Artistic and legal objects: Abu Zubaydah’s drawings depicting detention at Guantanamo

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez 

Warning: this post contains sensitive drawings which some people may find disturbing.

What is art? Is Abu Zubaydah’s drawings of the torture methods used against him “art”?

As explained in an article published in the newspaper The New York Times on December 4, 2019, Abu Zubaydah is a Saudi national who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 by the USA suspected of being an Al Qaeda member. He spent 4 years in the CIA secret prisons before being transferred to Guantanamo bay in 2006, where he is still being held today. Allegedly, he is the first person to have been subjected to the CIA’s torture interrogation programme. This programme was created by two CIA psychologists and approved by no one else then the USA President at the time, George W. Bush.

Last December, his lawyer Mark Denbeaux released a report entitled “How America Tortures”. In this report, Denbeaux points out that “Americans may find it difficult to acknowledge that top officials […] orchestrated and poorly oversaw a terrific torture programme”. He therefore suggests telling the American people, and anyone reading this report about the crimes committed by the CIA in Guantanamo, and hopefully to raise awareness. A series of Zubaydah’s drawings portraying the torture techniques he was subjected to are included in the report. They were first published in 2018, on Propublica.


Referring to my earlier question: are these torture drawings art?

For the Cambridge dictionary, yes. Art is defined as “painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.” As for the literal meaning, Abu Zubaydah’s are therefore art. The Guantanamo penitentiary administration and the USA military seem to disagree. Indeed, even if the Guantanamo prisons offer “art” classes to captives, students are not allowed to artistically represent their life at the Guantanamo bay. Detainees can only draw and paint still life or do Arabic calligraphy. In addition, detainees used to be able to send their art works, such as drawings, paintings or even small boat constructions, to their relatives. The penitentiary administration would inspect it to make sure there would be no secret messages, but if that wasn’t the case, the artworks would be shipped to the inmates’ family members. However, since 2017 the USA military has decided that art pieces made by the detainees were no longer considered to be their property. Due to this decision, Zubaydah’s lawyer released his client’s drawings as “’legal material” rather than art, making the publication of those sketches possible.

As to whether Abu Zubaydah’s drawings are called “legal materials” or “art”, there is, in my opinion, no doubt his sketches are actual art. Granted, they are dark, depressing and terrifying pieces, but art nevertheless and consider Zubaydah to be quite gifted. Take for example the image below in which he represents one of the torture techniques: walling. As one can see in the drawing thanks to the red lines, walling is to bang the detainee’s head on the wall several times a day. No details are speared as the artist shows his scars on his left thigh, on his skull and on his chest, shows the suffering (his eyes are closed and his mouth seems to be screaming in pain), the nudity and the shackles which seem very uncomfortable as they oblige him to always have his hands stretched in front of his body.

Another example is the waterboarding drawing in which we can feel the pain of the inmate and learn a lot about the actual waterboarding technique. Indeed, the way Zubaydah portrays his right foot, right hand and head as shaking because of the pain and the blood coming out of his left leg makes the viewer feel actual chills when closely looking at the drawing. In addition, the terrible sketch shows us how the board would be lowered at the head’s level so that it would be closer to the ground than the rest of the body. This is done to make sure the water doesn’t actually go in the victim’s airways but still imitates the sensation of drowning.

Beyond theoretical considerations concerning the nature of Zubaydah’s drawings, they show an underlying story about torture techniques being used by the CIA in Guantanamo bay.

Recently, an American military commission investigating the role of five persons accused of having participated in the 9/11 terror attack heard the testimonies of the two psychologistswho had been in charged of designed the torture programme. The pre-trial however, revolves around 9/11 rather than Guantanamo or CIA black sites. The torture suffered by Abu Zubaydah and other inmates has therefore not been punished yet, and it seems important to continue raising awareness about those inhumane methods.



Picasso and the War

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez

When I think of Picasso, I think of weird shaped and coloured women. Of course, I think of Guernica too but that only comes later, and little did I know of the artist’s actual political commitment. Therefore, when answering the Musée de l’Armée’s survey, I check the box “totally agree” to the question “Did you learn something during this exhibition?”

