Last week was the launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” a powerful new art exhibition featuring work by eleven current and former Guantánamo prisoners at CUNY School of Law’s Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice, in Long Island City in Queens, New York, which I wrote about in article entitled, Humanizing the Silenced and Maligned: Guantánamo Prisoner Art at CUNY Law School in New York.
This is only the second time that Guantánamo prisoners’ artwork has been displayed publicly, following a 2017 exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also in New York, which became something of a cause célèbre after the Pentagon complained about it. That institutional hissy fit secured considerable sympathy for the prisoners — and criticism for the DoD — but in the end the prisoners lost out, as the authorities at Guantánamo clamped down on their ability to produce artwork, and prohibited any artwork that was made — and which the prisoners had been giving to their lawyers, and, via their lawyers, to their families — from leaving the prison under any circumstances.
Since the launch, a wealth of new information has come my way, via Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represents around ten of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, and who was one of the main organizers of the exhibition, which is running until mid-March, with further manifestations continuing, I hope, throughout the rest of the year.
Shelby and I have known each other for many years, and when I visited the US last month, on my annual visit to call for the closure of Guantánamo on the anniversary of its opening, I visited CUNY School of Law, to see the early version of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored” that was showing at the time, featuring artwork by Khalid Qasim, one of Shelby’s clients, which I wrote about — and included photos from — in my article last week. Shelby and I later travelled to Harlem, to the Revolution Books store, for a speaking event that, after a day spent discussing the injustices of Guantánamo and the plight of the men still held, was highly-charged emotionally, and the video of that event is here.
Following last week’s launch, Shelby sent me her opening remarks, which I’m posting below, as well as some background to and observations about the exhibition, and a link to photos by Elena Olivo, which I’m scattering liberally throughout the article. The photo below captures some of the large crowd attending the launch, as well as the main organizers and speakers on the night.
Shelby’s opening remarks are posted below:
This is the art that the government tried to completely silence when they learned of its heightened visibility with the last gallery it was in. This is the art they banned and threatened to incinerate. Guantánamo has always been about dehumanizing those imprisoned there and erasing them. Coming out to see this art — and as a result, the artists — is an act of resistance and solidarity.
The stories told of those at the sharp end of the most powerful government in the world are often, almost inevitably, the facts of the oppression: their rendition, their torture, their lack of a trial. Their identities and the depths of who they are — what they want in life, what they laugh at, cry at, fight for and against, what they spend their days thinking about — is erased. Their artwork enables my clients to be heard, to reach audiences across the world in their own terms — by their merits, and not the reliability of their lawyers’ characterisations.
And like their artwork in the first gallery back in 2017, this event reminds the world that they are still there. So many people still don’t know that most have never even been charged with a crime; that these are men and not monsters.
They are creative, and humble, and bright, and loyal people, who have been kept from their families for decades. Their habeas cases may be stayed in futility but their days tick by.
The men our government threw into a dungeon, against every single law ever written—to preserve our “safety”—those men remind us with their artwork who they actually are; that they continue to have hope and dream dreams.
And artwork for them, as it is for so many across time and space, is the way to express those basic tenets of humanity.
Following up on her opening comments, Shelby wrote to me in an email that “the objective — of the entire exhibition — is to provide a platform for the men to be heard, on their own terms, rather than through the words of others, and to combat the purposeful silencing and identity-erasure that GTMO perpetrates.” And as she also explained, since the clampdown that followed the 2017 exhibition, most of the prisoners stopped making art, so “part of the purpose of our event is to facilitate their being heard and to inspire them to start making art again.”
In total, the work of 13 current and former prisoners is featured; nine artists, and four others providing contributions in other media. As Shelby explained, “CCR provided the art by Ghaleb al-Bihani and Djamel Ameziene [both released], Beth Jacob provided the art by Mohammed al-Ansi [also released], Ramzi that by Moath al-Alwi [still held], Mark Maher [of Reprieve] that of Ahmed Badr Rabbani [stlll held],” and the other artists’ work is a combination of my clients’ and that of former detainees with whom my clients put me in touch” — Khalid Qasim, Sabry Mohammed al-Qurashi and Assadulah Haroon Gul (all still held), and released prisoner Abdulmalik al-Rahabi.
The other contributions, collected by Shelby, were from former prisoner (and talented writer) Mansoor Adayfi, who provided audio anecdotes about life in the prison, poetry from Towfiq al-Bihani, who is still held, and prose from Abdullatif Nasser (still held) and released prisoner and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
As Shelby also explained, the entire project — “a GTMO art gallery hosted by CUNY Law whose scope expanded upon John Jay’s ‘Ode to the Sea’ theme and incorporated as many artists as we could find” — had been in the works for at least three years, and it seems appropriate that it has ended up at CUNY, because as Shelby also explained, “I initially reached out to CUNY Alumni Relations when I noticed professional artwork on display at CUNY and asked if they’d consider a GTMO exhibition and my beloved CUNY community leapt at the idea. Camille Massey and Alizabeth Newman (Int. Executive Director, Alumni Engagement & Initiatives, CUNY Law) paid me a visit and looked through the enormous collection of artwork that I had from my clients alone (collected pre-ban, but not showcased in John Jay just due to the sheer volume of it, and consistency with their theme).”
In addition, Shelby explained that the organizers also “plan to have a series of events while the gallery is up, including one centering on ‘storytelling’ and countering the predominant government narratives,” and, hopefully, “a final event with a distinguished speaker in conversation with Ramzi as part of the Sorensen Center’s ‘Critical Voices’ series.”
In the meantime, please help to get the prisoners’ voices heard by sharing this article as widely as possible, and do get in touch if you have any ideas about how those of us who recognize the importance of getting the wretched prison at Guantánamo Bay closed down once and for all can build momentum from this exhibition, and get some significant mainstream media coverage.