I’m delighted to be posting below a letter to President Biden written by eight former Guantánamo prisoners, urging him to drop a ban on prisoners leaving the prison with artwork they have made — and also giving artwork they have made to their lawyers (and, via them, to their families) — which has been in place since November 2017.
I’ve been writing about this outrageous ban since it was first implemented, when the Pentagon took exception to “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” an exhibition of artwork by eight current and former prisoners at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which ran from October 2017 to January 2018.
As I explained in an article six weeks ago, The Powerful Artwork Still Being Created by Prisoners at Guantánamo, and the Outrageous Ban on its Dissemination That is Still in Place, following up on a BBC World article by Joel Gunter, The sudden silencing of Guantánamo’s artists, the artwork featured in the show was “mostly innocuous scenes drawn from nature, all of which had been approved for release by the Pentagon after screening to assure officials that they didn’t contain hidden terrorist messages.”
After visiting the exhibition in January 2018, I stated that, fundamentally, it “did nothing more shocking than daring to show that they [the prisoners] are human beings.” I also noted how, after the art program was established at the prison in 2010, the military had celebrated it as a success story, with officials “recognizing that it was good for the prisoners, and also good for the prison’s own blighted public relations.”
However, five years ago, when the Pentagon implemented its ban, officials claimed that it was “because the exhibition included an email address for people interested in buying artwork by the prisoners, ignoring the fact that it was only artwork by released prisoners that was for sale,” and the US authorities were supposed to approve of former prisoners being able to work to support themselves.
The eloquent letter to President Biden was first posted on the online arts magazine Hyperallergic two days ago. It was, the website explained, “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 Guantánamo’ — a 2022 exhibition at DePaul Art Museum featuring nearly 100 works made by artists in Guantánamo.”
I mentioned the letter in my article six weeks ago, and I’m pleased to have been asked to sign it in solidarity, along with our other co-founder, Tom Wilner, and also to have secured a signature from the musician Roger Waters, a long-term supporter of the Close Guantánamo campaign.
Here’s the letter — and please follow the link if you’d like to be added as a signatory.
Free the art! The letter to President Biden from eight former Guantánamo prisoners
To: President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
From: Eight Former Guantánamo Prisoners (Mansoor Adayfi, Sabri Al-Qurashi, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Moazzam Begg, Lakhdar Boumediene, Djamel Ameziane, Sami al-Hajj, and Ahmed Errachidi)
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.
Signatories in solidarity
Amber Ginsburg, Tea Project and University of Chicago
Aaron Hughes, Tea Project and University of Illinois Chicago
Erin L. Thompson, Associate Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York)
Mariame Kaba, founder and director Project NIA
Michael Rakowitz, Art, Theory, Practice Department, Northwestern University
Aliya Hussain, Advocacy Program Manager, Center for Constitutional Rights
Sue Udry, Defending Rights and Dissent
Molly Crabapple, Artist
Laurence Ralph, Author Torture Letters, Anthropology, Princeton University
Andy Worthington, Close Guantánamo
Thomas Wilner, Counsel of Record for the people imprisoned at Guantánamo in their cases before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008
Roger Waters, Musician
Marc Falkoff, Guantánamo Lawyer, editor Poems from Guantánamo, and College of Law, Northern Illinois University
Erika Rappaport, Dept. of History, University of California Santa Barbara
Monica Trinidad, Artist, The Lit Review podcast
William Ayers, College of Education, University of Illinois Chicago (retired)
Bernardine Dohrn, Northwestern University School of Law
Laleh Khalili, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
Ronak K. Kapadia, Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois Chicago
Lori Waxman, Art Critic, Chicago Tribune/Hyperallergic
James Yee, Former U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantánamo Bay
Audrey Petty, Invisible Institute
Sarah Ross, Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Timmy Chau, Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project
Erica R. Meiners, Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Northeastern Illinois University
Aislinn Pulley, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials
Mary Zerkel, American Friends Service Committee
Tali Ginsburg, Never Again Action
Saul Chernick, Artist
Murray Ngoima, Artist
Gail Helt, former intelligence officer, CIA
Debi Cornwall, Artist
Lauren Arrington, Professor of English, Maynooth University, National University of Ireland
Peter Hoffmeister, Dept. of Art and Art History, Hunter College
M. T. Anderson, National Book Award winner
For more signatories, please see the original letter.
I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.