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Exhibit of art by Guantanamo detainees draws controversy

Some have criticized an art exhibit at a New York college featuring work by current detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Image: A painting by Muhammad Ansi
A painting by Muhammad AnsiCourtesy John Jay College of Criminal Justice

NEW YORK — It's not the art on the walls at John Jay College of Criminal Justice here in Manhattan that's causing a stir, it's the artists themselves.

"Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay" displays 36 works, including paintings and sculptures made by eight "enemy combatants" held on the island, some for nearly 15 years.

Former detainee Mansoor Adayfi explains in an essay written for the exhibition catalog that the theme of the show was chosen because the sea "means freedom that no one can control or own, freedom for everyone."

A painting by Muhammad AnsiCourtesy John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The artists say that to be detained at Guantanamo is to be dehumanized and art is a therapeutic way for them to express their pain. They use the sea in their art as a symbol of calmness, freedom and escape.

Although detainees, many of them suspected al Qaeda terrorists, were held close to the sea, tarps blocked their view until they were removed for four days in 2014 in anticipation of a hurricane; after that, Adayfi recalls, "all of those who could draw made drawings about the sea."

Erin Thompson runs the art program at John Jay and is curator of the exhibit. She says she was surprised to learn there was art coming from Guantanamo but was interested in sharing it with her students and the general public.

"We study terrorism and I firmly believe that to prevent terrorism we need to understand the minds of terrorists and the minds of people wrongly accused of terrorism. So this art is really an invaluable window into the souls of people we need to understand," Thompson said.

"It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists."

The elaborate models of ships are made out of garbage including old shirts, prayer caps, razors and mops. Every blank sheet of paper, everything detainees touch, had to be inspected by guards and cleared for use, Thompson and an attorney for one of the detainees said. Detainees would work on their art while shackled to the floor, Thompson said.

Some family members of Sept. 11 victims have criticized the exhibit, and the fact that artwork was for sale. Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son and who sits on 9/11 Memorial & Museum Board, said of the exhibit: "I'm shocked that John Jay would allow such a thing, it's disgusting and should be trashed."

"It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists, and how do you put a price on it?" he said in a phone interview.

A model ship by Moath Al-Alwi is made out of cardboard and based on photos of 19th century ships is displayed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. Al-Alwi has been held in Guantanamo since 2002 without being charged.Courtesy John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Attorneys for the prisoners and officials at the prison say from now on transfers of detainee-made artwork has been suspended pending further review and some have been told their work will be incinerated.

A Department of Defense spokesperson said that "Defense Department officials were not previously aware that detainee artwork was being sold to third parties" but that there are no plans to claim art that has already left Guantanamo, and that detainees are still allowed to keep a limited amount of artwork in their cell areas.

"Once this practice came to light, as a result of recent media reporting, they quickly moved to institute an appropriate policy which effectively eliminated transfer of detainee produced artwork from the detention facility," Maj. Ben Sakrisson said in an email of the sale to third parties.

Sakrisson said that "items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government."

"This art is really an invaluable window into the souls of people we need to understand."

The art by detainees was loaned to the exhibition by lawyers who received them as gifts and to hold for safe keeping. They are for sale but it's not clear if any have been sold.

Attorney Ramzi Kassem represents Moath Al-Alwi, who has been held since 2002 without being charged. Al-Alwi, who is self-taught, made ship models out of cardboard based on photos shown to him of 19th century ships. The work was scrutinized for hidden messages and x-rayed before Kassem was allowed to take it to the United States, he said.

Al-Alwi would like his family in Saudi Arabia to have the works after the exhibition is over. Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law whose legal clinic represents some detainees, said in an email that Al-Alwi said his latest ship has been taken away by authorities and that "my efforts, my sweat aren't the property of the U.S. government."

Al-Alwi has been accused of having receiving training at a Taliban-related camp and having been in a Taliban unit, according to court documents.

A petition started by Thompson, the curator, protesting the Defense Department policy has received more than 1,000 signatures. It reads "Let them know that burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes-but not by the American people, Art is an expression of the soul. This art belongs to the detainees and the world."

Sakrisson said there has been no change to the program that allows detainees to participate in art classes.

A woman looks at paintings made by detainees at military facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at an exhibit called "Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay" at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Nov. 28, 2017.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Reaction among students has been mixed. Ana Reyes, a freshman looking to work for the Department of Homeland Security, said "it's a good thing they are doing something productive and showing the world they are changing for the better."

Briana Sammons, a college senior hoping to join the New York Police Department, was visibly upset looking at the installation.

"It's very disrespectful and goes against our values," Sammons said.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay created the art first clandestinely and then during classes provided by a Joint Task Force Guantanamo instructor, Thompson said. The exhibit is on display at The President's Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice through January.