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For all of us detained at Guantánamo, making art was a lifeline. Why won’t Joe Biden let us keep our work? – The Guardian



Mansoor Adayfi

Last month, the Pentagon partially lifted the Trump administration’s ban on the release of artwork made by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Prisoners will be able to take “a practicable quantity of their art” if they are transferred out of the prison. It’s unclear what “practicable” means, and whether this ambiguous term means prisoners will only be allowed to take a small portion of the artwork they have created during years of captivity.

In Guantánamo, from the very beginning, we made art. We had nothing, so we made art out of nothing. We drew with tea powder on toilet paper. We painted our walls with soap, and carved Styrofoam cups and food containers. We sang, danced, recited poetry and composed songs. We were always punished for making art or singing.

In 2010 the rules changed: we then had real paper, pens and paints – colours we hadn’t seen for years. We no longer had to hide our writings, paintings, poems and songs, which had meant hiding parts of ourselves. We no longer were punished for painting or singing. We could reveal parts of ourselves that were long hidden.

A painting of flowers in a vase by Mansoor Adayfi.

Art was our way to heal ourselves, to escape the feeling of being imprisoned and free ourselves, just for a little while. We made the sea, trees, the beautiful blue sky and ships. Our art helped us survive, freed us from years of solitary confinement that corroded our memories and distanced us from who we are, where all we could see was cages, tarps and chains.

And we shared our artwork. Artwork moved from one block to another in Camp 6, so we could see each other’s efforts. We gave our art to our lawyers and families as well as guards and camp staff. We started to share our artwork with the world. In 2017, an exhibition was organised, Ode to the Sea, curated by Erin Thompson in New York at John Jay College.

In response, the Department of Defense threatened to shut down the exhibition and to burn the art, as it claimed the pieces were US government property. The news shocked us all. The increased public attention on the prison angered the Trump administration, which responded by banning art from leaving Guantánamo. The Pentagon spokesperson Maj Ben Sakrisson confirmed at the time that the government’s position was that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”.

For years before the ban, the camp administration had permitted detainees to send their artwork to their families through the International Committee of the Red Cross. Also, lawyers for the prisoners were permitted to take their clients’ art off the US Navy base. All the artwork went through a security screening that analysed it for secret messages with national security implications. In the instance of some model ships made by Moath al-Alwi, troops went so far as to make and study an X-ray of them. Some detainees transferred off the base had also been allowed to take their works of art with them.

Ironically, the US government was the first to exhibit our artwork. In 2010, with the launch of a prison art programme, and for years until the ban, the artwork was featured during tours of Guantánamo’s detention facilities given to reporters and other delegations. Journalists were encouraged to photograph it. Once the ban was imposed, reporters were no longer allowed to see the artwork.

One of Moath al-Alwi’s model ships.

Along with Guantánamo’s lawyers, activists and NGOs appealing to the US government, we have been working since the ban was imposed to free the artwork. Last year, eight former Guantánamo prisoners wrote a letter to the president, Joe Biden, asking him to release artwork from Guantánamo; it was signed by hundreds of people. Lawyers who represent some of the Guantánamo prisoners also contacted the UN. Last year, two rapporteurs for the UN wrote to the secretary of state, Antony J Blinken, inquiring about the artwork policy.

The Biden administration has not yet replied to UN officials. One of the rapporteurs, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, visited the military prison at Guantánamo last month. The artwork was one topic she was planning to discuss. The partial lifting of the ban is welcome, but it is not enough.

The questions we must ask the defence department, specifically, are: what makes detainees’ artwork US property? Where exactly in the US constitution does it state that prisoners’ artwork belongs to the government? What about detainees’ intellect? What about their creativity? Are these also the government’s property? Who owns the copyright to the prisoners’ artworks? If it is government property, how are they going to treat it? Where is it now?

This is slavery, theft and cruelty. The defence department needs to explain its future policy regarding detainees’ artwork. People need to know what will happen, and current and former prisoners have the right to know too.

The art these men created is often precious to them. Sufyian Barhoumi, who was released last April back to his home country, Algeria, said “they took all my artwork and even my legal documents including letters from my lawyers. My lawyers are trying to contact the US government about my legal documents and my paintings but there is no answer … I’m afraid they will just throw it away or destroy it.”

A painting by Sabri al-Qurashi of the Empire State building wearing a Guantamano Bay prisoner outfit.

Al-Alwi, who was cleared for release in January 2022, told his lawyer that he would rather his artwork be released than himself. “As far as I am concerned, I’m done, my life and my dreams are shattered,” he said. “But if my artwork is released, it will be the sole witness for posterity.”

And Khalid Qasim, who was cleared for release in July 2022 but remains imprisoned, asked his brother in a call on 3 August of that year to spread a message to the free people of the world: “I ask you all to help me to free my artwork from Guantánamo. My artworks are part of me and my life. If the US government does not agree to release my artwork, I will refuse to leave Guantánamo without it.”

Guantánamo symbolises injustice, torture and oppression. It is where humanity and beauty are sentenced to death. We still demand its closure, alongside an official apology from the US government and reparation for its victims. But the art from Guantánamo became part of our lives and of who we are. It was borne from the ordeal we lived through. Each painting holds moments of our lives, secrets, tears, pain and hope. Our artwork makes up parts of ourselves. We are still not free while these parts of us are still imprisoned at.

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Rubbish fashion: street art costumes of Kinshasa – in pictures – The Guardian



Falonne Mambu posing in her electric wires costume in Limete district, Kinshasa. As a performing artist, she raises issues about social development in her own country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is potentially the biggest electricity provider in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, decay and corruption have crippled the national Inga dam, which only works to the minimum of its capacity. Nowadays, only 19% of Congolese people have access to electricity.

