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Exhibit of artwork by Guantanamo Bay detainees draws Pentagon review

Gitmo detainees' art
Controversial exhibit of art by Guantanamo Bay detainees 02:11

A painting of the Statue of Liberty at a new art exhibition in New York seems ordinary enough — painted with bold strokes depicting the copper statue in shades of blue, towering, faceless, over the city's harbor. 

But the artwork, like the other pieces in the show, was produced by a prisoner of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. And the show is now making waves at the Pentagon.

"Ode to the Sea," an ocean-themed exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, is a collection of 36 works created by eight men who were held at Gitmo — some for almost 15 years. Of those, four are still in detention. 

A painting of the Statue of Liberty by Muhammad Ansi, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. Courtesy of the artist and John Jay College of Criminal Justice

After news reports highlighted the fact that some of the artworks are available for purchase, the Department of Defense launched a review of how it handles art created within the military prison's walls — including redefining who owns them. 

"Items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government," Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, told CBS News in an email. 

In the past, detainees were able to release their art to their lawyers after it was vetted by military authorities for violent content or hidden messages. Sakrisson said the transfer of artwork outside of the facility has been suspended pending further policy review, but the Pentagon has no intent to claim pieces that have already left the island.

Erin Thompson, an art crime professor and one of the curators of the show at John Jay, was approached by Beth Jacob, a lawyer who represents one of the detainees, about showcasing the artwork. She was surprised — and fascinated — to learn that prisoners in the war on terror were creating art behind bars.

"[The art has] reminded people that Guantanamo is still open, which people forget," Thompson said. "On one level, these are beautiful works of art. On the other level, they're invaluable documents about the minds of their creators."

Thompson said that John Jay is not selling the artwork on display and is only passing on inquiries from people who are interested in purchasing the pieces. The only pieces available for sale are ones that were created by those who have since been released from Guantanamo.

Although former President Barack Obama called for shutting down Guantanamo Bay, his efforts met resistance and it stayed open. Forty-one men are still detained there. President Donald Trump vowed to send more prisoners to the controversial facility, but has shown little sign of acting on the promise.

Muhammad Ansi, who painted Lady Liberty, was detained at Guantanamo for almost 15 years before being released to Oman in January. The Yemeni native, accused of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, has never seen the statue and relied on pictures in books and magazines in the prison's library to create his piece. 

Another prisoner, Moath al-Alwi, built elaborate models of ships using only pieces of trash he was able to gather in his cell — sails made of old T-shirts stiffened with glue and rigging fashioned from the lining of prayer caps. He's been held at Guantanamo for more than 15 years and has never seen the real-life versions of ships he designs.

A model ship by Moath Al-Alwi is made out of cardboard and other materials he gathered in his cell at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Courtesy of the artist and John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Many of the detainees depict the sea over and over in their work — even though they cannot see the Caribbean waves lapping the shores just a few hundred feet from the camp on Cuba's southeastern coast. Tarps cover the fences, and have only been removed once when a hurricane was approaching the island in 2014.

Jacob, who represents Ansi and al-Alwi, says the ability to express themselves through art is important to many detainees. 

"They know they've been penalized. They know they have been called the worst of the worst," Jacob said. "Some of them say that when they're creating art, it removes them from their situation."

Jacob said some of her clients' work has already been taken away, which she said causes anguish for many of them.

Sakrisson said detainees are allowed to keep a limited number of pieces in their cells, and future artwork "will be accounted for and cataloged." He says no artwork will be burned or destroyed, despite media reports saying prison authorities have done so.

Thompson also started an online petition protesting the Pentagon's policy change, which now has over 1,200 signatures.

"[Art is] one of the only ways they have of holding onto their humanity at Guantanamo, which is a place designed to strip away the humanity of all the captives," Thompson said.

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