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 e-mail. 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 Guantánamo Bay detention camp.
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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo.
The man whose painting I saw has been held for nearly 15 years without trial, without even having charges filed against him. The e-mail came from his lawyer who had volunteered to defend a number of Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo
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.