NEW YORK >> An art exhibit at a New York City college seemed innocuous enough, mostly seascapes and still-life paintings of flowers and fruit.
But it’s the background of the artists — current and former terror suspects at the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention center — that drew protest and prompted the Pentagon to bar the further release of works created at the military-run prison.
The exhibit, Ode to the Sea, has been on display since October at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It shows 36 paintings and sculptures created by eight men during their years being held at the U.S. military facility for terrorism suspects in Cuba. The works were released to the men’s attorneys after being vetted by the U.S. government to make sure they did not contain violent content or hidden messages.
But news coverage of the show, particularly the fact that some of the works were available for purchase, has spurred the Department of Defense to reconsider such releases and redefine who actually owns such works.
“Items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government,” Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a spokesman for the department, said in an email to the Associated Press.
Sakrisson said that transfers of any art made by detainees had been suspended pending a policy review, but that the department wouldn’t try to claim art that had already been sent out of Guantanamo.
The show was put together after a lawyer who represents Guantanamo detainees, Beth Jacob, reached out to John Jay professor Erin Thompson to ask generally about how to go about possibly exhibiting one of her client’s work. That led Thompson and two other curators to gather up other detainees’ artistic efforts and display them in a hallway near the office of the public college’s president.
Thompson said she was disturbed at the idea that the government would take detainees’ artwork away from them.
“I just want to encourage people to look at these paintings. They’re flowers and beaches, and not subversive content,” Thompson said. “It’s not threatening to the United States. I don’t think we should burn bouquets.”
Jacob said detainees often gave artwork to the attorneys as gifts, to be passed to family members or for safe-keeping. She said she had heard from two men still detained on Guantanamo that they had been told no more artwork would be allowed out, and they would also be limited in how much of what they created they could keep. But it was unclear if that meant works would be stored or simply destroyed.
“Art is communication, an artist communicates through his art, and communication is communicating to someone or with somebody,” she said. “It seems that the government is trying to silence them, control even this aspect of their life.”
Artists in the exhibit include Moath al-Alwi, accused of being one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards, and Ahmed Rabbani, accused of working with senior leadership of al-Qaeda. Of the eight artists in the exhibit, four remain behind bars without having gone to trial and four have been released.
Thompson said only those who have been released had their works put up for sale, and she called the prices “modest” — hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars.
Some family members of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks were outraged such an exhibit was allowed in the city that was target of the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack.
“This is absolutely absurd that they would allow them to display their artwork,” said Alexander Santora, a John Jay graduate whose son, Christopher, was a 23-year-old probationary firefighter when he died in 2001.
“Where are their heads?” he asked. “Are they so far in the sand that they don’t see what’s going on?”
Thompson said she’s heard that response from some, but also from those who think the exhibit is useful to help people think about the Guantanamo prison and what it means to the country.
Kim Manfredi and Chris Blades, regular visitors to New York City from Palm Desert, California, came out to see the exhibit specifically to see artwork created by detainees.
“It seems like a basic human right, to be able to make art,” Manfredi said.