Moath al-Alwi, originally from Yemen, has been detained at Guantánamo for over 14 years. He paints as well as creating elaborate models of ships from scraps of material, including cardboard, old t-shirts, and parts of the plastic housing of shaving razors. His works are intended as presents for his lawyers and family.

Moath al-Alwi, Model of a Gondola, 2016.

Moath al-Alwi, Model of a Ship, 2015.


Moath al-Alwi, GIANT, 2015.

Below is the text of a letter, describing al-Alwi's art, submitted to the Periodic Review Board on his behalf in 2016. The letter is available as a PDF here.

15 September, 2016

To Whom it May Concern;

The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said “Ideas won’t keep... something must be done about them.” A model builder has the power to translate the ideas of a designer into physical reality – a necessary step in the creation and refinement of almost all commercial products. Moath al Alwi’s models show that he has the rare skills necessary for a career as one of these model builders.

Mr. al Alwi has produced several highly detailed scale models, such as a sailing ship made from cardboard and bits of discarded T-shirts. His precise models, built with limited materials, show that he possesses the inherent talent required of a professional model builder: a sense of scale; the ability to visualize information from a two dimensional source in three dimensions; a dedication to artistic representation; the ability to use different materials in appropriate ways; and a passion for detail and the patience to create it. This is a combination of skills that few people possess.

The conditions under which Mr. al Alwi created his models only serve to indicate the abundance of his talent in these areas. He could not reach for another material when what he had at hand failed him – instead, he needed to make what he had work. He could not access a multitude of different representations of the object to be modeled – instead, he had to invent the details and structures he could not see in his source images. These constraints mean that he has developed the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity required for a career in model building, where a client often provides a only a rough sketch and asks for a full model.

Model making is valuable skill. There is demand for models for industries, institutions, government agencies and individuals, who need models for a range of projects, including tradeshow models, architectural models, topographic models, process models, cutaways, sales demonstration kits, and museum displays.

In particular, models are crucial for product design. Models feature in the design of almost every new product, so the designers can work out bugs in the design, test the product, assess it with focus groups, and make and see improvements before finalizing the product for production. Models are also crucial in the world of entertainment, where they serve as props for theater, movies, and television. The world’s best known model makers are those employed by Industrial Light & Magic, which created models used as props in the Star Wars series, Harry Potter, and The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mr. al Alwi’s skills mean that he could find employment in all kinds of commercial settings, from a highly industrialized corporation to a smaller-scale business working with more traditional materials. In the latter, his proven ability to recreate intricate components from the materials at hand would make him an invaluable employee when machinery failed or needed to be upgraded in a context where replacement parts are difficult to obtain.

Mr. al Alwi’s work shows artistic promise. Model making and small-scale work are a time-honored part of artistic tradition. A number of contemporary artists, such as Laurie Simmons, work by creating scale models of interior scenes or other real-life settings in order to explore the nature of contemporary life. Meanwhile, the artists Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger recreate famous historical photographs in models made of cardboard and cotton wool. In the reverse scenario, the artist Christoph Draeger constructs intricately detailed scale models of the aftermath of disasters such as hurricanes to question the representation of such scenes in the media. Similarly to these successful artists, Mr. al Malwi is working with incredibly precise details and innovative materials.

There are also more commercial aspects of the art world that use model-making talents such as those of Mr. al Alwi, including reproductions of objects of historical or artistic interest, sold as high-end souvenirs, and window displays, such as the elaborate Christmas displays of Macy’s. There is also the specialized field of art fabrication: companies that create objects designed by artists, in a process that often involves either the modeling of existing objects or the creation of scale models of prototypes of the artwork or both. For example, the artist Jeff Koons has worked with an art fabrication company to create a full-scale model of a historic locomotive, in different materials light enough to be suspended above a crowd.

In summary, Mr. al Alwi possesses skills that are rare and valued, and I am confident that al Malwi will find a productive use for his model-making talents, whether in the commercial sphere or the art world or elsewhere.


s/ Erin L. Thompson

Erin L. Thompson

Assistant Professor of Art

Department of Art and Music

John Jay College of Criminal Justice