I stood in the middle of a Manhattan sidewalk. Pedestrians shoaled off on either side while a camera pointed at me from downstream. A producer yelled at me to smile, but instead, I pressed my lips together. I wasn’t wearing a coat on this slushy January day; smiling would show my chattering teeth.
I was filming a segment for a satirical news show on Comedy Central. The sidewalk shot was for my introduction. When the piece aired, my name and title would scroll across my chest like a beauty contestant’s sash: Erin Thompson, Professor, John Jay College. I was being interviewed because I had curated an exhibit of artwork made by detainees at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Pentagon reacted to this exhibit by declaring that no more art could leave Guantánamo and that it might burn the art that remained. Many members of the public hoped I would die and emailed to let me know. Some relatives of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks called the exhibit shocking, disgusting, outrageous and reprehensible. “Where’s their decency? Where’s their dignity?” asked the brother of a dead firefighter. “What’s next, hanging up the art of John Wayne Gacy?”
I wasn’t used to anyone whose name I didn’t know caring about my work. I have a Ph.D. in classical art history, and the outcry made me want to retreat to a library and research art that no one else had cared about for three thousand years. The media attention felt like a wave pressing me to the bottom of an ocean, with millions of people watching me drown. If I didn’t do well on Comedy Central, they would be watching me drown while laughing.
I first heard about the art of Guantánamo detainees in mid-2016, when a friend of a friend, a lawyer who volunteers as defense counsel for some of those held at the prison, emailed to ask if I would be interested in displaying art made by her clients. At her office, the air filled with the stench of acrylic as she pulled dozens of paintings out of the shopping bags in which she had carried them from Guantánamo.
Military authorities had scrutinized each work for hidden messages before allowing her to remove them from the base. Sometimes, the ink of the clearance stamp bled through to the other side of the paper, and “Approved by US Forces” floated up into images of snow on mountains, streams running through valleys or fall forests.
The lawyer showed me a model of a gondola—a present from her client, who will never go to Venice. She was happy he was an artist. Another lawyer I spoke with, whose detainee client preferred to cook, once politely ate cheese that he had made by straining milk in what he assured her were clean socks.
I found almost a thousand of these artworks while preparing the exhibit. Many detainees had given art to their lawyers for safekeeping, often after losing works during cell transfers or crackdowns. I dug paintings out of piles of paperwork in the cramped offices of nonprofit legal organizations and discovered sculptures huddled underneath bland corporate art in the halls of big law firms. Eventually, I chose works made by eight men. Four had since been released from Guantánamo. Of the four who remain, only one has ever been charged with a crime.
After the sidewalk shot was finished, the producer led me to the interview set: a fake office constructed in the corner of a studio dressing room. A makeup artist powdered my face and said that she had brought some of her own paintings to hang on the walls. She was happy for the exposure, even though the set dresser had decided they looked better upside down. Beside them was a tall bookshelf, filled with objects that looked like books but were really just shiny colored endpapers folded around air. Some had in-joke titles, like Tenure: It Doesn’t Actually Mean Ten Year.
I didn’t have tenure. I could be fired from my professorship if my college didn’t like how I was talking about Guantánamo. Conservative news outlets had framed the exhibit as the work of a fey Manhattan nest of leftists slinging mud all over American values. But my employer, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was founded to educate the city’s police force and is unusually conservative for a New York City college.
When she found out that Comedy Central wanted to interview me, the college president called. “You know I wouldn’t ever ask you to cancel an interview,” she said. Which meant: I want you to cancel this interview.
“You know I wouldn’t ever do an interview if you asked me to cancel it,” I replied. Which meant: I’m going to do it. But I knew that she wouldn’t support me if I ended up the butt of the joke.
Preparing for the interview was all the more difficult because I felt like an idiot, having failed to anticipate that the exhibit would cause controversy. I thought we had all forgotten about Guantánamo—I had curated selfishly, to satisfy my own curiosity. How did Guantánamo and art belong in the same sentence, much less the same life?
The lawyer put me in touch with a former detainee named Mansoor Adayfi. “We wanted to make art to have a little beauty, to escape life in that hell for a few moments,” he told me. “But the camp administration wanted us to live and suffer every single moment.”
Adayfi is a few years younger than me. In 2001, I was a college senior and he was eighteen. Neither of us understood what the attacks on the World Trade Center meant, but he spent the next fourteen years at Guantánamo, falsely accused of playing a role in them. He could never quite figure out the particulars of what he was supposed to have done.
Adayfi learned English at Guantánamo. We emailed back and forth and then started Skyping. The worse a story was, the more he’d laugh while telling it. Deep, incredulous laughs, while rubbing his hand over the short bristles of his hair, as if he couldn’t believe that these things happened to him or that he survived to talk about them. Laughing, he described the hunger strikes he organized to protest detainee living conditions, and I understood why guards nicknamed him “Smiley Troublemaker.”
