“In Guantánamo, we are right next to the sea but we can’t go to it.” – Abdualmalik Abud
Abdualmalik (Alrahabi) Abud, originally from Yemen, was detained at at the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for almost 15 years before being released to Montenegro in 2016. He began creating art during his last years at Guantánamo. Whenever he thought of his wife and daughter, he would begin to draw, in order to forget that he was imprisoned. He painted landscapes, seascapes and frequently drew the complex architecture of Sana’a in Yemen.
The exhibition ‘Ode to the Sea‘ that opened in November 2017 at the President’s Gallery at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, featured 36 works created by detainees, including watercolors by Abdulmalik. But news of the show prompted an unprecedented policy change by the US Department of Defense that prohibits art created by detainees at Guantánamo Bay from leaving the base, even in the event of a detainee’s release. NCAC, along with 16 other free speech and human rights organizations, immediately condemned the new policy as a “violation of the public’s right to access this work and thus fully participate in the political conversation around Guantanamo.” The prisoners’ lawyers, who maintain that the art program has been widely recognized as benefiting inmates and guards alike, also condemned the policy.
In January 2018, NCAC and 10 co-signatories sent an official letter to President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, US Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Edward Cashman and US Marine Corps Sergeant Major Dennis Bradley. The letter warns that the new policy flagrantly stifles any public discussion that could arise from viewing the art, and therefore the artistic and human side, of Guantánamo detainees. Previously, any artworks that left the base were subjected to intense military scrutiny before being cleared for release. Absent security concerns raised by that review, this policy violates the human rights of the detainees under international norms, and suppresses documents of clear political and historical importance to the American public.