Painting while Shackled to a Floor

What does it mean to make art with limited resources, under constant surveillance, when incarcerated in some of the most restrictive and punitive institutions in the modern American prison system ...

What does it mean to make art with limited resources, under constant surveillance, when incarcerated in some of the most restrictive and punitive institutions in the modern American prison system? Two exhibits currently on view in New York City pose that question by bringing paintings, drawings, and sculpture out from behind the bars of death row and Guantánamo Bay and displaying them in galleries at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Columbia Law School, educational institutions that in many respects reproduce the carceral state. Such schools help to define what is a crime and who is a criminal by shaping laws and policies of policing and confining. They train lawyers, police and parole officers, and correctional employees in the ever-expanding landscape of policing, detention, and imprisonment.

Art and law converge in both exhibits, not only through the status of the artists as prisoners and the locations of the galleries, but also in how the works on display engage the impact of imprisonment on aesthetic practices and art making. Some of the artists in these shows painted while shackled to a floor. Others were not allowed pens, pencils, or pallet knives.

Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay at John Jay College of Criminal Justice comprises more than 30 paintings, drawings, and miniatures from detainees at the infamous prison camp. In one, Muhammad Ansi’s watercolor painting of a storm at sea, the crest of purple and white waves submerges a capsized boat, splintering its frame. Ansi renders the ferocity of the storm and the despair of the wreck through aggressive strokes and jarring colors. The show’s title comes from the proximity of the camp to the Caribbean Sea and the visions that emerge in the artwork of the detainees. While they are held close to the water, detainees are not allowed to see it, as part of their punitive captivity. Tarps block their view, except for a few days in 2014 when the tarps were removed in preparation for a hurricane. During that brief time, anyone who made art drew the sea.

Surveillance, punishment, and scarcity of materials are the conditions under which the art in Ode to the Sea was produced. Erin Thompson, Charles Shields, and Paige Laino, the curators of the exhibit, note that the works had to go through many levels of clearance before receiving approval; faintly visible on many of them is the stamp, “Approved by US Forces,” described by the curators as “a ghostly mix of art and authority.”

Lighthouses, bodies of water, and idyllic pastoral scenes are common symbols of freedom in prison art, and so they appear here, though the sea in these works is multivalent. It promises and obscures. It is a passageway and a barrier.

Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Alan Kurdi) (2016)

Ansi’s paintings stand out among the works of the eight current and former detainees featured in the show. In his Untitled (Statue of Liberty), dark waters merge with an evening sky in a moody distillation of blues and a gray-obscured figure of democracy. In another painting by Ansi, a brown body has washed ashore. “If the wind enrages you, your injustice is obvious. / If the wind silences you, there is just the ebb and flow. / O sea, do our chains offend you? / It is only under compulsion that we daily come and go”—so read verses on the gallery wall written by former detainee Ibrahim al-Rubaish, part of a poem whose title gives the exhibit its name. In later verses, the poet gestures to Cuba as a witness, indicating the island where the military prison is located, but also the inability of the nation of Cuba to serve as a refuge. Many of the detainees whose works are in the show have been held there for years without formal charges. Because of this status, they have been called the “forever prisoners.”

To access the John Jay exhibit, one passes through a permanent installation, Memorial Wall, honoring law officers and other emergency personnel who died in the September 11 attacks. It is worth pausing here to take in the photographs and text memorializing the many lives lost and to consider the escalation of violence, surveillance, and indefinite detention that the “War on Terror” continues to produce.

After viewing Ode to the Sea, I returned to Memorial Hall to consider the connections between policing and notions of public safety, to absorb how local sites have been transformed under the auspices of national security and global terror threats, and to observe the links between law enforcement working a crime scene and law enforcement producing criminal suspects, as tensions animating the space between the memorial and the art of the detainees.

Windows on Death Row: Art from Inside and Outside the Prison Walls, an exhibit in the corridors of Columbia Law School, displays art by current and former prisoners on death row alongside pieces by well-known political cartoonists. Interspersed on the walls are data charts and text about capital punishment, sentencing, and racial disparities in the US prison system. The touring exhibit was organized by Swiss journalist Anne-Frederique Widmann and Lebanese-Swiss political cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, who work together investigating capital punishment in the US, and involves several partnering organizations.

