Painting the American Dream at Guantánamo


Arts & Culture

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Field with Windmill).


Thirty-six artworks made by detainees while at Guantánamo Bay are currently on display at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan. To view them, however, takes persistence. You must possess both a photo ID and enough patience to explain to the security guard that the college does indeed have an art gallery. You then have to navigate the building: down an escalator, up an elevator, past an indoor rifle range and a rooftop tennis court, until you finally reach the President’s Gallery, outside her offices. It’s hardly the Met.

The exhibition opened in early October (my cocurator, Erin Thompson, wrote about it for The Paris Review.) On November 16, the Miami Herald reported that in response to the show, the Pentagon has stopped releasing security-screened prisoner art and has declared that, as the Herald wrote, “the art made by wartime captives is U.S. government property.” One attorney even told the Herald that the U.S. military intends to burn the art. Since then, the exhibition has gotten a new wave of media attention. Because it is so difficult to actually access the artwork, few of the people reporting and commenting on the art have actually seen it. The exhibition has become largely symbolic. 

To some, the exhibition is a symbol of oppression. The eight men whose work is displayed have each been held at Guantánamo for more than a decade and were only allowed art classes beginning in 2008. Many of the guards at the base thought the detainees—who were and are being held indefinitely, most without charges—were getting a bit restless. The distraction was welcome.

To others, the artwork is indicative of liberalism run amok: a Democratic administration that allowed these guilty-until-proven-innocent monsters to become Sunday painters, and an East Coast college celebrating the works of might-as-well-be war criminals at the same time as a 9/11 first responder’s paintings hang in the gallery downstairs.

When my colleagues and I began curating this show, we were in the sunset of the Obama administration, and we felt emboldened to criticize his administration’s failed promise to close Guantánamo. Like many, we thought Obama had secured a successor who would continue the slow-going fight for human rights. To us, the show represented a platform for these detainees to communicate in their own voices with America directly. We failed to realize who would be listening when the show went up.

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Still Life with Grapes).

We had access to hundreds of artworks, pulled from lawyers’ filing cabinets and still more delightfully odd sources. The ones we selected for display revolved around the theme of the ocean. The premise works on many levels: Joint Task Force Guantánamo bills itself as a seaside paradise to potential recruits, but the artists in this exhibition, for the decade or more of their detainments, could only hear and smell the sea, not see it, except for rare occurrences outside of the military’s control.

But it is crucial to mention the breadth of work we sifted through to create a cohesive exhibition. One small hallway could not accommodate all the types of works produced by these eight artists alone, not to mention the dozens of other artists at Guantánamo we did not include. Besides seascapes, numerous still lifes, floral arrangements, classic pastorals, and pure abstractions had also made it past Guantánamo’s censors and into the world.

All of the art in this show—all of the art that has escaped the base—has been explicitly stamped for approval by Guantánamo Bay officials, sometimes numerous times. Detainees described art classes with so many restrictions that not even the most mundane object could be drawn from life. All referents were mediated, be it fruit baskets scanned from art-history textbooks (neither real fruit baskets nor the textbooks themselves were permitted on the base; the art teacher brought in only the scanned pages), or cliffside cottages drawn from covers of romance novels originally intended for the guards’ pleasure, or, above all, images drawn from the stacks of National Geographic lying in the prison library to which the detainees were finally given access after more than a decade of restriction of any sort of media. The detainees’ artwork—whether by accident or not—is a reflection of the most American of American values. They paint the ocean, the mountains of westward expansion, coniferous forests, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. All this work is American, sometimes embarrassingly so.

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Moon Reflected in a Stream with Buildings).

And yet, these most American of tropes are forbidden to them. Not only will they never be allowed to visit our landscapes, even once released, but the Pentagon now wants to halt their paintbrushes, as if detainees were not allowed to think about some semblance of the American Dream, even from afar.

After years of allowing the artwork to be made, the authorities now seem embarrassed by these admittedly saccharine paintings seeing the light of day in America. I see it as their discomfort at the realization that those detained without trial in horrific circumstances still have the humanity to dream about beauty. The consequences of the show will be very real for the prisoners. For that, we as curators have a serious amount of introspection and atonement to work through.

In the interim, I’ve found some semblance of a silver lining. It lies in the same dysfunctional bureaucracy that enabled Guantánamo to persist throughout an eight-year administration that claimed to want to close it. Declaring a change in policy is one thing; enacting it is another. In the most recently released military commission transcripts there are more than 150 extremely heated pages concerning which conference-room lawyers should meet with their detainee clients. This conference-room dispute began in June of 2017 and was unresolved as of November 3. I hope that such an atmosphere will not lend itself to art burning quite so easily. Because where bureaucratic chaos reigns, subversive art will persist.


Paige Laino is a cocurator of “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” open at John Jay College, New York City, until January 28, 2018. She is the alumni coordinator at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and has worked on archival projects for Daniel Bozhkov, the Asian Art Archives in America, and the estate of Chris Marker.