In an open letter published today, eight former and current detainees of Guantánamo are petitioning President Joe Biden to end a Trump-era restriction that bars artwork from leaving the prison. The complete letter, written by Mansoor Adayfi, Sabri Al-Qurashi, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Moazzam Begg, Boumedien, Djamel Ameziane, Sami al-Hajj, and Ahmed Errachidi, is appended at the end of the article.
In 2010, prisoners were provided with an art class — a hard-won product of negotiations that they had undertaken with camp administrators and a minor concession in the midst of President Obama’s failure to close the prison for good as promised. While some were already producing art with the rudimentary materials that they had access to, like walls, food containers, and toilet paper, the art class provided them with paper, pens, and paints and allowed them to create art out in the open.
“No longer did we have to hide our writings, paintings, poems, and songs — which had meant hiding parts of ourselves. No longer were we punished for painting or singing,” they write in their letter. “We could reveal parts of ourselves that were missing.”
In 2017, an exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice titled Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo, curated by Erin Thompson, Paige Laino, and Charles Shields, showcased over 30 paintings and sculptures made by people currently and formerly imprisoned at Guantánamo and procured by their lawyers. (An expanded version of the exhibition, curated by Thompson, was most recently on view at the Catamount Arts Center.)
Soon after the show went up, however, the Pentagon declared that all art made at Guantánamo was government property and could no longer leave the premises of the prison. Furthermore, it could be destroyed at the military’s discretion.
In their letter, the detainees — most of whom have been freed, with al-Alwi and Rabbani cleared for release — are asking Biden to reverse the Pentagon’s censorship and destruction of Guantánamo art. “This art belongs to the artists,” today’s letter reads. “Its importance to them cannot be overstated.”
The letter was organized by former detainee Mansoor Adayfi with the support of Tea Project artists Aaron Hughes and Amber Ginsburg, curators of Remaking the Exceptional, Tea, Torture and Reparation | Chicago to Guantanamo — a 2022 exhibition at DePaul Art Museum featuring nearly 100 works made by artists in Guantánamo. The missive has garnered signatures from prominent artists and cultural figures so far, including Molly Crabapple, Michael Rakowitz, Erin Thompson, and Lori Waxman, and the authors are asking for supporters to add their signatures in solidarity.
Read the open letter in full below.
Dear Mr. President,
Please end the Trump-era policy of preventing artwork from leaving Guantánamo and release the captive art from the prison.
Arriving at Guantánamo was like entering a state between life and death. We were completely isolated from the rest of the world and became numbers in orange jumpsuits, caged 24/7. We spent years and years in those cages, unable to see life beyond those walls. Torture, hunger strikes, and isolation brought us closer to death and defined our imprisonment. The longer we stayed, the more we lost our sanity and ourselves.
In 2010, as part of a general improvement in living conditions when Obama failed to fulfill his promise to close the military prison, and as part of our negotiations with the camp administration, we were given access to an art class.
For the first time, making art was no longer banned.
From the very beginning, we made art. We had nothing, so we made art out of nothing. We drew with tea powder on toilet paper. We painted our walls with soap and carved Styrofoam cups and food containers. We sang, danced, recited poetry, and composed songs. But because of this change in rules, we now had real paper, pens, and paints—colors we hadn’t seen for years. No longer did we have to hide our writings, paintings, poems, and songs—which had meant hiding parts of ourselves. No longer were we punished for painting or singing. We could reveal parts of ourselves that were missing.
You have to understand that what we got wasn’t just paper, pens, and paints. These were our tools to connect to our memories, to our previous lives, to nature, to the world, to our families. Art was our way to heal ourselves, to escape the feeling of being imprisoned and free ourselves, just for a little while. We made the sea, trees, the beautiful blue sky, and ships. We painted our hope, fear, dreams, and our freedom. Our art helped us survive.
And we shared our artwork. Artworks moved from one block to another in Camp 6, so we could all see each other’s work. We gave art to our lawyers and families as well as to guards and camp staff. Even the camp administration created a gallery to display our art to visitors, journalists, and delegations. We started to share our artwork with the world. Then, in 2017, after an exhibition in New York City, things changed.
We wanted everyone to see this art, see its beauty. We wanted them to see how we used our artwork to fight injustice. But this message and increased public attention on the prison angered the Trump administration, which responded by banning anymore art from leaving Guantánamo.
Please, Mr. President — don’t follow Trump’s lead.
This art belongs to the artists. Its importance to them cannot be overstated. Moath Al-Alwi, who was cleared for release in January 2022, told his lawyer that he would rather his artwork be released than himself, “because as far as I am concerned, I’m done, my life and my dreams are shattered. But if my artwork is released, it will be the sole witness for posterity.” Khaled Qasim, who was cleared for release in July 2022, asked his brother in a call on August 3, 2022 to spread a message to the free people of the world: “I ask you all to help me to free my artwork from Guantánamo. My artworks are part of me and my life. If the US government does not agree to release my artwork, I will refuse to leave Guantánamo without my artwork.”
Art from Guantánamo became part of our lives and of who we are. It was born from the ordeal we lived through. Each painting holds moments of our lives, secrets, tears, pain, and hope. Our artworks are parts of ourselves. We are still not free while parts of us are still imprisoned at Guantánamo.
Mr. President, end this Trump-era policy and free the artwork from Guantánamo.
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