Guantanamo Art: An Interview with Reprieve Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis

Until January 26th 2018, John Jay College of Criminal Justice will be hosting Ode to the Sea, an exhibition showcasing the art of Guantanamo detainees, including Reprieve clients Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qassim.

Below, Reprieve attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis answers questions about Guantanamo art: how it began, how it’s made, what it means to the detainees, and more.

When did art-making at Guantánamo begin and how was it handled by the authorities?

They were always allowed some of it for super compliant detainees (i.e., at Camp Iguana in the early days) but the formal teaching of it came in about around 2009. They used to do simple drawings. But that always got censored. In the early days we were told by the secure facility people that the prisoners might put squiggles into their art as messages to al Qaeda…. then we got banned from getting out things because they were embarrassing (Sami el Haj’s pictures of forced feeding, etc.). Nothing used to get out. Then a few random birthday cards and so forth began to slip out around 2006 or 2007.

When and why did art-making become authorized at Guantánamo? 

Our clients’ earliest work is dated 2011, but we only started to get the artwork released from the prison around 2015.

Tell us more about the art classes and instructor.

I’ve been told by multiple clients that for the last several months, there has been no art instructor, and that the class is taught by someone with a background in engineering whose job is to teach another course. Some men prefer to only attend class for access to the materials, rather than the instruction, and are proudly self-taught, like Khalid Qasim.

Oddly, I have always heard that there is a lack of art supplies for my clients—not enough paper to draw on, effectively. This is particularly perplexing when you consider the amount of money allocated to keeping the men in prison without charging them—a whopping $10.84 million per year, per client (which, if you were wondering, breaks down to over $29K per night!). You’d think they could cough up an extra paint brush or two for what the guard force and the detainees mutually agree (for different reasons) is a good use of their time.

What are the rules for making art? How have they changed? 

As with all things in GTMO, the rules around art-making change frequently and seemingly arbitrarily: the number of canvases that they’re allowed to work on at any given time, the number of pieces they’ve made that they’re allowed to keep in their cell.

But most importantly, what they’re allowed to paint changes—or rather, what they paint that gets released from the prison. There was a time when nothing was making its way out of GTMO; now they’re allowing a good deal of material out, but only what the government wants being released. Depictions of suffering are more or less categorically banned from release. This is by far the biggest complaint with regard to art that my clients have.

It’s quite rare that detainees or counsel are given a reason for the denial of certain pieces’ release. Indeed, I’ve only ever been offered an explanation once, read from a piece of paper that I was denied a copy of. But suffice it to say that of the hundreds of paintings my clients have shown me, in my experience, it is only the abstract spots on white background, and serene depictions of lakes that manage to claw their way out of that place.

What are the sources for the images used by your clients in their art? 

I am always asking Ahmed Rabbani where he has seen the incredible village, building, monument, etc. that he has painted and his answer is always to tap his temple and smile. Sometimes he dreams them, sometimes he merges different places he’s seen on television over the years—famous sites in countries to which he never had the economic privilege to travel. He spent almost two years in a black site before being brought to Guantánamo and a good deal of what he paints relates back to that time. None of those paintings are released.

What does making art mean for your clients?

Ahmed Rabbani, from what other detainees tell me, is widely regarded one of the best artists remaining at GTMO. He takes his art very seriously, is always asking for materials to learn new techniques and also to learn about the works of renowned artists, past and present. As someone who was tortured brutally for an extensive period of time, art is a kind of catharsis for him. Separately from that, in a world where the capacity for personal achievement (and its recognition) is quite hard to find, art is a skill at which he has become very good. It is an opportunity for personal pride amidst a panoply of rules meant to humiliate and degrade. It’s everything to him

Another client of mine, Haroon Gul, takes his art much less seriously— he openly mocks his ability to paint and depict anything recognizable, but he continues to incorporate his daughter’s name into almost every piece. He has drawn more copies than I can count of a photo that he has of his daughter; in its final iterations, his sketch is the spitting image of the photo. He also uses art as a way to gift me something, as he often says that he feels he has nothing with which he can thank me. He has asked if my mom would want something and what might she like. I told him she likes the ocean, and he somehow managed to find seashells to attach to a piece that bears her name. He uses art to show love.

Why do you think your clients agreed to have their art displayed in this show?

There are various motivations for my clients, but the common purpose—that is also the preeminent purpose—is because they want people to know that they are human, still in Guantánamo, and still suffering. Ahmed Rabbani draws intricate painting after intricate painting depicting luxurious restaurants, buffets, and table settings; he wants to open a restaurant, he still has that dream of a life outside GTMO, and he is still stuck on the inside being denied any opportunity to defend himself with a trial. Khalid Qasim wants people to understand what GTMO is; he doesn’t want Americans to slide into a quiet comfort thinking that the degradation and cruelty ended with the entrance of Obama. He makes art for the same reason that he continues his long-term hunger strike: peaceful resistance as a means to reclaim dignity.

 

Click here for more information about the Ode to the Sea exhibition