Should Guantanamo Bay prisoners be allowed to display and own their artwork?

After a successful show in New York, American authorities have decided that Guantanamo Bay detainees will no longer be allowed to send their art to be shown in the U.S. - and it may even be destroyed.
Blue Mosque Reflected in a River (made after a terror attack in Istanbul near the Blue Mosque), by Ghaleb Al-Bihani. (John Jay College of Criminal Justice)
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Story transcript

​A new art show in New York is called Ode to the Sea. To casual observers, it might seem innocuous, even unremarkable: mostly paintings and sculptures of still life or simple landscapes.

But visitors shouldn't expect to meet any of the artists. None of them can make it. That's because they're all either former or current detainees at one of the most controversial prisons in the world: Guantanamo Bay.

The exhibit has been on display since October at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It shows 36 paintings and sculptures created by eight men during their years being held at the U.S. military facility for terrorism suspects in Cuba.

But, following the success of the show in New York, American authorities have decided that Guantanamo Bay detainees will no longer be allowed to send their art to be shown in the U.S. — and it may even be destroyed.

A model made by Moath Al-Alwi while being detained at military facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is displayed at an art exhibition named Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Nov. 28, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

At the exhibit, a sculpture of a seafaring ship by one of Ramzi Kassem's clients, Moath al-Alwi, stands out. It was constructed with cardboard from guards' ready-to-eat meal boxes, strips of prisoners' clothing, string from prayer beads and other items.

"[Al-Alwi] started taking some of the art classes where they were teaching mostly painting and he has an amazing three-dimensional mind," Kassem, a law professor, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "One of his teachers showed him a photo or a picture or painting of a 19th century ship and, based on that, he essentially re-created it out of cardboard and other reclaimed items."

Al-Alwi is accused of being one of Osama bin Laden's bodyguards. He's one of four contributors to the art exhibit who remain behind bars in Guantanamo without having gone to trial.

Drowned Syrian Refugee Child (from Images seen on TV) by Muhammad Ansi, depicting Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee boy who drowned in 2015. (John Jay College of Criminal Justice)

All prisoner art vetted before release

All art released from the prison is heavily vetted by U.S. officials to ensure they don't contain any violent messages or hidden content.

Recently, these restrictions have been tightened even further. Coverage of the show, particularly the fact that some of the works were available for purchase, has spurred the Department of Defense to reconsider such releases and redefine who actually owns such works.

"Items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government," Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a spokesman for the department, said in an email to The Associated Press.

Crying Eye (Mother), by Muhammad Ansi. (John Jay College of Criminal Justice)

It's "an absurdly rigorous censorship and security vetting process" and a byproduct of the U.S. government's strict message control campaign about Guantanamo Bay's prisoners, said Kassem.

"Everything that's on display at John Jay has already been through government censorship — and even before it goes through government censorship, it has already gone through self-censorship by the detainee artists themselves because they know that a piece of art that is too overtly political — one that describes, for example, or depicts the torture that the artist has survived — would never make it out," he said.

'They are enslaving our thoughts and our feelings'

Kassem isn't surprised about the newly tightened restrictions in the wake of Ode to the Sea's growing publicity.

"Guantanamo has always been about dehumanizing, erasing and controlling its prisoners," he said.

A man takes a picture of artwork at the exhibit. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Kassem recently spoke to Alwi, who was "heartbroken" that his art may no longer be seen by anyone in the outside world.

"He said, literally, and these are his words: 'I have so many ideas, but even these ideas are trapped in this prison with me. My efforts, my sweat, is not the property of the U.S. government. The U.S. government says it wants to fight slavery, but they are enslaving our thoughts and our feelings.'" said Kassem.

With files from the Associated Press.