The exhibition I am referring to is the Picasso et la guerre (Picasso and the war) exhibition in the Army’s Museum in Paris which will be open to the public until the 28th of July 2019.

The exhibition guides you through Picasso’s evolution of how he perceived and painted war. The first drawings are from when he is 11 or 14 years old. They are the typical drawings of a child, a very talented one, who likes drawing war scenes with soldiers and horses. It doesn’t seem that there is a deeper meaning to them. The First World War did not affect Picasso even if he is at the centre of it, in France, at that time.

A turning point for him was the Spanish civil war and, of course, Guernica. Picasso’s painting of Guernica will become one of the most famous anti-war artwork and will mark the beginning of Picasso’s political commitment. Sadly, Guernica was not at the exhibition as it is in Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum. I knew Picasso had painted Guernica and I was familiar with his opposition to the Franco regime. What I failed to know was that he was also very active in raising awareness about other conflicts. 

After World War II, he joined the French communist party and started being more active on the political scene, vocally and also artistically.

His main focus was to paint portraits for newspaper articles, books or commemoration booklets. For example, he drew the portrait of an unknown man for a commemoration event at the Auschwitz concentration camp and the portrait of Djamila Boupacha for the cover of Gisèle Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir’s book about her. Djamila Boupacha was a FNL (Algerian National Liberation Front) activist who, after attempting to bomb a café in Algiers was arrested by the French army, tortured and raped. Her trial became a political trial in which her lawyer, the feminist Gisèle Halimi, condemned the violent methods of the French army during the Algerian independence war.

One of the key artwork of the exhibition is the Massacre of Korea. Again, I had no idea Picasso had been actively campaigning against the Korean war. The cubist, surrealist painting portrays the No Gun Ri massacre in which 250 to 300 South Korean refugees (women and children) were killed by the American army. With this painting, Picasso seems to be opposing American imperialism but also the Cold War, and war in general.

Last but not least, Picasso is said by some to be the one who popularized the white dove as a peace symbol. He was not the inventor of this symbol as the dove was present, for example, in the Bible but he made it popular and secularized it when he drew it in 1949 for the World Peace Council in Paris. The dove was used again for the 1950 and 1952 World Peace Congress and since then became one of the main icon representing world peace.

Dove of Peace

What the exhibition seems to forget however is that Picasso also did the portrait of Joseph Stalin for the communist newspaper Les lettres françaises (the French letters) just after the USSR leader died. The front page of the paper stated “What we owe to Stalin?”. I am not a Picasso expert and therefore don’t know what his opinion was of the soviet leader. However, it does bother me that “the Artist for Peace,” as the exhibition calls him, would draw the portrait of a man who killed millions of people.

Threat of an erosion of Second World War Era Restitution Principles

By Nolwenn Guibert

On 3 December 1998, 44 governments participating in the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets endorsed what came to be known as the “Washington Principles” for dealing with artwork confiscated by the Nazi Regime during the Second World War. The Washington Principles establish, inter alia, that in assessing whether a work of art has been confiscated by the Nazi Regime and not subsequently restituted, consideration should be given to the “circumstances of the Holocaust era”. In 1999, the Council of Europe adopted a similar set of principles on Looted Jewish Cultural Property. These principles have formed the framework against which restitution claims have been assessed domestically since then.  

In The Netherlands, the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications for Items of Cultural Value and the Second World War (Restitutions Committee) was established in 2002. The Restitutions Committee investigates claims of stolen artwork and offers binding opinions thereon. Thus far, it has issued over 155 rulings, 74 of which have resulted in full restitutions. 

Its most recent opinion of 22 October 2018 has drawn particular international attention. The opinion pertains to Wassily Kandinsky’s 1909 “Painting with Houses”. 

