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Hollywood actors buying Guantánamo prison art

Hollywood actors Ben and Casey Affleck got one each for Christmas last year. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch has four hanging in his home. The actress who played the “Gossip Girl” grandma wept, then bought one. Some students and teachers have acquired the artwork as well, including a former CIA analyst.

Call it blowback: A year after the Defense Department banned releases of art made by the 40 prisoners still at Guantánamo, detainee artwork that got out before the ban is emerging as a collectible with a bit of cachet.

“I find it inspiring that people in the worst moments of their lives, the darkest days, could still remember the beauty in this world and depict it in some way,” said Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst who recently purchased a piece of art from freed Yemeni detainee Abdul Malik Wahab al Rahabi.

Helt, an outspoken critic of the post-9/11 detention and interrogation policy, is now director of the Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies at King University, a Christian school in Tennessee.

She plans to show it to students in her intelligence ethics class as she talks about Guantánamo, and “what it was we did during those years, and who was detained there.” Why? “To let them come to grips with that and see their own common humanity.” Between classes, she said, it will hang in her home.

For years, Guantánamo art had a small audience. Captives gave it to their lawyers as gifts or to send to family. The prison showcased it on reporter visits.

Then late last year New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice put some captives’ art on display. The exhibit “Ode to the Sea” drew a modest audience, some media coverage and, eventually, the ire of the Defense Department. The Pentagon declared that any art still at the military prison in Cuba was U.S. government property and banned further releases.

That, naturally, was when interest in Guantánamo art started to surge.

“The ban, which was meant to bury this art, ironically enough brought it to the attention of millions of Americans,” says Erin Thompson, the professor who set up the show with lawyers for Guantánamo detainees. Her specialty is art theft and destruction.

Christine Affleck says she was unaware of the controversy when she heard about the artwork last year as she began to think about Christmas presents for her famous sons, and bought one for each. “They’re kind of hard to shop for,” she said.

Affleck said she found the art interesting — peaceful images of boats and sea — from a place of where people are imprisoned but haven’t been charged or tried.

“I’m horrified by it, in a humanitarian sense. So there was an urge to try to support the people there,” she said. “One sort of gleam of light in the whole situation was they were allowed to paint. The art sort of showed the human side, even if I don’t know these people at all, what they are like.”

Guantánamo prison introduced art classes a decade ago to reduce friction between bored, angry or isolated detainees and their guards. Inmates who behaved were taken, in shackles, to a cell block — chained by the ankles to the floor — and got to color, paint or sculpt.

The Afflecks’ paintings cost $550 each. They were done at Guantánamo by Yemeni Mohammed al Ansi, whom the U.S. military held for more than 16 years as a suspected member of Osama bin Laden’s security detail but never charged. In January 2017, a month after a parole-like board approved his release, the Obama administration sent Ansi to resettlement in Oman.

“I don’t want to speak for my kids,” Affleck said, adding that her thoughts on incarceration may not be theirs. But what did they think of the gift? “Really cool,” she replied.