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Montreal artist won’t change puppet that community groups say looks like blackface



MONTREAL — A theatre performance for children featuring a puppet that has been described as racist is continuing in the Montreal area.

Several Black community organizations have criticized the puppet as being reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows — racist performances during which white people portrayed exaggerated stereotypes of Black people for laughs.

But the show’s creator — Franck Sylvestre, who is Black — has no plans to change the puppet, which he said is a caricature of his own features. Sylvestre said in an interview he can’t accept the idea that he’s not allowed to create a caricature of someone who is Black because racists created caricatures of Black people in the past.

“That’s unheard of for an artist,” he said.


The play, called L’incroyable secret de barbe noire — French for The Incredible Secret of Blackbeard — first drew controversy in February.

A performance at a municipal theatre in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield, Que., was cancelled after complaints by Black community organizations. The neighbouring community of Pointe-Claire, meanwhile, removed the play from its official Black History Month programming but allowed the performance to go ahead.

Sylvestre, who wrote the one-man show in 2009 aimed at kids aged five to nine years old, said he had never received a complaint about his show before February.

A series of performances of the play, which combines theatre, storytelling, masks and puppetry, begins Sunday in Laval, Que., he said, before he takes it to France for 30 performances.

Sylvestre said the play tells the story of a young man who travels from Montreal to Martinique — the Caribbean island where Sylvestre’s parents are from — at the request of his dying grandfather, who is haunted by his discovery of a mysterious wooden chest with a connection to the pirate Blackbeard.

Max Stanley Bazin, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, describes the puppet’s appearance as “very, very, very ugly” and said he worries that seeing a Black person presented in such a way could cause emotional damage to young audiences.

“It will have an impact on them, it will have an impact on the mind of the young people who see this puppet, and that’s what we should think about,” he said in an interview.

People are more likely to speak out about racism now than they were in 2009, Bazin said, adding that he thinks Sylvestre should listen to community members and replace the puppet with a less controversial creation.

“If there are people in society who have said this isn’t right, you have to react,” he said.

Philip Howard, a professor in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University, said he’s not sure the puppet is an example of blackface — but he said that’s beside the point.

“There is still very much the matter of representation and the potential use of monstrous and grotesque representations of Black people as a source of entertainment and even humour,” said Howard, who has studied contemporary blackface.

Howard said the intentions of the artist are less important than the impact of the performance on an audience.

“Here we have, in this particular instance, a whole community of folks that are responding and saying, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t love this, we don’t think this is OK and we’re particularly disturbed about it during Black History Month,’” he said.

Dismissing the opinions of Black people who have a problem with the performance demonstrates anti-Black racism, he said.

Sylvestre said he thinks much of the criticism comes from people who haven’t seen the play.

“It’s the job of the community to see what purpose these caricatures serve; are they, like blackface, denigrating Black people, or, as in my case, are they being elevated?” he said. “This character, he’s a strong character for me personally, and when I made it, I was inspired by myself.”

He said the puppet, named Max, is “like a great sage,” whose interventions lead to the play’s happy ending.

“Max, he was the voice of reason, he was the one who advised us, who mocked me when I made a bad decision, who was above me,” he said.

Prof. Cheryl Thompson, who teaches performance at Toronto Metropolitan University, said she didn’t like the puppet when she viewed a trailer for the play.

“I was extremely shocked,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

While blackface minstrel shows are primarily associated with the United States, Thompson’s research has shown that blackface performances took place in Canada, with shows in Montreal as recently as the 1950s.

Even though blackface originated with white performers, Black actors in the 1800s would also don the exaggerated makeup and participate in the racist performances for white audiences.

“It actually didn’t matter if it was a white actor in blackface or a Black actor in blackface, it was the caricature that audiences thought was funny,” she said.

Thompson said there’s room for theatre performances to be provocative. But performers, she said, need to engage with audiences and be willing to discuss artistic choices — especially when artists are performing for audiences whose histories might be different than their own.

“Why wouldn’t this person at least try to hear the voices of people who maybe have a different experience to him?” she said.

She said she wouldn’t take a child to see the show, especially during Black History Month.

“I just don’t see the uplifting messaging,” Thompson said. “I don’t see the messaging of ‘you matter,’ I just don’t see that celebration of life. I just see something that is steeped in a history of racial caricature and mimicry.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.


Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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Vancouver to remove unsanctioned spider art creeping-out transit riders



City staff are looking into how to remove a large metallic spider from under a high-traffic bridge on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

The artwork, which startled some arachnophobic SkyTrain riders when it was installed earlier this month, was created by pop artist Junko Playtime.

In an email to Postmedia News on Friday, city staff say they were made aware of the unsanctioned spider artwork located in a corridor for SkyTrain and CN/BNSF Rail.

The installation wasn’t done in consultation with the city or the rail corridor partners, city staff said. They’re trying to figure out the best way to remove the artwork so there is no damage to the bridge structure or rail lines.


Staff said the artist will have the ability to claim the work through the city’s impoundment process.

According to Playtime’s Instagram page, the eight-foot-diameter spider was installed at night recently on the north bank below the bridge between North Grandview Highway and Broadway.

Playtime, from Montreal, has gained a reputation over the past two years for installing very large and far-out insect like futuristic sculptures from scrap metal and household items.

The artist called this latest spider creation “Phobia 2023. Time to face our fears.”

— With files from David Carrigg


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