By Adam Reiss, NBC News
It’s not the art on the walls at John Jay College of Criminal Justice here in Manhattan that’s causing a stir, it’s the artists themselves.
“Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay” displays 36 works, including paintings and sculptures made by eight “enemy combatants” held on the island, some for nearly 15 years.
(“Ode to the Sea,” an exhibition at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, might look like an ordinary art show, except for the fact that the artists are men who have been detained at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Tony Dokoupil talks with the show’s co-curator, and with the parents of people who lost their lives on 9/11, about art that speaks to freedom beyond prison walls. Courtesy of CBS Sunday Morning and YouTube. Posted on Jan 21, 2018)
Former detainee Mansoor Adayfi explains in an essay written for the exhibition catalog that the theme of the show was chosen because the sea “means freedom that no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.”
The artists say that to be detained at Guantanamo is to be dehumanized and art is a therapeutic way for them to express their pain.
They use the sea in their art as a symbol of calmness, freedom and escape.
Although detainees, many of them suspected al Qaeda terrorists, were held close to the sea, tarps blocked their view until they were removed for four days in 2014 in anticipation of a hurricane; after that, Adayfi recalls, “all of those who could draw made drawings about the sea.”
Erin Thompson runs the art program at John Jay and is curator of the exhibit.
She says she was surprised to learn there was art coming from Guantanamo but was interested in sharing it with her students and the general public.
“We study terrorism and I firmly believe that to prevent terrorism we need to understand the minds of terrorists and the minds of people wrongly accused of terrorism.”
“So this art is really an invaluable window into the souls of people we need to understand,” Thompson said.
“It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists.”
(On ‘Fox & Friends,’ Pete Hegseth sounds off on the exhibit at New York City’s John Jay College. Courtesy of Fox & Friends, Fox News and YouTube. Posted on Nov 30, 2017)
The elaborate models of ships are made out of garbage including old shirts, prayer caps, razors and mops.
Every blank sheet of paper, everything detainees touch, had to be inspected by guards and cleared for use, Thompson and an attorney for one of the detainees said. Detainees would work on their art while shackled to the floor, Thompson said.
Some family members of Sept. 11 victims have criticized the exhibit, and the fact that artwork was for sale.
Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son and who sits on 9/11 Memorial & Museum Board, said of the exhibit: “I’m shocked that John Jay would allow such a thing, it’s disgusting and should be trashed.”
“It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists, and how do you put a price on it?” he said in a phone interview.
Attorneys for the prisoners and officials at the prison say from now on transfers of detainee-made artwork has been suspended pending further review and some have been told their work will be incinerated.
A Department of Defense spokesperson said that “Defense Department officials were not previously aware that detainee artwork was being sold to third parties” but that there are no plans to claim art that has already left Guantanamo, and that detainees are still allowed to keep a limited amount of artwork in their cell areas.
“Once this practice came to light, as a result of recent media reporting, they quickly moved to institute an appropriate policy which effectively eliminated transfer of detainee produced artwork from the detention facility,” Maj. Ben Sakrisson said in an email of the sale to third parties.
Sakrisson said that “items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.”
Al-Alwi would like his family in Saudi Arabia to have the works after the exhibition is over.
Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law whose legal clinic represents some detainees, said in an email that Al-Alwi said his latest ship has been taken away by authorities and that “my efforts, my sweat aren’t the property of the U.S. government.”
Al-Alwi has been accused of having receiving training at a Taliban-related camp and having been in a Taliban unit, according to court documents.
A petition started by Thompson, the curator, protesting the Defense Department policy has received more than 1,000 signatures.
It reads “Let them know that burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes-but not by the American people, Art is an expression of the soul. This art belongs to the detainees and the world.”
“This art is really an invaluable window into the souls of people we need to understand.”
Sakrisson said there has been no change to the program that allows detainees to participate in art classes.
Reaction among students has been mixed.
Ana Reyes, a freshman looking to work for the Department of Homeland Security, said “it’s a good thing they are doing something productive and showing the world they are changing for the better.”
Briana Sammons, a college senior hoping to join the New York Police Department, was visibly upset looking at the installation.
“It’s very disrespectful and goes against our values,” Sammons said.
(The ocean-themed art show is making waves at the Pentagon after reports saying the work is available for purchase. Courtesy of CBS News and YouTube. Posted on Nov 30, 2017)
Detainees at Guantanamo Bay created the art first clandestinely and then during classes provided by a Joint Task Force Guantanamo instructor, Thompson said.
The exhibit is on display at The President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice through January.