While art provides creative and expressive outlets for these artists, their bodies are bound in punitive time and space.

Like water in Ode to Sea, light in this exhibit is complex: a symbol of opening, visibility, freedom, as well as interrogation, surveillance, and judgment, as with the glaring lights of the execution chamber. Bars, slumped shoulders, and a blinded figure of justice gesture to experiences that viewers can only imagine, as penal time and confinement are beyond the imaginative capacity of those who have never been imprisoned.

Just as the curatorial statement for Ode to the Sea takes a strong stance against detainment without due process and the targeting and profiling of “terrorist suspects” without just cause, the organizers of Windows on Death Row use the artwork of death row prisoners to critique the racial and economic inequalities that lead to the harshest sentences in the US prison regime, especially to capital punishment, rather than focus on the events that led individuals into the judicial system in the first place.

But the issue of wrongful convictions also arises. Kevin Cooper’s painting of a black man screaming from his cell, called Free Me! (2011), is part of a greater effort to bring awareness to Cooper’s case as an innocent man on death row in San Quentin State Prison. He has been the subject of several op-eds and petitions to California Governor Jerry Brown to grant clemency.

Another featured artist, Ndume Olatushani, spent 20 years on death row for crimes he did not commit. Appearing with his defense team at a recent panel for the show, he told the audience that he turned to art to cope with despair and helplessness after the death of his mother, who was his primary support in the first years following his conviction. During his two decades on death row, he painted in his cell. His art eventually led to him meeting his wife and later brought attention and a new defense team to his case. He was eventually released, but after having served 27 years in prison. When he states, “Art literally freed me,” no one in the audience dismisses his words as an empty platitude.

Olatushani is an exception, though, among the artists featured in these shows. Most of them remain confined, as people awaiting death in domestic prisons or as those forced to stay alive—through rectal feeding and other methods used to manage detainees—in occupied territories, black sites, and military camps. Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qasim, two artists in Ode to the Sea, have been on hunger strikes since 2013; both are suffering from debilitating complications. While art provides creative and expressive outlets, their bodies are bound in punitive time and space. Freedom for them is a longing for the expanse of the sea, to return home to wherever or whatever that might be, to be transported from enclosed cells of isolation and rightlessness.


Empathy Is Not Enough

By Marah Gubar

The power of the two shows, seen in tandem, is the emotional force and sheer existence of art produced within brutal practices of punishment, practices that have become endemic to domestic and military prisons. As Angela Davis has observed, “The everyday tortures experienced by the inhabitants of domestic prisons in the U.S. have enabled the justification of the treatment meted out to prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”1 Davis and other scholars of the prison industrial complex have brought attention to how punishment is more the result of increased surveillance, in particular toward racialized communities, than of crime.

Death row and military camps might appear to be anomalies in the American prison regime. Yet they are only the most extreme aspects of an entire United States culture of excessive punishment, one that has been unleashed on the rest of the world, with its retributive practices of deprivation, isolation, and even death. Ode to the Sea and Windows on Death Row complicate facile notions of justice by highlighting aesthetic practices that emerge from, not despite, systems of punishment. Some of the artists are condemned to death and know the dates of their executions. Others remain indefinitely detained. The only freedom any of them now know, the only sea they can ever reach, is in their art.


Postscript: November 20, 2017

Due to the attention Ode to the Sea has received, the US government now says it owns prisoner art and proposes to destroy it. Although works in the show by detainees at Guantánamo Bay had been reviewed by state and military officials before being approved for display, their policy has suddenly changed. According to a Pentagon statement: “Items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.”2 Art by detainees will no longer be allowed to leave the prison. The current proposal is to incinerate it. icon

  1. Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (Seven Stories, 2005), p. 65.
  2. Carol Rosenberg, “After Years of Letting Captives Own Their Artwork, Pentagon Calls It U.S. Property. And May Burn It.” Miami Herald, November 16, 2017.
Featured image: Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Statue of Liberty) (2016)