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NEW YORK — An art exhibit in New York City at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is stirring up controversy. It features artwork by current and former Guantanamo Bay prisoners. They are — or were — suspected terrorists.

“Most of the works don’t directly express the pain of imprisonment,” said Erin Thompson, the curator of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

The serene images are a far cry from life in captivity at Guantanamo Bay. Many are seascapes painted by accused terrorists, men who haven’t actually seen the ocean for years.


Artwork done by a Guantanamo detainee.

CBS News

“Some people are angry that the art is glorifying terrorism, and I try to explain to them that that’s not my goal at all,” Thompson said.

Thompson believes the art provides insights into the effects of long-term confinement at the military prison. Every artist is a current or former detainee, working with scraps of material they gathered in their cells.

“It’s made out of cardboard, pieces of old T-shirts stiffened with glue, the netting is from the inside of a prayer cap he’s given,” Thompson said. 

One painting is painted on a mixture of gravel and glue.

“Whether you believe these men are guilty are innocent, these paintings are windows to their souls,” Thompson said. 


Artwork by Guantanamo Bay detainees.

CBS News

“On 9/11 we had a pretty darn good glimpse of their souls, what their souls are about,” said Michael Burke, whose brother, New York Fire Capt. William Burke, was killed in the North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001

“I don’t think we need to see their watercolors to get an idea of what their souls are about,” Burke said.

Burke’s name is inscribed on a memorial just a few floors below the art of suspected al Qaeda operatives.

The Defense Department considers the art government property, which it has the right to destroy. Burke thinks it simply needs to be balanced.

“Let’s show the people trapped in the air with the flames and smoke behind them,” Burke said. 

Burke calls the show an outrage, but Thompson says it’s simply a form of communication from men who have no other contact with the outside world.

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