Prior to the war, the painting was owned through inheritance by Emanuel Lowenstein. In October 1940, five months after Germany invaded The Netherlands, it was put up for auction at the Frederik Muller auction house in Amsterdam and acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for 176 Dutch Gilders. The painting has been exhibited in the Museum since then.

The Restitutions Committee examined the circumstances in which the painting came to be auctioned. It found no evidence that the German occupying forces had confiscated the painting. Interestingly, the Committee referred to the 2001 recommendation by the Ekkart Committee—otherwise known as the Origins Unknown Committee, set up to investigate the provenance of works of art repatriated from Germany after the war—according to which sales by private Jewish individuals in The Netherlands from 10 May 1940 onwards must be considered to be involuntary, unless the facts expressly show otherwise. However, it went on to state that this policy recommendation, which involves a reversal of the burden of proof, is not directly applicable to binding opinion cases. It found that while the sale of the painting in October 1940 cannot be considered in isolation from the Nazi Regime, it was also in part the consequence of the deteriorating financial circumstances in which the then owners found themselves well before the German invasion. In the Restitutions Committee’s view, this provided a less powerful basis for restitution than a case in which there was theft or confiscation. The Restitutions Committee further drew on the fact that there was no indication of attempts to claim the painting back from the Museum after the war. Finally, the Restitutions Committee found that there was no evidence that the City Council had not acquired the work in 1940 in good faith. The Restitutions Committee gave consideration to the City Council’s contention in relation to the need to maintain the “public art stock” and its submission that the painting has important art historical value and “is an essential link in the limited overview of Kandinsky’s work in the Museum’s collection, has a corresponding place in that collection, and is included in the permanent display”.

On these grounds, the Restitutions Committee rejected the restitution application, having found that the interests of the applicants did not outweigh the interests of the City Council in retaining the work.

This binding opinion of the Restitutions Committee was heavily decried as a step back in the wrong direction and criticised for introducing a “hierarchy of loss”, whereby confiscation ranks higher than forced sale, as well as for shifting the burden of proof of involuntary loss onto claimants and for weighing the interests of a museum to keep a work of art (and maintain, as the Restitutions Committee puts it, “the public art stock”) against a claimant’s interest in recovering it.

The Restitutions Committee will be subject to scrutiny in the United States this time as the heir to the Katz family is challenging, in a civil lawsuit before the US District Court for the District of South Carolina, the Restitutions Committee recommendations of 2013 and 2017 rejecting the claim of the Katz family for restitution of 143 paintings and other artworks currently in the possession of several Dutch institutions.

The Restitutions Committee had found that, contrary to private owners, art dealers operating during the German Occupation still had to prove that the sale was involuntary. In this specific case, the Restitutions Committee found that, although the situation was duress, there was no evidence that the sales had been made under duress. In the civil lawsuit, the claimants submit, on the contrary that duress affected all art transactions by the Katz family during that period and that “Defendants have never owned the Artworks, and have seen evidence that Firma D. Katz owned the Artworks at the time of their sale under duress. To allow Defendants to retain the Artworks-and to profit from their display, in many cases-is unconscionable, violates agreed principles of World War II art restitution, and goes against the weight of both evidence and history.”


Everyone can be a Pussy Riot (Art and Resistance – Chapter 1)

By Manon Beury

“I cannot attend the Pussy Riot’s performance tonight. Do you want my ticket?” 

It is a beautiful gift that Fiana, founder of Creating Rights, offered me this Thursday morning.  On January 31st, 2019, we waited for the show to start at 20:30 at Paard in The Hague. I didn’t know what to expect from what the venue’s website described as “a theatre project” by the Pussy Riot Theatre “with fevered monologues underpinned by real footage and frenetic noise-punk.” Little did I know that every single minute of Riot Days would resonate with Creating Rights’ focus on human rights, justice and art. My expectation, however, was that this opportunity would be a great starting point for a project that I had in mind: exploring the multifaceted interplay between art and resistance.

