Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo @ John Jay College President’s Gallery




Untitled (Statue of Liberty), 2016 Muhammad Ansi

Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo, on view at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is under threat of being seized by the Department of Defense.  About the artwork, and petition here. Read op-ed in the New York Times by the exhibits curator, Erin Thompson And op-ed by the New York Times Editorial Board on December 3rd.

About the exhibit  ~  What do you imagine prisoners detained in a military prison at Guantanamo think of during their years of confinement.  A new exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice gives a glimpse into the thoughts of prisoners through the artwork made by men held without trial, some for nearly 15 years.

The exhibition began when a defense lawyer representing several Guantanamo detainees called Erin Thompson, professor at John Jay College, asking if his clients could display their artwork at John Jay.  Thompson discovered several other lawyers representing detainees, who also had in their possession artwork from their clients.  In the end, Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo exhibits over thirty works ~ drawings, paintings, and three-dimensional pieces. In addition, a catalogue with poems, essays and interviews with the detainees is available.

The Statue of Liberty appears in many of the works of men who have never seen it.  What they learn of our country is primarily through their captors, the guards at Guantanamo. Many of the detainees also had never seen the sea, since tarps covered all the fences.  It was, in fact, a hurricane approaching Cuba, that led to tarps taken down and the men being able to see the sea for four days.

Untitled (Hands Holding Flowers Through Bars), 2016, Muhammad Ansi

“Ansi (image above) painted a pair of hands clutching the bars of a high window-only later did he add flowers, inserting their stems in the fists. The hands are simultaneously tearing for escape and making a peace offering to the world outside the cage. The work, upon closer inspection, captures the faint pencil marks recording Ansi’s first impulse: he sketched hands whose fingertips barely reach above the window opening, grasping desperately like those of a man drowning in the middle of the sea.” (take from the catalogue).

Untitled (Model Gondola), 2016. Moath Al-Alwi. 12x8x4 in, assemblage: mixed media, sculpture

Since materials available to the prisoners were limited, sculpture pieces were created from whatever they could find. In the above piece created by Moath Al-Alwi, the glass of the lanterns are made from the plastic covers of razors that he was given for shaving. In an interview with Al-Alwi, he said “I was in a windowless cell. I thought, how can I open a window in the cell?”  and that seemed to be the general consensus. The detainees painted images of the sea, representing freedom ~ representing fear.

Many of the works were crafted from parts of shirts, prayer caps, razors, mops and stones or pebbles found in the dirt.  Before each piece left Guantanamo, it was thoroughly checked for messages to Al Qaeda hidden within the artwork.

Untitled (Blue Mosque), 2016, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, watercolor

Taken from the catalogue, the above image “Blue Mosque” ~ “After a 2016 terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Al-Bihani created this work as a gesture of solidarity with the victims there. The lush and idyllic landscape in which Al-Bihani places the Mosque demonstrates the often optimistic way in which detainees combine images from various sources of locales they cannot visit.”

The Department of Defense has issued a new policy prohibiting art from leaving Guantanamo, and may possibly destroy existing art.  Petition to protest the destruction of artwork – here.

Read op-ed in the New York Times, November 27, 2017 by the exhibit curator, Erin Thompson.

Take a deeper dive in the Catalogue.

Ode to the Sea, Art from Guantanamo, will be on view through January 26, 2018 in the President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 Tenth Avenue (at 59th Street) and proceed to the President’s Gallery on the 6th floor of Haaren Hall. This is a free exhibit, open Monday-Friday from 1-4pm. This exhibit is curated by Erin Thompson, Paige Laino and Charles Shields.