A spray of leaves from a metal vase is set against a rich blue wall. In the reflection of the vase, we see hints of windows overlooking greenery and the sea: it is a still life that also contains a sunny, beachside landscape.
How do we reckon with the knowledge that this was made by a man imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for 11 years, where he was never charged but tortured, where art was surely one method of staying in touch with his humanity? More broadly, how does the American public imagine Guantanamo, a part of this country that has been deliberately obscured from sight throughout its 13 years of existence?
This still life, by Djamel Ameziane, was displayed at a pop-up exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library last Wednesday organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The CCR, a legal organization advocating for human rights and social justice, is branching into cultural work — part of what staff attorney Omar Farah described at the event as a “conscious decision to attack an old problem in a new way.” By circulating Ameziane’s work, the group is using the arts to fill in the vast communal blind spot that is Guantanamo Bay. CCR produced the film Waiting for Fahd, which screened at the event, and displayed works by photographer Debi Cornwall and artist Molly Crabapple alongside Ameziane’s paintings.
Ameziane’s is a rare case: most artworks are not allowed to leave Guantanamo for fear that they might contain coded political messages or instructions. Ameziane was able to send some to his brother in Canada through the International Red Cross. Two CCR staffers, Chase Quinn and Aliya Hussain, traveled to Canada to meet with Ameziane’s brother and scan the artworks. If there is political content in these watercolors of ships, vases, and beaches, it is, in Hussain’s words, that a “human story is the most subversive one.”
Meanwhile, independent artists traveling to Guantanamo have to contend with severe limitations: detainees and guards at Guantanamo cannot be photographed, and all artworks and photographs made at Guantanamo are subject to review and destruction at the end of each day. The artists, then, must convey the horrific through the banal.
Cornwall’s photographs focus on the surreal built environment of the place. She was struck, on one of her first trips, by one of the guard’s comments that Guantanamo was the most “fun” place to be stationed. She shoots a dusty driving range, a large bingo hall, a wall-sized image of a palm tree and beach in one of the staff cafes. All of it evidence, in her view, of the government’s “striving to create normalcy.”
Crabapple took a different approach to those limitations with her illustrations, using dark ink washes to capture scenes that cannot be photographed. Because guards must remain anonymous, she gives them sinister smiley faces, showing them at leisure or force-feeding detainees on hunger strike. After one rare session in which she was allowed to see the imprisoned men, her prison escort demanded that she scratch out the faces in her sketch, lest she draw them in later from memory.
The short film Waiting for Fahd, viewable online, features interviews with the family of one of CCR’s clients, 30-year-old Fahd Ghazy, who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo for 13 years. Though he has been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations, because of a new rule forbidding Yemeni citizens from returning to their home country he is still in Guantanamo. Ghazy’s image and voice are absent in the film, but his presence is felt in subtler ways: according to his attorney, Ghazy was instrumental in connecting CCR to his family for the interviews and directing the narrative of the film.
With its driving ranges and McDonald’s on one hand, and torture chambers and force feeding on the other, the prison at Guantanamo is, in Crabapple’s view, “quintessentially American.” Art, in this context, becomes a tactic to make visual those contradictions, to render legible this nebulous institution.
“Art & Film: Storytelling Guantanamo—A Special Freedom Flicks Program” took place at main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (10 Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on January 14, 2015.