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The art of the Guantanamo Bay detainees


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And finally tonight- a look at works of art from an unlikely source, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

A new exhibit in New York hosts art made by current and former detainees.

Special correspondent Arun Rath has this story.

Arun Rath: The artwork at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan reflects what is studied here. Galleries take on themes related to crime and the law, human rights and dissent, art that reflects justice and injustice.

The entrance is lined with work depicting 9/11 first-responders.

Upstairs, in another exhibit, a piece of art from a man who's on trial for his alleged role in supporting the attack. "Vertigo" by Ammar Al-Baluchi is not about 9/11. It reflects his torture at the hands of the CIA, which was documented in a Senate report.

Erin Thompson: It's just a swirl of lines and dots, and he drew it to show his lawyers what happens when he experiences vertigo, when he can no longer see, which is the result of a traumatic brain injury he suffered during interrogation.

Arun Rath: Erin Thompson is an art professor at John Jay, and she's studied the strange intersections of criminality and art, but art from Gitmo detainees was a surprise.

Erin Thompson: One of the lawyers for detainees approached me and said, I want my clients' art to be exhibited. I said, what do you mean? There's art made at Guantanamo?

What hit me at first was how normal they seem. Shouldn't their drawings be so much more angry? And it took me a long time to realize that they -- that these artists want to show beauty.

Arun Rath: There's art from 12 Gitmo detainees in the exhibit. Baluchi is the only one of them who's been charged with a crime.

The rest are ambiguous cases.

Ahmed Rabbani claims to be a victim of mistaken identity. He was tortured by the CIA, and his supporters claim his confessions of ties to al-Qaida were a product of that torture. He's spent years hunger-striking to protest in Guantanamo and has been subjected to force-feedings.

His painting, a scene of empty plates and glasses.

Erin Thompson: To me, the show is of interest, no matter what side you fall on, no matter what you believe about these men. Is it that you want to see the humanity of them as victims, or do you want to understand better the enemy? You can do either by looking at these works.

Arun Rath: The artwork had to pass through a security review to make sure there were no coded messages.

Security restrictions on Guantanamo also limit art-making material. To get creative, prisoners have to improvise.

Erin Thompson: He created his own surfaces by picking up rocks and gravel from the surface of the exercise yard.

Arun Rath: Two of the artists are now former detainees. Abdul Malik Al-Rahabi was in the first group of prisoners sent from Afghanistan to Guantanamo in 2002.

Abdul Malik Al-Rahabi: I hope that people think about other people, because they give us bad reputation about us there, all of us. I don't know terrorists or criminal or -- but we are human beings. We have feelings. And we have family. We have wife. We have daughters, all of us.

I hope people think about that. There is no difference between us.

Arun Rath: A review board deemed him suitable for release in 2014, and he's been living in Montenegro since 2016. We spoke over Skype.

He asked that we not show his face. He doesn't want the stigma of Guantanamo to follow him into his new community.

Do you see your art right behind me?

I took him, virtually, on his first tour of the gallery where his art is on display. He is barred from visiting the United States. He showed me dozens of other paintings he still holds onto.

There is a common theme in the art from the seaside facility.

Abdul Malik Al-Rahabi: I think about the sea. It was a big sea. And I imagine one day maybe the boat -- boats will come. And I imagine my life in Guantanamo like I am in the sea, in the middle of the sea. One day, I will go out.

Arun Rath: Moath Al-Alwi, a detainee from Yemen, has actually been building ships, these extraordinary miniatures made from cardboard, painted with stains made from coffee grounds, sails from old shirts, rigging from unraveled prayer caps.

Al-Alwi and al-Rahabi were friends inside the prison.

Have you seen the ship models before?

Abdul Malik Al-Rahabi: Oh, this for Moath, yes. He's a good one. And I hope someday he will be released.


Arun Rath: Al-Alwi has made another ship, apparently even more impressive, but it may be destroyed before anyone else gets to see it.

The base has now suspended all transfers of detainee art, pending further review. Detainees were informed that they could keep a limited number of pieces, and that excess art would be discarded.

The exhibit, Art from Guantanamo, will run through January.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Arun Rath in New York.

Judy Woodruff: Remarkable story.

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