Adayfi told me that detainees began to make art as soon as they arrived. For the first few months, they weren’t even allowed to talk to one another, much less have pens or paper. But when apples were served, some detainees would twist off the stems and use them to draw on their Styrofoam cups and plates. They drew what they missed: trees, flowers, sunsets, the sea. They did this even though the punishment for drawing was no food for the next meal or two, or worse.
The detainees decided to treat the prohibition on drawing like a game. They used the tea powder that came with their meals as ink to draw on their paper napkins. Soon, both tea and napkins disappeared from their meals. They drew by rubbing bars of soap on the smooth surfaces in their cells and scratching into the resulting film. The authorities issued liquid soap instead.
Adayfi said that things changed after President Obama took office. Detainees could now paint in an art class once a week, albeit with their legs chained to the floor. More importantly, around 2011, a new camp commander allowed detainees to keep art and art supplies in their cells. They painted landscapes, as unironically lovely as if dabbed by Bob Ross—windows in their cells to a less painful world. The cell blocks became a strange type of museum, with paintings by the most skilled artists traveling on loan from cell to cell.
And then to New York. The exhibit opened with a symposium in October 2017. I had been afraid that no one would have enough attention to spare for Guantánamo, given all the other things to be outraged about, and so for months I had been drumming up attendance. I made it into a graded assignment for my students, and promised my former mother-in-law wine and cheese. My dentist remained unpersuaded, although he did promise to check out the exhibit’s website.
“Each of us has his own painting that he paints every single day,” Adayfi told the audience in a recorded video. “In my painting, there will be a ‘Guantánamo spot,’ but that, I think, will make it also more interesting.” He said he hoped this spot will be small, a mark on his life instead of its shadow. Afterwards, a man in the audience came up to say that he had served as a guard at Guantánamo. He recognized Adayfi, but said that he had not been allowed to know his name while on duty, only his prisoner number. Later, Adayfi said that he remembered this guard. “Tell him I finally got that Taylor Swift CD that I was always dreaming about!”
After the panel, we toured the exhibit. Not expecting a turnout worthy of the college’s main gallery, I had installed the works in a hallway with nubby grey carpet and track lighting outside the college’s administrative offices. The exhibit title, in vinyl letters, clung to the wall between an elevator bank and the women’s bathroom. Beside the office of John Jay’s chief legal counsel hung a painting with shark fins breaking through waves. A model ship pointed its prow into the president’s office.
Soon after the opening symposium, I received an email from a 9/11 victim’s widow. She asked me to give her a call. Reluctantly, I did—and became even more anxious when she immediately put me on hold so she could conference in another woman whose husband had also died in the World Trade Center.
They thanked me for curating the exhibit. Unlike other family members of victims who would eventually excoriate me, these women did not assume that the creators of the artworks were guilty. They said they wanted trials for everyone still held at Guantánamo, so that the guilty could be punished and the innocent released. They hoped the exhibit might remind people that no one had yet been convicted of murdering their husbands.
I offered a tour, expecting them to refuse. Why would anyone come to see the art of someone who might have even the slightest, most doubtful responsibility for killing someone you loved? But they came, bringing other widows and mothers of victims with them. Regardless of age, they were determinedly blonde. They wore lipstick and foundation and fleece vests zipped over buttoned-down shirts with scarfs wrapped on top. Layers to fortify themselves.
On most days, no one came to see the exhibit. This changed only once lawyers noticed that the authorities had stopped approving their requests to take new artwork from the camp. Lawyers and reporters asked questions, and a Pentagon spokesperson declared that all artwork made at Guantánamo would stay there as “property of the U.S. government.” One detainee whose intricate sculptures were displayed in the exhibit reported that authorities had confiscated his latest work, on which he had spent months. Guards said it would be destroyed. He told his lawyer that now even his ideas were “trapped in this prison with me.”
The media, which had not been much interested in the art itself, was eager to report on the story of its censorship. The first few times a news crew arrived to interview me in front of the art, the administrators who worked in the hallway’s offices stopped and waited behind the camera for me to finish talking. After weeks of seeing me conduct two or three interviews daily, they just walked right through the shot. They could have given my spiel themselves. Sometimes they did, when some of the crowds of new visitors poked their heads into offices and deputized administrators as exhibit guides.
