Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Colorful Voices of Guantánamo

Prior to this course, I had little knowledge of the history of the naval base located at Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). Like many Americans, it was difficult for me to comprehend what was going on there because we are so detached from the site and comfortable in our lives, a distance compounded by the amount of censorship and secrecy surrounding the site. In fact, there is so much censorship involving GTMO that I was actually surprised to learn of our longstanding involvement with the base. After delving into the material and hearing stories about the site, what struck me most was Guantánamo’s diverse history and how it offers many diverse perspectives.

What I found most interesting about GTMO was that a wide range of people, under a number of circumstances, inhabited this land since the U.S. leased it from Cuba. While we mostly hear about the people detained here, the most shocking discovery I had was when I found out that to some of its residents, Guantánamo was paradise. How can these two opposing viewpoints coexist in a place people were forced to call home? The duality is surreal; on one side of the fence are U.S. military families going about their daily lives in a tropical paradise, while on the other side of the fence are some of the most painful and tormented stories you will ever hear.

A painting completed by an unknown Haitian refugee during detainment at Guantánamo in 1991. Image courtesy of Holly Ackerman.

A painting completed by an unknown Haitian refugee during detainment at Guantánamo in 1991. Photo courtesy of Holly Ackerman.

Throughout history, many of the detainees used art as a way to express themselves and reflect on their current situation. Being an artist myself, this deeply resonated with me, but I have never created art under these circumstances. Images of barbed wire and American flags are most iconic, but what continues to fascinate me are the images depicting a beautiful and exotic landscape. A backdrop of a tropical paradise, painted in a bright and colorful palette, seems incongruous to me. Perhaps the imagery reflects the artist’s memory of another place, but it also evokes a simple and beautiful side of Guantánamo that is usually forgotten. I never considered how complex this site truly is, and it disturbs me when I think about how America tainted such a beautiful land and managed to turn it into something so ugly––a symbol for indefinite detention.

The idea of Guantánamo as paradise also raises a new perspective concerning the future of the base. If we succeeded in closing GTMO, will there ever be a way to remember and honor the history of the site, yet still move on and utilize the beautiful land of Guantánamo in a positive way? Working on the Guantánamo Public Memory Project has helped me discover the importance of raising awareness around the human rights issues surrounding GTMO. I hope to initiate a similar level of consciousness and promote dialogue within our own communities, while addressing contemporary issues related to GTMO, such as racial profiling and hate crimes affecting communities of color. I think it could offer a new perspective about the site and be an active way to break ignorant or ambiguous feelings towards the censored representation of GTMO that misinforms us. The complex nature of Guantánamo needs to be addressed in order to not only build public memory, but also motivate changes in our current standard of civil liberties.

Posted by Kavita Singh, 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.




2 Comments to: The Colorful Voices of Guantánamo

November 14, 2012 5:14 pmKendall Bobula wrote:

Your blog post made me think about this documentary we hosted on our campus, After the Factory. This documentary follows Detroit and Lodz, two cities devastated by deindustrialization, unemployment is high, housing is inhabitable, and public image of these cities is more than disgust. However, in both of these cities the residents create hope through art, that one day these cities will come through this tough economic and social time to one day be a great place again. You suggest that we could use Guantanamo to create a dialogue within our own communities addressing social issues. I think this could also work the other way; using dialogues we have created about art and social movements within America and around the world to influence Guantanamo. These two cities regained some sense of place and attachment through art. Perhaps Guantanamo is doing the same and could create some visionary future for the base. Of course, there are many questions, such as, Who will claim Guantanamo as home? Who feels that Guantanamo is theirs to claim? Can a social movement be affective if it is removed from the place that is trying to change? What/who can change a place where no one claims, but rather control?

Kendall Bobula, student at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

November 16, 2012 2:50 amAngella Mixon wrote:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for showing a different side of Guantanamo Bay. I believe that being part of the post 9-11 generation, it is often difficult to imagine Guantanamo Bay as more than just a place of torture. That is why I was particularly interested in reading your piece regarding art and expression. Your post points out a whole history that is often overlooked in our current political environment.

Before learning more about the history of Guantanamo Bay, I would have been shocked to see pictures like this. My recollections surrounding it would reflect a dark place. This painting is the inverse of my assumptions. It shows that Guantanamo Bay is beyond just Camp X-Ray. It has a lengthy, rich history that is filled with conversary, but also with enrichment as well. There are fond memories surrounding life on Guantanamo Bay.

The tropical landscape is something we tend to overlook. The Haitian Refugee who painted this piece helps us remember this is an ecological wonder. It is beautiful.

I often wonder, though, if there is art that does communicate messages of torture, terror, and imprisonment. We have continually learned that the history of many island nations in the Caribbean are often swept under the rug. With all the negative press regarding the human rights violations, I wonder if these were allowed to surface to combat those images. Or, I am curious to see how difficult it would be to locate a painting from a refugee that was not a sunny disposition piece.

Perhaps I am being too much of a conspiracy theorist. I am unsure. Regardless, this piece does an excellent job pointing out that there is more to Guantanamo Bay than just the surface level. Pieces of art like this conveys that duality that you spoke about earlier. There are good memories linked in as well as bad ones. Pieces like this help explain those memories better.

Angella Mixon-Student at University of Minnesota–Twin Cities


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group