The Russian feminist art collective Pussy Riot was created in 2011 with the explicit goal of conducting guerrilla action through art performance. The link between art and resistance cannot be clearer. One year later, international attention turned to Russia when three members of the Pussy Riot, including co-founder Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, were sentenced to two years in prison following a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Smuggling a guitar and an amplifier into the church, their face covered with coloured knitted balaclavas that will soon become internationally famous, they performed a “Punk Prayer” at the altar to protest against the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin’s election campaign.

Based on Maria Alyokhina’s newly published book of the same name, the performance Riot Days relates the story of this protest, her subsequent arrest and incarceration. It is not theatre nor a concert or a mix of both. Alyokhina herself is on stage, accompanied by Kiryl Masheka, Diana Burkot, and Oleg Larionov. On minimalist electronics, they rattle off a long monologue in Russian, only interspersed with jazzy saxophone, hysterical drums solos and some of Pussy Riot’s songs. The text is a mix of Alyokhina’s poetic memoir, quotes that influenced her, dissenting political statements and excerpts from the trial transcripts. Each word is translated on a gigantic screen behind the stage, where documentary footage frantically unfurls and political slogans in bold white letters on black screen flash from the screen as they sing or shout in unison. It is punk, wild and yet perfectly synchronized. The outburst of audio-visual effects makes it impossible to read the subtitles, watch the video and enjoy the show all at once, especially when you cannot stop dancing. As a result, I wanted to watch the performance again at the minute it was over. Or read the book.


The performance starts with a powerful prayer chant in an atmosphere charged with defiant reverence. While the screen shows footage of the preparation of the Punk Prayer in February 2012, the audience dives into the young band’s excitement and Alyokhina’s self-doubts: “Do I have the right to do this or am I a barbarian?” All along the show, she will interrogate what is right, just or fair.


The pace of the song raises relentlessly as we follow the band in hiding throughout Moscow. With humour, the performers enumerate golden rules to escape the police: “We ate whatever God sent our way, which was usually pasta.” Fragmented images of the band running through metro stations and Alyokhina giving interviews to foreign journalists from the bathrooms of a café. Smiles on the audience’s face swiftly fade when the image of a police van appears on screen. In March 2012, Alyokhina, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich were arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct, committed with the purpose of inciting religious hatred by a group of persons in an intentional conspiracy”. Restless, wearing their balaclavas and panda masks, the performers recount the trial, mistreatment by the police and the sentence of two years in prison in August 2012. Dropping her mask, protected by a black hood, Alyokhina stands at the centre of the stage to tell the story of her incarceration and solitary confinement in a Siberian penal colony: “the republic of convicts” in the Ural mountains. 

Pussy Riot on stage at Summerhall, Edinburgh, with Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina, centre, in balaclava. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer The Guardian, 19 August 2018


The darkest moment of the performance is suddenly disrupted when Kiryl Masheka starts throwing countless bottles of water to the crowd. Standing close to the stage, I am soaked but grateful as the audience around me finally begins to dance and respond to what happens on stage. Defiance takes over the gloom when the performers strip their hoodies and light their cigarettes on stage before engaging in a frenetic dance on ravey techno music. Alyokhina explains what life looks like in today’s Russian gulags: tales of human rights abuses, protests and hunger strikes, inmates’ solidarity and romantic love between women.


Having served 21 months in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released in December 2013 following an amnesty approved by the Russian Parliament. Riot Days ends with the pictures of political activists who remain imprisoned. In the venue’s hall, the collective sells t-shirt proclaiming that “Everyone can be a Pussy Riot”, destined to finance the lawyers’ fees of those in the penal colonies. Art financing justice and resistance.

Women are heroes by JR

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez 

I went to JR’s exposition Momentum at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (in English European House of Photography) in Paris mainly because I was interested in one of his projects: Women are heroes.

Maybe I should warn you that, if you decide to go to this exhibition after reading this article, you shouldn’t be surprised if there are only a few pieces of art from Women are heroes at the Maison. This is, first, because Momentum gathers many of JR’s projects and, second, because one who is aware of JR’s style would know that you can find his art mostly outside museums: because “in the street, we reach people who never go to museums”.

