed within the social world and against a social order that excludes certain groups of people. In situations of injustice, then, proving humanness and claiming rights happen together. As Thomas Keenan, director of the human rights program at Bard College, notes, in such situations claimants have had to say, “I am a human being.” Consider, as one of numerous examples, the slogan of striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968: “I am a man.” Viewed as a rights claim made by people with no rights except those bestowed on them by their captors, “Ode to the Sea” gave Guantánamo detainees a voice, allowing them to claim, via their previously unseen artworks, precisely this: “We are human beings,” or, interrogatively, “Are we not human beings?” In this way, as speakers, they made an appearance in the democratic public sphere.

Instead of responding to the detainees’ rights claim with assertions of a supposed common humanity, unified by its search for the goodness and beauty manifested in art, we might opt for a more difficult, politico-ethical response.

A rights claim is an address to others whom the speaker seeks to persuade. What, then, is the relationship between the detainee art in “Ode to the Sea” and the metropolitan viewers, largely American, who have received it—at the exhibition, in mass media, and, now, in Artforum? A photograph of a man looking at one of the paintings while wearing a jacket with USA emblazoned across the back evokes the same question. A claim requires evidence—in this case, art—and calls on addressees to respond. Judging by the catalogue texts and various articles about “Ode to the Sea,” the predominant response has been to endorse the assertion that the detainee artists are human. However, respondents tend to cast their definition of humanity in classically humanist terms: Humanity’s unifying essence, embodied in art, is a love of beauty, truth, and goodness. But despite the fact that the English word humanity stands for both “the human race” and “the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence,” to equate the first definition with the second is a fantasy that flies in the face of historical evidence. “Part of being human is the inhumanity of it,” writes the French novelist Romain Gary. “As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling ourselves pious lies.” The very existence of Guantánamo attests to such a lie.

Khalid Qasim, Untitled (Fins in the Ocean), 2016, acrylic on paper, 14 × 17".

It is true that ever since the French Assembly’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, human rights have been conceptualized in the name of something all humans share. No subject is ruled out a priori, even if they might be excluded in fact, says Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights (2007). This is the bright side of Enlightenment universalism. What is more, Hunt argues, the declaration did not offer specific qualifications for people to become subjects of rights, and this lack of definition allowed new groups to claim that “we are like those who have rights,” leading to the ongoing extension of rights. But there is another side to universalism. To assert that metropolitan viewers and Guantánamo artists share a common humanity can function to conceal and thereby legitimate the starkly uneven social conditions of the two groups. Can humanness be detached from barbarically unequal circumstances of existence? Or are humanity and social circumstances inseparable, as the writer Morgan Jerkins argues in a 2018 New York Times essay titled “Why Do You Say You’re Black?” “I cannot be grouped under simply ‘human,’” says Jerkins, “because that default is ‘white,’ and, I have come to understand, some white people do not seem concerned with my protection or safety.” Can we then dismiss, under the cover of abstract humanity, the social relationship that brought together American viewers and Guantánamo detainees at “Ode to the Sea”? Occupying the privileged position in that relationship, we may deplore the imbalance, but we are hopelessly embedded in it.

What exactly is the connection between the quest to establish the humanness of the artists in “Ode to the Sea” and the effort to obtain justice for Guantánamo detainees?

Instead of responding to the detainees’ rights claim with assertions of a supposed common humanity, one unified by its search for the goodness and beauty manifested in art, we might opt for a more difficult, politico-ethical response, one that assents to the claim but acknowledges that we in the US are inevitably entangled in what cultural theorist Bruce Robbins calls “the discourse of the beneficiary”:

The contradictory situation of someone denouncing a system that he finds intolerable but to which he nevertheless continues to belong, from which he continues to derive certain benefits and privileges, from which he may have no possibility of making a clean break—and which he can only denounce to others who also continue to belong to it. I will call talk like this the discourse of the beneficiary. 

We benefit from the violent injustices of a US-dominated transnational economic system that causes untold suffering and breeds the resentment that adds to the appeal of terrorism, which is then mobilized by the security state to justify its perpetual “war on terror.” There is, in other words, a causal connection between the Guantánamo art and the places Americans see it from. Agreeing that the Guantánamo artists are just like us does not keep us from being beneficiaries. As Robbins concludes, there is no good way to be a beneficiary—even by recognizing the humanity of nonbeneficiaries—“except by trying not to be one,” a task that can only be accomplished by “trying to do away . . . with the stark geometry of global injustice by which beneficiaries are defined.”

Rosalyn Deutsche teaches modern and contemporary art at Barnard College and Columbia University. She is the author of Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (1996, MIT) and Hiroshima After Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War (2010, Columbia University Press).