Friday, April 18, 2008

Unknown Artist: Sami Al-Haj

Sami Al-Haj is a conceptual artist by necessity. His drawings consist of a set of instructions for how the pieces should be rendered. And only a few such drawings exist.

Like Sol Lewitt before him, Al-Haj challenges pre-conceived notions of what art is and how it is made.
“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.
The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” [1]

—Sol LeWitt
Unlike Lewitt however, Al-Haj's personal circumstances turn Lewitt's assertions on their side. The machine asserted the art on Al-Haj unwillingly and unfairly. And the use of conceptual technique is not Al-Haj's choosing - his drawings are censored because they describe his ordeal as a prisoner at Guantanamo.

An article on Alternet by Andy Worthington called The Torture Drawings the Pentagon Doesn't Want You to See describes Al-Haj's circumstances.
Since January 7, 2007 (the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial by the US), Sami has been on a hunger strike. Although he is strapped into a restraint chair twice a day and force-fed against his will and despite the fact that he is "very thin" and "[h]is memory is disintegrating," according to Stafford Smith, Sami continues to seek ways to publicize the plight of his fellow prisoners. During the most recent visit from his lawyers in February -- with Cori Crider of Reprieve -- he produced a number of morbid, and almost hallucinatory sketches illustrating his take on conditions in Guantánamo, which he described as "Sketches of My Nightmare."

Fearing that they would be banned by the military censors, Crider asked him to describe each sketch in detail and when, as anticipated, the pictures were duly banned but the notes cleared, Reprieve asked political cartoonist Lewis Peake to create original works based on Sami's descriptions.

"The first sketch is just a skeleton in the torture chair," Sami explained. "My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, strapped into the torture chair with no eyes and only giant cheekbones, my teeth jutting out -- my ribs showing in every detail, every rib, every joint. The tube goes up to a bag at the top of the drawing. On the right there is another skeleton sitting shackled to another chair. They are sitting like we do in interrogations, with hands shackled, feet shackled to the floor, just waiting. In between I draw the flag of Guantánamo -- JTF-GTMO -- but instead of the normal insignia, there is a skull and crossbones, the real symbol of what is happening here."
There are instructions for at least five such sketches and one can only hope that a major museum space begin an installation of all five drawings for the public's enjoyment.

Update: Sami Al Hajj was released on May 1, 2008 from Guantanamo Bay and flown to Sudan. He arrived in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on a US military plane in the early hours of Friday, May 2nd.

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