I thought it strange that the press was more interested in whether or not some colored pieces of paper might be burned than in the ongoing torture of the men who colored them. But I decided to take advantage of whatever interest I could. I became an expert interviewee. While taping video, I learned to pause not only while someone took a drink from the nearby water fountain, but also once they had finished, while the fountain’s lumbering compressor chilled the next portion. After the first few radio journalists complained about the whine of nearby elevators, I found a soundproof music practice room the size of a closet for interviews. I spent hours squeezed knee-to-knee on a piano bench with reporters, as close as if we were taking a bath together, as they asked if my humanization of the enemy would prevent American soldiers from fighting our War on Terror.
The detainees’ lawyers were happy about the publicity, even if they thought it was misdirected. “This art thing is like a papercut on top of the life-threatening wound that is Guantánamo,” said one. “But the papercut draws attention to the wound.” The exhibit was reminding people that Guantánamo was still open—something that many had forgotten.
To keep reminding them, I did interviews from the time I dropped my kids off at daycare to the time I picked them up again. Many nights, the kids ate pizza in front of the TV as I swatted replies back to a barrage of emails. When I told one friend I was worried my kids were watching so much TV, she said, “At least sometimes it’s Mommy they’re watching on it.”
I was invited to appear on Fox & Friends. Trump watched—I might say something that would change his mind about Guantánamo. Or I might enrage him, and face the flood of hatred his tweets could summon. Afraid for my job, for my children, for my peace, I told Fox & Friends no.
I mentioned my refusal to one of the widows. She told me I had made a mistake. “Always go on live TV,” she insisted. “You have five seconds to say whatever you want before they start attacking you.”
I hung up the phone and cried. I was doing these interviews instead of hiding in a library because I wanted to help the widow get trials. And I wanted to apologize to the detainees for the destruction of their art. I thought about how they had spent so long arguing for their rights through hunger strikes, since refusal was the only language they were allowed. They risked their lives, not just their peace.
So, when Comedy Central called, although I was almost as frightened, I knew I had to say yes. They might mock me, but at least the audience would think about Guantánamo.
On set, the interviewer and I sat on chairs requisitioned from hair and makeup. The backs of the chairs were hinged, so stylists could lower their clients’ heads into a sink to shampoo their hair. As I waited for the interview to begin, I kept forgetting this, leaning back and ending up horizontal. The interviewer flipped through a clipboard stacked with pages of questions. She was a comedian, but I knew that not all of her questions would be jokes. She whispered with a researcher who had been introduced as an expert in Middle Eastern politics.
The producer told me to answer the interview questions seriously, no matter how ridiculously they were posed. “Your side of the interview is 60 Minutes,” he said. “Our side is, well, Comedy Central.” said. I told the interviewer that the detainees often painted with watercolors, and she asked if that was because they’d been waterboarded. She claimed that all the detainees must have done something bad to end up at Guantánamo, and I told her that men had been kidnapped and sold to the U.S. military with false information. She grimaced and said, “I’ve had some bad dates on Tinder, but that would be extra.”
The artwork is a valuable source of information, I explained. Didn’t we spend years interrogating these men? Should we throw away this new source of information just because it’s beautiful? If you think that an artist is guilty, then you can learn more about the mind of a terrorist through his art. And if you think that an artist is an innocent man, his art is also information, I argued—information about the effect of wrongful detention on the human spirit.
When the segment aired, I saw that, after my interview, they had filmed a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic judging the pieces “guilty” or “not guilty.” They were not mocking me. Instead, the joke was that the art could get a fair trial, while the artists could not.
A month after the exhibit closed, in early 2018, Guantánamo’s commander explained that detainees were now allowed to keep only a limited number of artworks, and are required to “turn in projects that they’ve lost interest in for disposal.” He said this happens in the way that “most things are disposed of. Things are shredded, thrown away, whatever.” He said he couldn’t store the art, because “I don’t have a project to build a detainee art museum. I don’t have a project to hire a detainee art curator. That’s not part of my mission.” Too bad. I would totally volunteer to be the detainee art curator.
I chose to study ancient art because doing so was an excuse for living at a distance from contemporary life. To be sure, after 9/11, I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of preventing terrorism while sparing the “collateral damage” of innocent lives. But I thought that was a problem for someone else. Not for me, an art historian.
Curating “Art from Guantánamo,” I met lawyers, military personnel, photographers, painters, journalists, psychologists, filmmakers, poets and detainees past and present, all using their skills to fight injustice. Not the skills they wish they had, or that they think they need, but the skills they have. As I help Adayfi edit his memoirs and organize a traveling version of “Art from Guantánamo Bay,” I have continued to recognize that I share that responsibility, not in spite of but through my profession. I’m a classicist, after all, devoted to the art of a past that—like Guantánamo—most people see as “over.” It doesn’t daunt me that not many will listen.
The writing of this essay was supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
Art credits: Ahmed Rabbani; Khalid Qasim; Muhammad Ansi (courtesy of Art from Guantanamo)
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