Date September 13, 2017
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Brown public humanities programs, photo exhibition focus on Guantánamo

An art exhibition and associated events explore the prospects that former prisoners face after release.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —This week, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) at Brown University will launch an art exhibition and present two events that explore the legacy and future of the military detention center at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The three public programs will consider what lies ahead for the hundreds of men who were detained at Guantánamo as enemy combatants in the War on Terror beginning in 2002 and have since been released, sometimes after years of imprisonment. Nearly 800 men were detained in all; currently, 41 prisoners remain at the base.

“This programming was spurred by thinking about whether release from Guantánamo is the end of the story,” said Esther Whitfield, a Brown associate professor of comparative literature and Hispanic studies and faculty fellow at the JNBC. In particular, she noted, “Former detainees are often released to countries that are not their homes, where they can face economic and legal insecurity, social prejudice, and challenges to their physical and psychological health." 

Whitfield helped organize the series of linked events, which includes “Welcome to Camp America: Beyond Gitmo,” an exhibition of photographs by Debi Cornwall. Cornwall is a conceptual documentary photographer and 1995 Brown graduate who worked as a civil rights lawyer for 12 years. She photographed 14 former detainees, now living in nine different countries, in settings that show they are free but in positions that hide their faces.

According to Cornwall, her decision to abide by the “no faces” rule the military enforced at Guantánamo even now that the men have been released is a commentary on the “alienation of indefinite detention” and the idea that these men will remain forever marked by their former status as Guantánamo prisoners.

Cornwall will also talk about using art as — or in service of — advocacy during a lunchtime event on Thursday, Sept. 14, the day of the opening.

“At the Public Humanities Center, one particular interest of ours — faculty, staff and students — is the intersection between cultural work and artistic practice, on the one hand, and advocacy and social justice, on the other hand,” said Marisa Brown, assistant director of programs at the JNBC. “We try to be a place that brings research and practice together in productive ways, and to bridge different fields within the humanities, but always with a view toward producing work that has a public mission and impact.”

On Friday, Sept. 15, a half-day symposium, “Guantánamo, Going Forward: What’s Next for Current and Former Detainees?” will address the future of Guantánamo under the Trump Administration and feature presentations by Cornwall; J. Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he specializes in challenging unlawful detentions at the Guantánamo prison; and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a former detainee at Guantánamo and author of the book Guantánamo Diary, an account of his 14 years in detention. Slahi will participate remotely from Mauritania via video conference

The speakers will address experiences of former detainees, the current situation at Guantánamo and the prospects for the men still detained there. Topics will include the prospects for apologies and reparation by national governments and how individuals and institutions, in the humanities and across disciplines, can advocate and act for change, according to Whitfield.

“It is clear that the detention center is not going to close any time soon,” said Whitfield, who said the facility has long been a focal point in her research. She is writing a book called “Guantánamo: Writing, Art and War,” a study of the artistic and literary production at the base, and helped to organize a 2014 conference at Brown called “New Perspectives on Guantánamo: Art, Activism and Advocacy.”

“With the previous conference and this one, it was important to bring into the academic environment the concerns of people working on this issue in different ways,” Whitfield said. “The idea is really for students and faculty to see how the ideas we work with here at Brown have significance outside of the University. We invited Debi Cornwall, J. Wells Dixon and Mohamedou Ould Slahi to show the ways in which humanities can be used or translated into activism.”

The lunch talk will take place at 12 noon on Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Nightingale-Brown House’s Carriage House Gallery at 357 Benefit St. in Providence. Lunch will be served at 11:50 p.m.

The opening for the exhibition will be at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Nightingale-Brown House’s Carriage House Gallery. The exhibition will be on view until Oct. 19. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

On Friday, Sept. 15, the symposium “Guantánamo, Going Forward: What’s Next for Current and Former Detainees?” will be held in the Petteruti Lounge, Room 201, of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center from 9 to 11:30 a.m.

More information about the events can be found here.