First glimpse of Guantánamo prisoners’ art

Written by Andy Worthington Thursday, 02 September 2010
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Artwork produced by prisoners at Guantanamo, as photographed by Tim Fitzsimons and published in Slate. Artwork produced by prisoners at Guantanamo, as photographed by Tim Fitzsimons and published in Slate.

Andy Worthington examines the first ever photos of artwork by prisoners at Guantanamo, as published in Slate.

I hesitate to do anything that might create the impression that Guantánamo is a humane, well-functioning prison, because it is, of course, an experimental project in detention without charge or trial, in which the men held have no idea of when, if ever they will be released. In this particular respect, it is unlike any other prison, and remains an abomination, distinct from any other facility where those held have been convicted after a trial, and are also allowed family visits.
As such, it is to Barack Obama’s undying shame that he has not followed through on his promise to close the prison (however much that might stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy) primarily because, as long ago as October 2003, in a break with protocol, Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the New York Times that, at Guantánamo, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”
This will not change until Guantanámo is finally closed, however many articles are written about how well-fed the prisoners allegedly are, or how eagerly they are devouring the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling, but in terms of the day-to-day living conditions of the majority of the 176 prisoners still held, it is also apparent that there has been a modicum of change under President Obama, leading to a greater degree of communal living, and “privileges” that would have been unthinkable for all but the most compliant prisoners under President Bush.
As an example of these improvements, Tim Fitzsimons of Slate recently returned from a tour of the prison, where, although reporters are still forbidden from talking to a single prisoner or photographing them so that they can be recognized, he discovered that the rules prohibiting reporters from taking photos of the prisoners’ artwork had been relaxed. As he explained:
These drawings were from prisoners' art classes, the soldier [escorting Fitzsimons and other reporters] explained. Prisoners were allowed to take art classes as a reward for good behavior. Some of the drawings and paintings were quite impressive. The prisoners had a lot of time to practice, he admitted.
Until recently, taking photos of these drawings was forbidden. But in the weeks before a planeload of journalists arrived in Gitmo to cover the trial of Omar Khadr, the 23-year-old prisoner whose case is being heard by a tribunal court after nearly eight years in detention, that rule changed. The drawings were deemed safe for public consumption.
Navy Cmdr. Bradley Fagan, the chief of Guantánamo's Public Affairs Office, declined later to explain exactly how the art was screened. But the guards at the library suggested that it was checked for identifying information, references to violence, or any sort of coded message.
The results are above, and are also available, in more detail, in a slideshow on the Slate website, and I’ve cross-posted the image because it provides an insight into the prisoners that we are normally prohibited from seeing: that of men, deprived of their liberty in a monstrously unjust manner, turning their attention, when allowed, to creative and artistic expression.
These pictures also remind me of the artwork produced by Muslim prisoners in Britain, held without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence relating to purported terrorist activities, which were exhibited in London two years ago, in an exhibition entitled, “Captivated: The Art of the Interned” (photos here and here), which was organized by Cageprisoners and Together, a charity that supports people with mental health needs.
I hope that the Slate article receives wide coverage, as it provides an all too rare demonstration that, behind the veil of secrecy that still shrouds most of the Guantánamo prisoners, are real human beings, most of whom have nothing to do with terrorism, but who have been written off by those too lazy, or too gullible, to challenge the cynical portrayal of them by the Bush administration as the “worst of the worst.”
Andy Worthington is a Senior Researcher for Cageprisoners. He is also the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Visit his website here.     
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