“When I start an artwork, I forget I’m in prison,” says Moath al-Alwi, presumably recorded from within Guantánamo Bay in a short documentary. Directed and produced by Dara Kell and Veena Rao for The New York Times Op-Docs series, the film zeroes in on al-Alwi’s elaborate ship sculptures, complete with anchors, towering masts, and sails imprinted with a stamp that reads “APPROVED BY US FORCES.”

From Saudi Arabia, al-Alwi has been incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba without charges since 2002. Like others in prison, his art practice is circumscribed to the narrow range of materials available, including dental floss, cardboard, and the threads of a prayer cap. “A Ship From Guantánamo” reveals how the artist defies this particular constraint as he fashions intricate vessels from the items he gathers from guards and friends. “I want people to know that we can make beautiful things, even if we’re in a place like Guantánamo,” he adds.

Al-Alwi and those imprisoned alongside him showed their artworks in the proactive 2017 exhibition, Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. That show made waves after the Pentagon stated that artworks created at the detention center were the property of the U.S. government rather than the artists themselves, a decision that coincided with authorities refusing to release artworks from the prison.

“A Ship From Guantánamo” is one such way artists like al-Alwi have been able to share their projects in recent years. Never showing the artist’s face, the film highlights the humanity of those detained and explains the profound necessity of art-making in such torturous environments.

Although al-Alwi was cleared for release in 2021, he remains in custody, despite several attempts to finally close the infamous prison.


a close up of a sail with a stamp that says "approved by us forces ma 31 206 guantanamo bay, cuba"

a gondola sculpture with text overlaid that says "when they saw the gondola and the giant ships"

a closeup of a ship sculpture

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