I should perhaps explain how JR works for you to understand why his artwork is outdoors. JR is an anonymous 35 years old French photographer who prints large black-and-white images and pastes them on buildings, lorries or other constructions that are in public locations. So for example, in Women are heroes, JR decided to photograph the faces, and more specifically the eyes, of women from all over the world and then to paste them on different constructions, like, in the below photo, on the houses in a favela.

Brazil, Rio de Janeriro, Favela Morro da Providência, 2008

JR explains that he dedicated his Women are heroes project to women and women only because he wanted to pay tribute to “those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism”and because, “through the woman’s conditions, sometimes you realise the conditions of the country”.

The project, which includes the gigantic photographs that were taken and pasted throughout the countries JR travelled, a movie, but also pictures of the photographs themselves which can be seen at the Momentum exhibition or online, is a powerful one.

It is powerful,  first of all, because of its universality. From 2007 to 2010, JR went to Brazil, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The focus, however, is not on where the photos have been taken but rather the women themselves. In the documentary one can guess where they are, but never does JR put a label or a title saying which country he is in. This creates a feeling that the women’s stories could be anyone stories, wherever they are. And the project became truly international when, back from his travels, JR shared his pictures and stories with all of Paris during La Nuit Blanche (The Sleepless Night).

France, Paris, Ile Saint-Louis, 2009

Furthermore, the project deals with a range of topics going from the violence in the favelas, the repression of the civilian population by the government, sexual violence, forced marriage, to poverty. This makes the project even more interesting, in my opinion, as it doesn’t “discriminate” an issue as being less important than another one. JR is not here to decide if he wants to give time to rape or gang violence, or doesn’t do a hierarchy between them, he just gave the floor to those women who then chose what they want to talk about.

I personally find the project powerful also because I feel that the images JR creates couldn’t be stronger. For example, in the documentary, a woman explains that her neighbourhood is being destroyed because of agreements between the local authorities and an enterprise that is interested in the land. And, as the buildings of the neighbourhood are torn down by bulldozers, one can see that the face of the woman, which has been pasted on a wall, is being hammered by a man who is trying to demolish the building. The message couldn’t be clearer: as the man destroys the buildings, he destroys the woman and all of the other inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Another example is the story told by one man in the Kibera slums, Kenya, concerning what the President said that there were no humans in those slums, only cows and pigs. But seeing the eyes of the women pasted on houses and trains, looking at sky from the slums, it cannot be said anymore that there are no humans living in the slums. When a dozen eyes stare at you from Kibera or from the favela, you have to look back and notice them. Tere is no possibility to deny them anymore.


Kenya, Kibera Slum, 2009

And finally, I find the project even more powerful because of the story of one of JR’s piece of art. Still as part of the project, JR pasted eyes on the containers of a ship leaving France for Malaysia. While on its way, the ship met with a boat full of migrants coming from the Libyan coast, rescued them and dropped them in Syracuse, Italy. As mentioned earlier I liked that Women are heroes touched upon a number of issues, and here, without the artist even wanting it, the piece of art dealt with a new issue: migration. The symbol of a Women are heroes eyed boat rescuing migrants at sea is particularly beautiful.

France, le Havre, 2014

I should probably conclude this article by saying that I, of course, recommend Momentum but I above all recommend following what JR is doing because, as I explained before, his art cannot only be found indoors, in a museum. If you, reader, decide to go to the exhibition you will only see a few pictures and small models of what the street artworks looked like. But hopefully this post will have helped you to understand what hides behind those women’s eyes and what the bigger picture is.

And in any case, the exhibition is worth going to as nearly all of JR’s projects have a social aspect behind them, a bottom line that seems to be that he wants to change the world, little by little, through art. You can, for example see his famous Chronicles of Clichy Montfermeil, a place where two teenagers died electrocuted after hiding in an electric plant station because they were fleeing from the police, his animated Guns in America animated fresco, his anti-segregation I Am a Man photograph, etc.