By: Tess Wilson
January 26th marked the final day of an especially unique art exhibit at John Jay College. To the unprepared visitor, these paintings might appear united by a singular topographical theme: the seascape. However, the roots and repercussions of this particular show were much more complex.
“Ode to the Sea” is a collection of work by eight men associated with the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Half of these men are former detainees, while the other half are still incarcerated in the now infamous military camp. Erin Thompson, curator of this exhibit and professor of art crimes, originally hoped to use these paintings as way to foster conversation and contemplation. Once Trump was elected, however, her motives shifted. As she notes in an article for The Guardian, “…the exhibit now has a more activist purpose, which is showing that indefinite detention harms detainees and the people working in the prison.” The circumstances of these artists adds a new dimension to the symbolism of the sea. “Whether stormy, calm, sunlit, or dark,” a CBLDF article about the exhibit reads, “the metaphor for freedom just out of reach is staggering in each work.”
Because of the bureaucratic entanglements faced by these works and their creators, the Pentagon issued a statement soon after the show opened. According to an article in The Independent, “officials at the prison camp…suspended all transfers of art” because they questioned the destination of funds earned from the artwork. (One former detainee said he intended to use the money from the sales to defray the costs of his mother’s costly medications.) Additionally, detainees were threatened with the destruction of their artwork—deemed government property—if they were released from Guantanamo Bay. Fortunately, as of December of 2017, “the U.S. military is now discussing keeping and cataloging detainee art rather than burning it.”
While the John Jay College showing of this exhibit has closed, the stunning catalog that accompanied it is still available. In it, one can read poems, watch videos, and see the paintings themselves. All the content within this catalog was created by current or former detainees, and it provides exceptionally candid insight into the experiences of these individuals. As contributor Mansoor Adayfi says in his introduction: “Most of these drawings took months to be completed and months to get approved. They were searched, scanned, and detained. Like us. These drawings had a long, hard journey to get to you. To meet you. Let the sea remind you we are human.”
Tess Wilson works in the Job and Career Education Center at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and in Adult Services at the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale. Her writing can be found on the YALSA Blog, and on the Carnegie Library’s Eleventh Stack blog. She is a collector of everything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisitions were an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @tesskwg.