News India Times

In New York, art envisioned from the cells of hell

Untitled (hands Holding Flowers Through Bars) by Muhammad Ansi.

NEW YORK – It’s an eerie feeling, to gaze at innocuous looking paintings of landscapes and buildings, of boats in water, knowing that they were produced by some of the most notorious detainees on Earth, etched and painted with grim determination, sometimes shackled in a cell, in Guantanamo Bay, in solitary confinement, for plotting to kill innocent people around the world.

The exhibition ‘Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay’, at the John J. College of Criminal Justice, in Manhattan, through January 26, 2018, is ironically, displayed in a public space, in two corridors, where there are campus offices too. Some visitors, who walk through, are unlikely to realize the significance of the artworks hanging on the walls.

In all, the exhibition – which has generated controversy in recent days after the US government decided that in the future no artwork by detainees of Guantanamo Bay will be allowed for resale and will be the property of the government – displays 36 works, paintings and sculptures made by eight terrorists, some for nearly 15 years. Only two of the works have been on display before.

A model ship by Moath Al-Alwi .

The exhibit includes works like model ships crafted from materials permitted to detainees, including parts of shirts, prayer caps, razors, and mops.

The works are the result of clandestine art as well as art classes provided by a Joint Task Force Guantanamo instructor. The eight artists include both current inmates (Moath Al-Alwi, Ammar Al-Bluchi, Ahmed Rabbani, and Khalid Qasim) and former detainees (Muhammad Ansi, Djamel Ameziane, Abdualmalik (Alrahabi) Abud, and Ghaleb Al-Bihani).

The exhibition includes paintings by the Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Rabbani, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay for 13 years. According to notes accompanying his works, Rabbani, who signs his works with his nickname Badr, has undertaken sometimes years-long hunger strikes, resulting in daily violent force-feeding.

Rabbani’s two works in the exhibition are eye-catching, and introspective. The untitled works has a still life of empty glassware, suggesting a combination of fragility and hopelessness, while another shows a set of buildings with huge binoculars pointed at a full moon, perhaps homage to the super moon phenomena or the travails of his life, besieged with intense scrutiny since being incarcerated.

Interestingly, it’s likely that as much time was spent on making it, as examining the works by government authorities. Once the works were completed, there was a laborious process of searching, scanning, and analysis for hidden messages, before an ‘Approved by US Forces’ stamp was given as clearance.

Untitled (Pier) by Muhammad ansi.

Former detainee Mansoor Adayfi explains in an essay written for the exhibition catalog, the theme of the show was chosen because the sea “means freedom that no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.” Reports said although detainees were held close to the sea, tarps blocked their view until they were removed for four days in 2014 in anticipation of a hurricane. That proved to be the inspiration for most works.

Interwoven Dialogues

There was more art from the subcontinent on display, at the exhibition ‘Interwoven Dialogues: Contemporary Art from Africa and South Asia’, at the Aicon Gallery, through January 6, 2018.

Curated by Awam Amkpa, the exhibition, which opened last week, displays also the works of Indians artists Rina Banerjee and Rina Sen, as well as Pakistani artists Aisha Khalid and Naiza Khan.

The exhibition is anchored around the twin concepts of exploration of the tactile quality of fabric and other related material and how it affects image-making, and, the design elements that infuse African and South Asian art, especially innovative pattern-making traditions.

Drawing from her experience as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a conservative household, Aisha Khalid tackles ideas of feminism, domesticity, and contemporary politics employing the miniature painting tradition and traditional Islamic pattern design.

‘Robe’ by Naiza Khan. Made of galvanized steel.

The menacing metal garments that Naiza Khan crafts echo these concerns. Delicate or strong, armor or cage, Khan invites the audience to decide.

‘Hanuman’s fight is evolution’s climb’ by Rina Banerjee. Made of silk velvet, glass beads, gold threads, silk threads, iron wire, glass, and Victorian doll eyes.

Rina Banerjee’s thoughtfully-titled compositions are grotesque, monstrous and chimeric all at the same time. In a similar vein, Mithu Sen delivers a masterclass in the art of playful subversion. Drawing from her own spontaneity and tendency towards free association, Sen groups together seemingly unrelated objects in her paintings, drawings, and collages in an effort to subtly criticize the ways in which western and non-western audiences perceive complex ideas, such as femininity and sexuality.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on twitter @SujeetRajan1)