The American Art Therapy Association states “creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes can increase awareness of the self and cope with symptoms of stress and traumatic experiences.” The Association is, of course, referring to artmaking under the direction of an accredited Art Therapist, but the statement seems broadly applicable. The few public mentions of an art instructor for detainees held at Guantánamo refer only to a Jordanian man known simply as “Adam,” and who could be reasonably assumed to have no such training, but there is no doubt the artmaking process is, for detainees, therapeutic.
“For the most part, anyone can use art therapy,” the Association continues. That truly does mean anyone – be it those held in indefinite detention without charge, or those who initiated the mechanisms to hold them.
Former President George W. Bush does not have a CV, or at least not one accessible without submitting a FOIA request, but since his first paintings were leaked in 2013, he has had two solo exhibitions at his own presidential library and was included in a group show at the “Freedom Conference and Festival.” His first monograph was released in February of 2017, in which he writes that he found painting because he “was antsy.” He continues, “My life didn’t seem complete. I wanted a new adventure—within the confines of the post-presidential bubble.”
Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors is, basically, exactly that: it is a book of portraits of and inspirational anecdotes about veterans wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the tantalizingly terse introduction by Bush, which could itself begin a thousand more essays, he says he “painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and show my respect for their sacrifice and courage.”
The artwork in this exhibition finds an almost too-easy foil in the artwork made by George W. Bush. Most obviously, both of these bodies of work would not exist without conflict initiated by the president-turned-painter. Bush frames the subjects of his portraits as those who were wounded while “[volunteering to] defend our country.” In the same light, detainees were benevolently permitted to create art while their threat level to homeland security is still being investigated. According to this narrative, neither these wounded warriors nor these indefinite detainees are still reeling from the ramifications of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, all of which were enacted by Bush.
The Art Therapy Association again describes the uniqueness of artmaking: “most other forms of communication elicit the use of words or language. Often times, humans are incapable of expressing themselves within this limited range.” In the former President’s case, the limitation of his expression appears to be self-imposed by his ill-defined ‘bubble.’ For detainees who are encouraged to communicate with guards and staff only through intermittently available interpreters because their grasp of English has led to perilous miscommunication, art is the best way for them to express complex emotions with the fewest barriers.
In the still-limited avenues for contact available to them in the lead-up to this show, the detainees have been quite frank about what they want their work to communicate. While some detainees use artwork in a more overtly healing way — for instance, Ammar’s piece visualizing the vertigo he has suffered since being repeatedly tortured during interrogations — others hope that their work simply humanizes them to viewers.
“I want people to think we are not negative people…. We only make beautiful things. We love life, we love everything and people. We are not extremists, we do not hate nice things. I want [an American audience] to think about us in this way,” said Moath al-Alwi.
“For many years we Guantanamo prisoners were pictured by many US government officials as monsters, the evilest people on earth, the worst of the worst, and I am sure many Americans believed that. Displaying the artwork is a way to show people that we are people who have feelings, who are creative, that we are human beings. We are normal people and not monsters,” Djamel Ameziane wrote through his lawyer.
As mentioned elsewhere, information about the conditions under which detainees made art at Guantánamo is scarce. Despite that fact, we can say much more about how the detainees used artwork to express themselves therapeutically than we can from reading all 191 pages written by George W. Bush about what, exactly, he intends to work through in his portraits of veterans.
Though his introduction does a shockingly skillful job of shifting any accountability for the wars in which these people fought away from himself, and the various accounts of redemption and recovery are about the veterans rather than himself, one could generously read this book as a tome of atonement. While he claims to have come up with the idea of painting Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at the gentile prompting of a friend to broaden his repertoire beyond world leaders, it is hard to not interpret his 98 portraits, “each done with a lot of care and respect,” as an act of penance.
These portraits were all done from photographs. The former president vaguely suggests that he met these veterans on charity tours, and his anecdotes all seem very personal, but he still chooses to paint from static images rather than embarking on the task of having his subjects sit with him. The referents are distant.
The referents are distant for artists at Guantánamo Bay as well. From what we know, even the most basic still life included in this exhibition is painted from a photograph, either printed from the internet or scanned from a book. Despite the many landscapes, there is no plein air in the camp, and instead detainees generate whole worlds from the trickle of National Geographics, VHSes, and bootlegged satellite news channels accessible to them.
The detainees take images of places they’ve never been and activate them with their caged imagination. An almost perfect inverse, George W. Bush’s world leader series was proven to be painted from the top Google Image Search results for each world leader; he, in a unique position to have seen these important figures in intimate settings, reduced their personage to mildly stylized photorealism.
When images of his first paintings were leaked in 2013, at a time when Bush was already faint in the age of Obama, his foray into the artworld was met with the same genteel derision that marked most of his presidency. In an age where “Buck Fush” bumper stickers have been covered by “Hope,” “Love Trumps Hate,” then “Not My President,” it is easy to forget the bizarre space he occupied in the American consciousness while he was actually in office. Even at his worst, he was seen as an at most accidental abettor to war crimes: in an uncomfortably relevant relic of the recent past, the film “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” released in 2008, George W. Bush acts as the last minute savior to the duo. He is both comically aware of the horrific human rights abuses at the camp, but willing to help a “fellow stoner” avoid being baselessly detained at the camp he seemingly unknowingly created.
His artwork, like his military campaigns, seemed to elicit a feeling of, “well, gosh, at least he’s trying.” It is unsurprising that the artwork of this apparently-lovable scamp has been reviewed by Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and many more art critics with actual career-making cultural cache. He remains consummately blameless, and the recipient of good fortune.
The body of artwork in this show, artwork which owes just as much of its creation to the aggression of the Bush administration, and provides a perhaps even more insightful look into the lasting wounds of the War on Terror, has not received as much attention. This is the first full-scale exhibition of artwork made by detainees while inside Guantánamo. If an artist who happens to be a war criminal waiting indefinitely to be charged can have two solo shows, we hope these detainees can exhibit more too.