This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Few Americans ever took in the vastness of the prison outsourcing system the administration of George W. Bush set up from Afghanistan to Iraq, Thailand to Poland, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Guanta'namo Bay in Cuba. In those years, I began referring to that global network of prisons as our own "Bermuda Triangle of injustice." At one point, it housed at least 15,000 prisoners from Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq to the "Salt Pit" in Afghanistan and, of course, Guanta'namo. They were often kept under the grimmest of conditions, involving in a striking number of cases torture and sometimes death. All those prisons, large and small, were borrowed or built to ensure that captives in the Bush administration's Global War on Terror, the innocent and the guilty alike, whether taken in battle, traded for bounties, or kidnapped by the CIA off the streets of global cities as well as in the backlands of the planet, would be -- every last one of them -- beyond the reach of the law, American or international.
And that couldn't have been more intentional. An administration whose top officials had torture methods -- the euphemism of that moment was "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- demonstrated in the White House wanted a free hand to do whatever it damn pleased, including waterboarding, slamming heads off walls, depriving prisoners of sleep, or just about anything else. They were going to "take the gloves off," as the phrase of the era went, and no judge, no legal system was about to stop them. Their lawyers in the Department of Justice even redefined "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" in the classic legal description of torture so that an act would not be considered torture if "intent" wasn't there -- and the only way to know about intent would be to ask the potential torturer. (Even then, he or she would need to have "specific intent to cause pain" in mind.)
In this web of CIA-operated "black sites" extending across significant parts of the planet, the jewel in the crown, a veritable recruitment poster for jihadist groups, was Guanta'namo. It was tantalizingly just 90 miles offshore from American justice and pioneered those iconic orange jumpsuits for its prisoners that would later be adopted by ISIS for its torture and murder videos. There, prisoners could be kept more or less forever without either charges or trials, a system for which Donald Trump has shown remarkable enthusiasm.
TomDispatch has been covering all of this for years and yet I felt I first came face to face with Guanta'namo only the other day in the strangest, quietest way imaginable. I went to meet Erin Thompson, author of Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present. She then took me through "Ode to the Sea: Art from Guanta'namo," the first show of paintings and other works by some of the prisoners there, which she had curated. Who even knew that they painted, no less with a startling proficiency? Though the works were (as she describes today) in some way faceless -- untitled and largely without human images -- something about finally "meeting" those prisoners (and ex-prisoners), however facelessly, can't help but take your breath away and remind you that we are all, however uncomfortably, in the same grim world. Tom
The Art of Keeping Guanta'namo Open
What the Paintings by Its Prisoners Tell Us About Our Humanity and Theirs
By Erin L. Thompson
We spent the day at a beach in Brooklyn. Skyscrapers floated in the distance and my toddler kept handing me cigarette filters she had dug out of the sand. When we got home, I checked my email. I had been sent a picture of a very different beach: deserted, framed by distant headlands with unsullied sands and clear waters. As it happened, I was looking not at a photograph, but at a painting by a man imprisoned at the Guanta'namo Bay detention camp.- Advertisement -
Of the roughly 780 people once imprisoned there, he is one of 41 prisoners who remain, living yards away from the Caribbean Sea. Captives from the Bush administration's Global War on Terror began to arrive at that offshore prison in January 2002. Since Guanta'namo is located on a military base in Cuba and the detainees were labeled "alien enemy combatants," they were conveniently to be without rights under either United States or international law and so open to years of whatever their jailers wanted to do to them (including torture). President Barack Obama released 197 of them in his years in office, but was unable to fulfill the promise he made on his first day: to close Guanta'namo.
The man whose painting I saw has been held for nearly 15 years without trial, without even having charges filed against him. The email came from his lawyer who had volunteered to defend a number of Guanta'namo detainees. Some had been released after she helped them convince a military tribunal that they were no longer "threats" to the United States. The others remain in indefinite detention. Many of her clients pass their time by making art and, of all the unexpected things to come into my life, she was now looking for a curator who wanted to exhibit some of their paintings.
Collecting the Art of Guanta'namo
I'm a professor at John Jay College in New York City. It has a small art gallery and so one day in August 2016 I found myself in that lawyer's midtown Manhattan office preparing, however dubiously, to view the art of her clients. She was pushing aside speakerphones and notepads and laying out the artwork on a long table in a conference room whose windows overlooked the picturesque East River. As I waited, I watched from high up as the water cut a swath of silence through the city. When I finally turned my attention to the art, I was startled to see some eerily similar views. Painting after painting of water. Water trickling through the reeds at the edge of a pond. Water churning into foam as it ran over rocks in rivers. Calmly flowing water that reflected the buildings along a canal.
But above all, there was the sea. Everywhere, the sea. In those paintings in that conference room and in other work sent to me as word spread among detainees and their lawyers that I was willing to plan an exhibit, I found hundreds of depictions of the sea in all its moods. In some paintings, storms thrashed apart the last planks of sinking ships. In others, boats were moored safely at docks or scudded across vast expanses of water without a hint of shore in sight. Clouds bunched in blue midday skies or burned orange in mid-ocean sunsets. One detainee had even made elaborate models of sailing ships out of cardboard, old T-shirts, bottle caps, and other scraps of trash.
Puzzled, I asked the lawyer, "Why all the water?" She shrugged. Maybe the art instructor at the prison, she suggested, was giving the detainees lots of pictures of the sea. The detainees, it turned out, could actually take art classes as long as they remained "compliant." But when there was a crackdown, as there had, for instance, been during a mass hunger strike in 2013, the guards promptly confiscated their art -- and that was the reason the lawyer's clients had asked her to take it. They wanted to keep their work (and whatever it meant to them) safe from the guards.- Advertisement -
Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Pier), 2016.
As it turned out, the art doesn't leave Guanta'namo that much more easily than the prisoners themselves. Military authorities scrutinized every piece for hidden messages and then stamped the back of each work, "Approved by US Forces." Those stamps generally bled through, floating up into the surface of the image on the other side. The lawyer had even nicknamed one of the model ships the U.S.S. Approved because the censors had stamped those words across its sails.
So I found myself beginning to plan an exhibition of a sort I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would curate. And I began to worry. A curator makes so many choices, judgments, interpretations of art. But how could I make them with any kind of accuracy when I was a woman, a non-Muslim, and a citizen of the very nation that had detained these men for so many years without charges or trial? Wasn't I, in other words, the ultimate Other?