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'Window into this hidden world': Catamount Arts displays artwork by Guantanamo Bay detainees

A painting of a ship on wavy ocean water
"Ship in a Storm" was made with oil/pastel on paper by Sabri Al-Qurashi in 2010. It's one of the artworks in the exhibition “Art from Guantanamo Bay" at Catamount Arts.

In October, 2017, an unusual exhibit opened in New York City called "Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo," featuring artwork created by detainees. Since that original show, the exhibit has expanded, and is now on display at the Fried Family Gallery at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.

Independent producer Erica Heilman spoke about the exhibit with its curator, Erin Thompson.

Erin Thompson: “I got an email from a lawyer, who was a friend of a friend. And she said, ‘I have artworks made by my clients at Guantanamo Bay.’ And even before I saw the art, or she asked me if I wanted to curate the show, I knew I had to display these, because I thought, ‘What do you mean, inmates at Guantanamo Bay are making artwork?’ And that sort of sense of surprise, and making me stop and reconsider everything I knew about Guantanamo, was the reaction that I wanted viewers to have. And that I think is the great thing about art, that it can make us reconsider all the certainties we hold."

"I don't think the show is necessarily about celebrating anyone, especially even the men who are wonderful artists who've been cleared for release. They didn't want to be making art at Guantanamo."
Erin Thompson, who curated "Art from Guantanamo Bay" exhibit

Erin Thompson curated the exhibit "Art from Guantanamo Bay," now on display at Catamount Arts. Erin’s been involved in this project since it’s contentious beginnings. I asked her to describe how and why she got involved.

Erin Thompson: “I was approached because this lawyer couldn't find anybody else who was interested in displaying it. She tried working with people who display art made in prisons, and they essentially said, ‘Oh, no, we don't want our guys to be associated with those monsters at Guantanamo.’ And fortunately, I guess, I was also trained as a lawyer, so I hold the presumption of innocence very closely. And it turns out correctly. So now, a couple years after the show, all but two of the eight men in the show – in the original version of the show – have been cleared for release from Guantanamo, essentially, the government saying, ‘We are holding you by mistake for no reason.’ They've never been charged with a crime. And only one of the people in the show has been charged with anything.

An acrylic painting in oranges and yellows of a desert scene with rocky outcroppings in the background and cacti in the foreground.
"Monument Valley," acrylic on paper, by Abdualmalik Abud in 2015.

“So, to me it was a show where viewers could make up their mind, you know, were these works made by hardened terrorists? Were these works made by men who had been unjustly detained. They’re mysterious, and I wanted to think about whether they should be there, even if guilty. What it meant for them to be held without a charge for so long. So I don't think the show is necessarily about celebrating anyone, especially even the men who are wonderful artists who've been cleared for release. They didn't want to be making art at Guantanamo. None of them went in as an artist. They went in as cab drivers, as shepherds, as whatever, and they learned to make art there to keep themselves sane. And some of them have now, after they're released, entirely stopped making art, because it's too painful for them to be reminded of the conditions where they learned it.”

Erica: “So what was the reaction to the exhibit when it first opened in New York in 2017?”

Erin Thompson: “The show opens to basically no fanfare. There's a lot of art to see in New York City, there's only a little bit of press coverage. But the Trump administration catches wind of the show and basically freaks out. And all of this art has been cleared for release, it's all stamped ‘approved’ by U.S. forces to show they're scrutinizing it for hidden messages. So the administration says no more art will leave Guantanamo, and we might burn what remains. So the show becomes a scandal. You know, people come to see, ‘What is the government so afraid of?’, these paintings of flowers and beaches. And people start to identify with the art. I give tours to student veterans, I give tours to women who lost their husbands on 9/11. I give tours to all sorts of people, those who are defending those who are criticizing, and they all find it so fascinating, such a new way to think about an issue that had seemingly been so forgotten.

“So now this show that's happening in Vermont is an expanded version of that show, because I also heard from so many people who — other lawyers, family members who had art shipped to them from Guantanamo — and now everyone is…everyone wants to see this art preserved and displayed, because there's a very limited window into this hidden world.

“When you think about someone who hasn't seen nature, whose view is all blocked by cages that are tarped off, so we can't even see what's outside the cage for more than a decade, what does that person choose to paint to bring a little beauty into his life? And this is what we get to see in the show.”

"[E]veryone wants to see this art preserved and displayed, because there's a very limited window into this hidden world."
Erin Thompson, who curated "Art from Guantanamo Bay"

Erica: “What are some of the themes that are recurring in the art that are notable to you?”

Erin Thompson: “The show is divided into a few sections, things that illustrate the conditions of making art there. There were lots of rules, they could only use soft things, materials that they couldn't possibly harm anyone else with.

“One of the sections of the show is pieces that deal with the sea. Because I saw that again and again, in works from many different artists at Guantanamo. And finally, when I was able to talk to former detainees or send questions to current detainees through their lawyers, I asked, ‘Why the sea?’ and they said that's because they're surrounded by the sea. They can smell it, they can hear it, but they can't look at it. The views are blocked. And to them, imagining the sea is to imagine freedom, imagine sailing away.”

A painting in reds of a copper coffee pot on a fire
"Coffee Pots on a Fire," an oil/pastel painting on paper by Sabri Al-Qurashi from 2010.

Erica: “What was involved in their making of this art? First of all, how did it come to pass that they were making art at all?”

Erin Thompson: “Shortly after Obama came to office pledging to close Guantanamo, to speed up trials, what actually happened were conditions improved a bit in life, and one of these improvements was to institute an official art making class. But don't think conventional art class, think detainees strip-searched on their way to class, shackled to the floor, given a piece of paper and at first just crayons. Eventually, conditions improved. They're able to use oil pastels and watercolor. But the resulting works are very soft and melting.

“And I was surprised when I saw them at first. I thought, ‘Wouldn't you paint your anger and your pain?’ And my friend Mansoor, the former detainee told me, ‘Don't be silly. They wanted to see beautiful things. There was already enough painful things to look at.’ So if you're going to make something, you're going to make something beautiful.

“Art was an escape to men who couldn't envision ever being free. But they were still trying, they're still protesting. There's one artist in the show who was on long-term hunger strike. And his lawyer told me that this man had asked her to bring him spices. And she said, ‘No, that's not healthy. If you're eating barely anything? That's not good for your stomach.’ He said, ‘No, no, it's because they took away my paints. And I want to use the spices to paint with, to make pigments.’ So art was so important to him that it was the last – one of the last actions that remained to him. He could go hungry, and he could make images. And we can see those images on the wall now.”

The exhibit is on display through Sunday, Aug. 21, and features seven of the artists who were never charged with a crime and have since been cleared for release. There will be a reception and panel discussion on Sunday, June 26, at 7 p.m., at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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