In an open letter, eight former and current detainees at Guantánamo Bay are asking President Biden to free their art. They hope to reverse a Trump-era regulation that says artwork made in the prison is the property of the United States government—and that it can be held in Guantánamo or destroyed as officials sees fit.
The letter, first reported by Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Liu, is signed by six former detainees and two who have been cleared for release, as well as prominent artists and activists.
“Art from Guantánamo became part of our lives and of who we are. It was born from the ordeal we lived through,” they write. “Our artworks are parts of ourselves. We are still not free while parts of us are still imprisoned at Guantánamo.”
Detainees have been making art at Guantánamo for a long time, sometimes starting “almost as soon as they arrive,” according to Art From Guantánamo Bay, which houses photos of the artwork and information on past and present exhibitions. In the years before the prisoners had access to proper materials, they made art using the objects at hand: They carved patterns into Styrofoam cups, painted with tea powder and soap, and used toilet paper or the walls as canvases.
In 2010, after the Obama administration’s promises to close the camp didn’t come to fruition, detainees and their lawyers were able to negotiate small improvements in their living conditions, including access to an art class.
“Because of this change in rules, we now had real paper, pens, and paints—colors we hadn’t seen for years,” write the detainees.
With access to materials, detainees were able to create striking pieces—including still lives of everyday objects in the prison (like an inmate’s shoe), intricate sculptures and protest art. Many painted nature, inspired by their memories or old copies of National Geographic that were available in the camp. They affixed these brightly colored scenes to their cell walls, imitating windows.
“You have to understand that what we got wasn’t just paper, pens and paints,” the letter continues. “These were our tools to connect to our memories, to our previous lives, to nature, to the world, to our families. … We painted our hope, fear, dreams and our freedom. Our art helped us survive.”
In 2017, some of the works made their way to New York City for an exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which garnered a lot of media attention. Titled “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” the show displayed paintings and sculptures by current and former inmates at Guantánamo.
Shortly after, the Department of Defense announced that no more art would be allowed to leave the detention camp. Inmates were also informed that their work could be incinerated if they were ever released, according to the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg.“Items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government,” Pentagon spokesperson Ben Sakrisson told the New York Times’ Jacey Fortin in 2017.
Legally, whether the art belongs to the government is debatable, Erin Thompson, an art historian and curator of the 2017 exhibition, tells Smithsonian magazine. She says that inmates who have been convicted of crimes and are serving sentences in federal prisons can make, keep and sell their art, with some restrictions—and that the detainees of Guantánamo, who have never been sentenced, should be afforded the same rights.
“The men who are asking for their art have been cleared for release without ever having been charged with a crime,” she says. “They are not convicts who have served their time. They are victims of unjustified indefinite detention.”
Moath Al-Alwi, who was cleared for release in January 2022, told his lawyer that his artwork’s release was more important than his own, “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,” as quoted by Thompson in the Nation.
Further, the ability to sell their art may help the men who are released after years of incarceration. Some former detainees were able to sell pieces that left the prison before the 2017 ban; famously, Ben Affleck now owns one of them.
“The amounts are modest, but proved very helpful to men struggling to find their feet and make a living after losing 10 or 15 years of their lives,” says Thompson. “The men currently cleared for release have been detained without charges for more than 20 years—and the authorities are going to take away artworks that could help them restart their lives? This is shamefully cruel.”
But for Khalid Qasim, who was cleared for release this summer, it’s not about the money. It’s about the sense of identity he was able to scrape together during the nightmarish years he spent in the detention camp.
“I ask you all to help me to free my artwork from Guantánamo,” he said, per the open letter. “My artworks are part of me and my life. If the U.S. government does not agree to release my artwork, I will refuse to leave Guantánamo without my artwork.”
Editor’s Note, October 20, 2022: This story has been updated to include Hyperallergic’s reporting.