Zakwas the pseudonym of Guantanamo’s Arab-American cultural advisor. In 2008, Zak and the Joint Task Force initiated art classes at Guantanamo Bay detention camp as a way of controlling behavior. Zak affirms, “…we want to keep their brains stimulated…once [the prisoners] are engaged and busy, they leave the guards alone…” The Prisoners are encouraged through art to cope with feelings of anger and isolation according to Tom Leonard’s 2008 article informs the public on their decision to use art as therapy. Not only was the art making effective therapy, but the images of paintings produced by detainees also provided a rare positive public relations opportunity for Camp X-Ray.
The use of art is not new to Guantanamo. Haitian and Cuban refugees, as well as current detainees, have produced art expressing their diverse experiences. During the Haitian Crisis in 1991 a painting signed by Albert Dronnett includes a portrait of Brigadier General George H. Walls Jr., who was appointed in November of 1991 to the post of Commanding General, Joint Task Force for Operation GTMO. Of note in the image is that the representations of the camp around Walls’ portrait depict largely peaceful scenes. The soldiers are shown helping students get onto a school bus, and they don’t appear to be armed. The Red Cross tent implies the availability of health care, of note given the prevalence of HIV testing on Haitians at Camp Bulkeley and its subsequent consequences for those who were refused entry to the U.S. due to their health status. The painting portrays a humanitarian effort. Whether it was created as an expression of gratitude and optimism or made as a public relations tool, is difficult to tell given how little is known about art production from this time period.
Like the art being made by the current detainees, it is not hard to imagine the visions of sailboats and calm seas are expressions of yearning for freedom or memories of more peaceful times, but from our vantage point as curators of the arts of detention, we can only note that it speaks to the contrasts and contradictions that are Guantanamo. In the midst of the colorful scenes of the base in Dronnett’s painting is the tell tale coiled razor wire along the tents. Similarly, attorney Kristin Wilhelm, who currently represents eight Yemeni detainees held at Guantanamo, has criticized the post 9-11 art classes, arguing that they are “seven years too late.” Food strikes and detainee Adnan Latif’s recent death have shown the limits of art as therapy.
Kelby Dolan is a student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.