Guantánamo’s Artists Fight for Beauty

Winford Hunter
Khalid Qasim, “Untitled” (2016) (all images courtesy DePaul University Art Museum)

In 2022, the DePaul University Art Museum hosted the exhibition Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo. Its curators, Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes, have made art about Guantánamo together for a decade. For their Tea Project, they created a set of 780 porcelain-cast Styrofoam teacups, one for each of the men detained at Guantánamo, glazing their names (garnered from WikiLeaks documents) on the bottoms and carving the sides with the national flower of their home country. The project was inspired by the tea and conversation Hughes was offered when he returned to Iraq in 2009 as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. (Hughes was deployed on combat missions with the Illinois Army National Guard in 2003–04.)

Ginsburg and Hughes are in the process of “returning” the Tea Project cups to the detainee’s homes. In 2015, for example, 220 cups carved with tulips went to Afghanistan. For the 2022 exhibition, they created a new edition to raise funds for Guantánamo survivors. Displayed on a wall of shelves, the restraint of the cups’ monochromatic, stylized flowers contrasted with dozens of colorful, exuberant paintings of flowers hanging above them.

These paintings were made at Guantánamo. Following President Obama’s election, detainees were offered an art class and permitted to use nontoxic art supplies. Using oil pastels and acrylic paints, and often working on copier paper, the men frequently returned to the subject of vases or bouquets of flowers.

The exhibition is now complemented by an exquisite accompanying text, also titled Remaking the Exceptional, which weaves together lyrical sections of poetry and visual art with longer texts, including reporting and analysis of torture and interviews with current and former detainees and their legal representatives. These interviews reveal that the detainee artists were determined to create something beautiful in the midst of what remained a grindingly ugly, hopeless environment, even after the torture they had experienced during interrogations in the first years of their detention had ceased. “What kind of spring is this / where there are no flowers,” asked Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost in one of the poems in the book. The detainees who became painters of flowers decided to make their own spring.

Debi Cornwall and Djamel Ameziane, “Annotaing Gitmo [(Comfort Items, Camp 5 (Stop lying to the world)]” (2015)

Some detainee artists are currently making art to mark their 21st spring at Guantánamo. As of last year, all the living detainees with work in the exhibition and book have been cleared for release, but a number of them still remain at Guantánamo. American authorities are negotiating with potential host countries in a process that could take years.

But not all who are released from Guantánamo find freedom. Sabri al-Qurashi, who, like many others, was mistaken for someone with a similar name — an administrative error that consumed 12 years of his life — was sent to Kazakhstan in 2014. In his interview, he explains that he has not been granted legal status there. Without an identification card, he could not even mail his paintings to DePaul; they were represented in the exhibition by photographs.

Next to their Tea Project, the curators hung a series of paintings on cardboard made at Guantánamo by Khalid Qasim. Each panel shows a single lit candle. It was not until Qasim gave each panel to his lawyers as he finished it (the process by which most art from Guantánamo has survived) that he revealed they were a series. Each painting represents one of the detainees who died there. Qasim thought that the authorities who scrutinized each artwork before its release would suppress them if they realized they were works of memorialization and protest.

By juxtaposing art made by detainees with art by the American citizens these men were supposedly tortured to protect, Remaking the Exceptional shows we are all bound together, in both culpability and resistance. Beginning with its title, the exhibition hammered away at the myth that the abuses of human rights law perpetrated at Guantánamo are isolated and exceptional. Instead, Ginsburg and Hughes brought together survivors of torture at Guantánamo and in Chicago, presenting personal testimony and the work of lawyers, activists, and investigative journalists to show the intertwined branches of what Laurence Ralph has called “the torture tree.”

Ghaleb Al Bihani, “Untitled” (2015) (photo by Robert Chase Heishman)

These branches reach across time and space. Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge tortured over 100 suspects in the 1970s and ’80s using a military field radio. He learned how to use its hand-cranked electrical generator to electrocute victims during his service in Vietnam. In 2015, the Chicago City Council authorized a $5.5 million reparations package for the benefit of around 60 of Burge’s victims. Yet, an estimated 15 more victims remain incarcerated — this despite the fact that Burge’s torture led to false confessions from victims so desperate that they would say anything, as also happened at Guantánamo.

Richard Zuley was a contemporary with Burge in the Chicago Police Department. A detective, he tortured at least five suspects, including by handcuffing one woman to a wall for more than 24 hours and threatening her family. Zuley then took a leave of absence to serve as a senior interrogator at Guantánamo, where he tortured Mohamedou Ould Slahi in many ways, including prolonged shackling and claiming that Slahi’s mother would be arrested and brought to the all-male prison of Guantánamo. Lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department for torture have named at least 120 other officers, at minimum 17 of whom also served in the military.

Remaking the Exceptional reveals the clotted entanglements of torturers and victims, but it also shows the close bonds between survivors and advocates that have grown into a flourishing resistance. (We have decided to write this review in a unified voice to reflect this idea of the strength that comes from speaking together.) This is not a book about torture. It is a book about survival. The point is not to force readers to witness victims’ suffering; rather, the book allows us to feel the furious joy that emanates from those who have saved their own lives with activism and art.

Damon Locks, “Keep Your Mind Free” (2021)
Tea Project (Aaron Hughes and Amber Ginsburg), “Tracing the Torture Tree Chicago to Guantánamo: The ecosystem of police and military violence from John Burge and his co-accused to Richard Zuley” (2022) (photo Zoey Dalbert, DePaul Art Museum)
Dorothy Burge, “Free Robert Allen” from the series Won’t You Help to Sing These Songs of Freedom (2021)
Tea Project (Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes), “La Amistad, Like the Waters from 19.9031° N, 75.0967° W to 41°52_04.5 N 87°42_39.4 W on January 11, 2002” (2021) (photo by Zoey Dalbert, DePaul Art Museum)

Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo, edited by Amber Ginsburg, Aaron Hughes, Aliya Hussain, and Audrey Petty (2022), is published by the University of Chicago Press/DePaul Art Museum, and is available in bookstores and online.

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