|A New York City college is at war with the Pentagon over exhibiting and helping to hawk artwork created by
suspected al Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Thirty-six paintings and sculptures by Gitmo detainees have been on display at John Jay College, but the Department of
Defense now wants them destroyed, and administrators at the taxpayer-funded school are bracing for a possible seizure of
In the last few days, more than 350 people rushed to sign a John Jay professor’s online petition protesting a Pentagon policy
that would see most of the Gitmo Picassos’ works incinerated.
“Let them know that burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes — but not by the American people,”
reads the petition to the Department of Defense, President Trump and the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, among other
branches of the military. “Art is an expression of the soul. This art belongs to the detainees and to the world.”
The exhibit, titled “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay,” opened Oct. 2 on the Upper West Side campus of John Jay
College of Criminal Justice. Curated by John Jay art crime professor Erin Thompson with archivist Paige Laino and artist
and poet Charles Shields, the free exhibit is on view in the President’s Gallery until the end of January.
The exhibition catalog includes an e-mail address for people interested in buying the art.
“Untitled (Binoculars Pointing at the Moon)” by Ahmed “Badr” Rabbani.
J.C. Rice; Department of Defense
“Please contact email@example.com if you are interested in purchasing artwork made at Guantanamo by artists
who have since been cleared by military tribunals and released,” it reads.
The art was obtained through the detainees’ lawyers. Ramzi Kassem, one of the lawyers and a professor at CUNY School
of Law who works with a legal clinic that represents Guantanamo detainees, recently told The Miami Herald that, as a result
of the school’s exhibit, “art would not be allowed out of the prison . . . and would be incinerated instead.”
In the past, prisoners at Guantanamo could fill out a form to have their art reviewed by prison authorities for release to their
lawyers. The lawyers could safeguard the work until their release or send it on to the families of the detainees. Now that
process has been halted.
The Department of Defense’s abrupt change in policy has further politicized the already-controversial exhibit at John Jay.
Many 9/11 families, who had been unaware of the exhibit until they were contacted by The Post last week, expressed
outrage that detainee art was being shown at a taxpayer-funded institution in the city. They also noted that many of the
victims had attended John Jay.
“I can’t understand how this college in particular would allow such a thing. Where’s their decency? Where’s their dignity? . .
. It’s denying and softening what happened. What’s next, hanging up the art of John Wayne Gacy?” said Michael Burke,
whose brother, FDNY Capt. Billy Burke, died on 9/11 and went to John Jay.
“Untitled (Titanic)” by Muhammad Ansi.
J.C. Rice; Department of Defense
But Thompson urges tolerance.
“I hope that people will come visit the show and see the art, because, at this point, I don’t know what will happen to it,” she
told The Post. “It might go back to the artists — or it might go into an incinerator.”
The exhibit features mainly paintings of seascapes and flowers created by detainees as they were shackled at the ankle to
their cell floors. Some of the suspected terrorists also sculpted and crafted model boats between 2015 and 2016.
“They created this art under strict regulations,” Thompson said. “They cannot produce violent images or anything that might
contain a hidden message. Every blank sheet of paper . . . had to be inspected and cleared for use.”
While the catalog lists the works — some bearing red and black “Approved by US Forces” stamps — and provides brief
descriptions of the paintings and sculptures, there is no mention of the artists’ alleged wrongdoing. The catalog was written
by the three curators.
In the bio for Ahmed Rabbani, there is no mention that he is suspected of having worked for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the
architect of the 9/11 attacks.
“Detained and tortured by the CIA before arriving at Guantanamo, Rabbani has protested by undertaking years-long hunger
strikes,” the copy reads, introducing two untitled paintings — a still life and a painting of sets of binoculars pointed to the
Other detainees, especially those from landlocked countries, seem obsessed with the ocean, and the hit 1997 disaster film
“Titanic,” which they were allowed to view at the facility, the catalog says.
The sea is obscured at the Guantanamo facility behind a series of fences and tarps. In 2014, when a hurricane threatened
Cuba, the tarps were taken down for a few days, wrote one of the artists in the online catalog.
“We faced one direction — toward the sea,” wrote Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee who was accused of being an al
Qaeda operative. “It felt like a little freedom to look at it. I heard an Afghan guy shout, ‘Allahu akbar.’ ”
“Untitled (Red and Purple Boat)” by Ghaleb Al-Bihani.
J.C. Rice; Department of Defense
Adayfi was released in 2016 and now lives in Serbia.
Since the artwork is on loan to the college, Thompson says potential buyers are referred to the detainees’ lawyers.
“I just pass on inquiries to lawyers,” she told The Post. “I do know that only artwork of former detainees who have been
cleared of wrongdoing and released, is available.”
Thompson said prices “were in the hundreds of dollars” for works, but she did not know if any had been sold. Lawyers for
the artists did not return The Post’s requests for comment.
Inmates in federal prisons are permitted to keep their artwork, and, in some cases, have been permitted to sell them.
Neither the prison at Guantanamo Bay nor the Department of Defense returned The Post’s calls and e-mails seeking
comment on the policy for Gitmo art.
The Department of Defense has been vague about its new policy on inmate art, but it appears that officials were angry about
the John Jay exhibit.
A spokesman for the department told The Miami Herald on Nov. 16 that “questions remain on where the money for the
sales was going.”
“Items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the US government,” Air Force Maj. Ben
Sakrisson told the paper. “The appropriate disposition of this property has been clarified with our staff at the detention
facility and will be accounted for according to applicable local procedures in the future.”
Additional reporting by Melkorka Licea
Families of 9/11 victims were outraged by the John Jay College art exhibit “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay.”
“A lot of guys who passed away during 9/11 went to John Jay College, including my brother. I can’t understand how this
college in particular would allow such a thing. Where’s their decency? Where’s their dignity? They’re delivering the
completely wrong message. It’s denying and softening what happened. What’s next, hanging up the art of John Wayne
— Michael Burke, of The Bronx, whose brother, FDNY Capt. Billy Burke, 46, died on 9/11
“It’s like a slap in the face, completely out of nowhere. Let them display that at Guantanamo, not here. It’s a terrible
precedent to set.”
— Jim McCaffrey, of Yonkers, retired FDNY lieutenant whose brother-in-law, FDNY Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, 45, died
“I feel completely betrayed. Someone’s job should be on the line for this. Using taxpayer money to hang the artwork of
criminals in our college for criminal justice makes my blood boil. This is going way too far and is rubbing our noses in the
loss we have to carry with us every day.”
— Rosaleen Tallon, of Yonkers, stay-at-home mother whose brother, firefighter Sean Tallon, 26, died on 9/11
“I think it’s sick and insulting. I was down in Guantanamo and saw these guys in court. [They] have no respect for anyone.
They murdered our kids and families and don’t deserve their art shown anywhere. The families weren’t consulted about this
at all. It’s like having Hitler do a drawing and hanging his work up. It’s a complete disgrace. [Mayor] de Blasio and [Gov.]
Cuomo should be held accountable.”
— Jim Riches (right), of Brooklyn, retired FDNY deputy chief whose son, firefighter Jimmy Riches, 29, died on 9/11