The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva has a collection of over 360 objects made by political prisoners and prisoners of war from over 60 countries. Many were given by detainees to International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) delegates, visiting as part of their mandate under the Geneva Conventions, and since 2013 pieces have been on permanent view at the museum. From a 1916 engraved fountain pen formed from an ammunition cartridge in Germany during World War I, to a ruffly swan created from coffee packets by a detainee from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2012, each is a reworking of the scarce materials at hand into something that transcended confinement.
Now, selections from this collection are published in Prisoners’ Objects: The Collection of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, out from 5Continents. Spanning a century, the included soap sculptures, paintings, utensils, jewelry, commemorative mementos, model ships, and other crafts speak to decades of violence and restricted freedom.
“Made from the rudimentary materials available to prisoners, these objects illustrate the need for detainees to escape their confined environment,” Roger Mayou, director of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, writes in Prisoners’ Objects. “As one female detainee put it: ‘Creating something sets you free. It’s a way of expressing yourself when everything around you tends to silence you and make you forget who you are.'”
The range of objects reaffirms this, with the items in Prisoners’ Objects organized around themes like “freedom” and “memories.” The “bestiary” section, for instance, includes a 1944 wooden eagle made by Soviet prisoners in Germany, an object traded to a guard for bread, as well as detailed fish pendants shaped from aluminum and brass in 1990 by an Iranian prisoner of war in Iraq. “Games” features a deck of cards crafted from toothpaste packaging by Israeli prisoners of war in Damascus in 1974, as well as a full-size guitar built in 1989 of powdered milk cans, wood, and rubber at Machava Prison in Mozambique.
The Red Cross emblem appears on several objects, as do personal declarations of religion, culture, and identity, reaffirming an individual’s qualities that are often quelled in prison. A delicate sculpture from 2009, constructed from drinking straws and magazines, depicts a flower in a jail cell. It was assembled by an Iraqi prisoner in Baghdad, and involves a sensor-activated lamp that lights up this transcription: “He who incarcerates a human being without trial and deprives him of his rights, family and visits from his friends will bring hate into the detainee’s heart.”
“Prisoners’ objects are inseparable from the prison,” Paul Bouvier, a medical advisor to the ICRC, writes in Prisoners’ Objects. “As a creative and artistic enterprise, they convey a sense of life behind bars, the suffering and survival of detainees, and the constant struggle to remain human. They are incontrovertible proof of human dignity.”