Steve Mumford and Lawrence Douglas at Postmasters Gallery in New York City
Join us Saturday, October 26, at 6:30 p.m.
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Join us Saturday, October 26, at 6:30 p.m.
On Saturday, October 26, at 6.30 p.m., Harper’s Magazine and Postmasters Gallery will present a conversation with contributing artist Steve Mumford, writer Lawrence Douglas, and Harper’s art director Stacey Clarkson.
Known for his drawings from the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, Steve Mumford made two trips to Guantanamo in February and May 2013 for Harper’s. A portfolio of his drawings accompany Lawrence Douglas’ October cover story “A Kangaroo in Obama’s Court.”
I traveled to Guantanamo Naval Base for the first time last winter, to illustrate a story for Harper’s Magazine on the military trial of Abd al-Nashiri, accused of leading the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and tortured many times while in U.S. custody.
Nashiri, quiet and wearing an unassuming grey shirt, was hardly noticeable as I drew the scene through the multiple sealed panes of security glass in the media area at the far rear of the large, bland courtroom. More striking were the overhead TV screens and audio of the same scene, on a forty-second delay, a disorienting counterpart to the live scene in front of us and a perfect embodiment of the secrecy and paranoia embedded in Gitmo’s culture.
The hearings lasted a day and a half before getting sidelined by delays; with several days left, I poked around the sprawling U.S.-administered piece of Cuba with my escort from the Public Affairs Office, looking for compelling things to draw.
I found my subject in Camp X-Ray, a hauntingly beautiful ruin of a simple prison camp, hastily erected on a scrubby, deserted, windswept plain overlooked by a ridge of distant hills. I could see the guard towers of the Cuban border following that ridge, looking down at us.
X-Ray consists of nothing more than chain-link fencing, razor wire, and a few plywood huts and guard towers. Abandoned for a decade, nature has taken over: the fencing and razor wire i covered in vines, many of which were in flower on my second visit. Wild grass has spread throughout the grounds, and huge iguanas and banana rats have made X-Ray their home. At one edge of the camp sit the forlorn wooden huts, slowly settling into the earth. Their plywood floors are strewn with droppings, and vines are crowding in. This is where the CIA applied its “enhanced interrogation” techniques to the newly arrived prisoners from Afghanistan. The wind constantly whistles through these sun-soaked, haunted spaces.
The prisons where the last 166 detainees are being held are small, high-security fortresses, their design and detail impregnable and generic. It was in one of these where a sergeant of the military-police unit in charge of the prison incredulously informed me that there was no way I would be able to see, let alone draw, any of the detainees, even though this had been the stated purpose of the trip, and had been agreed to by the Public Affairs Unit.
For two days I drew the interior of the facility, as well as the MPs assigned to me while they lounged on bolted-down prison chairs and chatted. Then word would be passed down that a detainee was being moved from somewhere to somewhere else, and I would be hastily escorted to another part of the prison to draw until the danger of us seeing one another was over.
I drew everything associated with the prisoners but the prisoners themselves. I even drew a dim hallway echoing with the strains of an early morning call to prayer, as the prisoners crouched in their cells a few feet away, behind thick steel doors.
I only once caught a glimpse of some detainees, when a cord snapped, the wind blew some fabric away from a fence, and I saw — momentarily, magically — a few distant figures, lean in white T-shirts, playing soccer. Then they were gone.
The subject of my Gitmo drawings is the very thing never pictured. And then the subject becomes the reason why they aren’t there.
I am reminded of a passage from Peter Matthiessen’s classic travel memoir about expectation, ambition, and self. Matthiessen desperately wants to see the animal he’s journeyed so far to write about but is destined to never see. Before he leaves, his Zen teacher tells him: Expect nothing.
It doesn’t exactly work, and yet it does.
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For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
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