The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue

Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo

Khalid Qasim, Untitled, 2017, Gravel, glue, MRE-box, paint. Courtesy the artist.
Khalid Qasim, Untitled, 2017, Gravel, glue, MRE-box, paint. Courtesy the artist.
On View
DePaul Art Museum
March 10–August 7, 2022

“If we could imagine it, we created it.” So recalls Mansoor Adayfi of his and others’ artistic production in Guantánamo Bay, his account startlingly figuring the prison camp as a site of plenitude. Qualities like patience and collaboration are in good supply there, even as artists protest for art classes and basic materials like cardboard. If abundance and scarcity thread all stories told about art made in total institutions, Adayfi connects those terms in a very straightforward manner: “We had nothing,” he writes, “and from that nothing we created life and order.” Among the questions running through Remaking the Exceptional, an ambitious pairing of work from Guantánamo with art made in Chicago’s carceral sites, are these: What does it mean to make something under conditions of carceral privation? And what do these attempts—often successful by any aesthetic or existential measure—offer in the way of imaginative, future-oriented, coalitional politics? If exhibitions of incarcerated artists can range from the voyeuristic to the merely evidentiary (look, here’s art made under duress; aren’t the artists resourceful and isn’t it shocking that they, too, are human?), Remaking the Exceptional is neither.

The curators Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes start with the premise that Chicago and Guantánamo have useful things to say to each other. They take up the recent drive in abolitionist thought to look beyond US borders, demonstrating both how unusual the North American case is when it comes to mass incarceration and how policing and prisons are embedded in global systems of militarism, trade, and value extraction. The connections between Cuba and Illinois are manifold; some are mapped in an installation by the Invisible Institute which consists of an iPad, projector, and a poignant desk from one of the schools closed during Rahm Emanuel’s war on public education. Most infamously, Richard Zuley, a longtime Chicago homicide detective, headed up a brutal campaign of interrogations at Guantánamo.

Works from the two sites are juxtaposed across two floors, sometimes brought directly into relation—most remarkably in a set of testimonial line drawings by Abu Zubaydah, Aaron Patterson, and Darrell Cannon chronicling the torture they were subjected to—and sometimes paired suggestively. Damon Locks’s pen-and-ink drawings (2021) look like excerpts from an abolitionist graphic novel. “Keep your mind free and stay alive,” urges one panel, a snarling vampire personifying the structural forces of prejudice that artificially curtail the imagination. When viewed alongside Khalid Qasim’s House of Knowledge (2017), one of the few sculptures to leave Guantánamo, the commitment to critical thought’s emancipatory power reads as a gesture of resistance to the gnawing, numbing ways that prison holds minds as well as bodies hostage. Made from wood, coffee, creamer, paint, and cardboard, Qasim’s large box displays a cracked book and clock on shelves, a series of tiered steps inviting the viewer to enter this “Hall of Enlightenment.” It’s as if Joseph Cornell tore open one of his assemblages and welcomed the world inside.

Sabri al-Qurashi, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy the artist.
Sabri al-Qurashi, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Art must often leave the prison simply to survive. Cells make for fragile archives in institutions where paintings and sculptures are subject to confiscation or destruction. Adayfi’s memoir describes how artworks became a target for retaliation after a camp-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo:

“Hey, guys, watch this shit!” a guard yelled. Then he threw the Popsicle-stick palace with the garden over the second-floor railing. When it hit the ground, it shattered into a thousand pieces.
“Awesome, man!”
“More! More! More!” guards chanted and laughed.
Our beautiful trees? Over the railing.
When they found paintings, they critiqued them first.
“This is pretty enough to clean your nasty ass with,” a guard snickered.
Or they pretended to be one of us.
“Look at my beautiful painting! I used my dick to paint it.”
If we tried to reason with them, they mocked us.
“Why?” They laughed. “No!” they screamed like they were children. “Can’t you see that I’m an artist?”

When I described Adayfi’s anecdote to a friend, she pointed out that it’s partly a story about criticism. Guards parody critical judgment as they destroy painstakingly made works, and the critics’ safe remove is reinscribed once they’re challenged. They simply abandon the pretense of criteria. Writing about the works in Remaking the Exceptional is not easy: we have neither the analytical nor political vocabulary to account for paintings that, like their painters, were always in danger. They risked damage whenever they were made, saved, or mailed.

Dorothy Burge, <em>Free Robert Allen</em>, 2021. Quilted Fabric. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Zoey Dalbert/DePaul Art Museum.
Dorothy Burge, Free Robert Allen, 2021. Quilted Fabric. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Zoey Dalbert/DePaul Art Museum.

Transit marks many of the works in the show. APPROVED BY US FORCES AUG 29 2016 proclaims a loud stamp on Qasim’s sculpture. What, I wonder, was approved? And what does it mean to have your work permanently branded by the very authority that locks you away, as a condition of its circulation and display? But if the show constantly reminds us that art can leave prison even when artists can’t, there are haunting moments when art gets stuck in limbo, too. Empty frames captioned with text and QR codes are reminders that neither Sabri al-Qurashi—a talented painter who directly confronts the subject matter of incarceration—nor his pictures could be transported to Chicago from Kazakhstan, where he now lives as a condition of his release from Guantánamo. As the curators put it, their inability to get the paintings “only reiterates the oppressively restrictive types of ‘freedoms’ that are offered to those like al-Qurashi, after being released from extralegal sites like Guantánamo.”

There’s an existential urgency to Remaking the Exceptional. Many of the artists remain incarcerated at Guantánamo, the promises of two presidents notwithstanding, or are still held by the Illinois Department of Corrections. But the show is also an argument for art’s place in an expansive activist project that would seek to redress local and global wrongs through reparations. A large hanging banner displays the landmark 2015 reparations ordinance proposed by the Chicago City Council for survivors of police torture, an ordinance passed with some revisions by the Chicago City Council partly through the organizing efforts of artists. Its counterpart is a banner inscribed with a speculative reparations bill for torture survivors at Guantánamo, demanding items such as the camp’s closure and vocational training for those affected by the site’s physical and psychological violence. Adayfi’s point that, in Guantánamo, “we made things we weren’t allowed to have or even to see” eloquently states what art can offer activists: visions and ways of making worlds yet to come.

Of course, many of the promises made by Chicago’s reparations ordinance are still unfulfilled. Funding has yet to appear for a monument to the ravages of police torture. Hanging fabric portraits (2021) crafted by Dorothy Burge punctuate the show, each depicting a torture survivor who remains in carceral custody. Looming overhead, backed by brilliant patterns, they’re reminders of the work still to do and the consequences of its delay.


Luke A. Fidler

Luke A. Fidler is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. He is currently the Paul Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. His criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Chicago Review, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues