NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Artists often create to escape. Detainees at Guantánamo Bay also did it to survive.

Via a video call, former detainee Mansoor Adayfi told WAVY, “In your mind, in your soul, you are somewhere else — the sea, the sky, or the forest.”

Adayfi’s work is among 101 pieces on display at the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The art was created by six men who were held without trial, some for more than 15 years. None of them have been charged with a crime. Some remain behind bars, while others, including Adayfi, are free.

He has agreed to speak with groups and walk through the museum displays to talk about his experience and promote his works that are now for sale. “You put emotions, secrets, some fears in those paintings,” he said.

Cullen Strawn, Executive Director for the Arts at ODU, worked five years to bring the display to Norfolk.
“Some of the art really goes deeply into the human experience,” said Strawn.

The impressive pieces become even more impressive when you hear how they were made and from what materials. Strawn pointed to one large ship on display as an example. “This ship that looks amazing is made largely of trash cardboard, wooden skewers, old shirts.”

Moath Al Alwi Untitled (GIANT), 2017 Mixed media (cardboard, rope, fabric, plastic, and acrylic paint) 27 x 32 x 7 inches

Adayfi added, “You do art shackled, chained to the floor. Sometimes you have only one hand and you have only one hour or 45 minutes twice a week.”

It took months or years to create some of the pieces.

Adayfi’s favorite among his creations on display is a painting of a rose – half dead, half alive. “There is a thin line between life and death,” he said.

The exhibit also contains the Magic Box where you can swipe to see handwritten documents from detainees, including a business plan from Yemeni detainees detailing a sustainable farm.

There is art we will never see. Cullen points to that ship again, “If you look at (the) ship you can see very clearly ‘approved by US forces,'” free expression, Strawn said, but still government approved.

The display is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and runs through May 7.

If you’re unable to make it to the exhibition in-person, the gallery has a telepresence robot nicknamed “Gordon” that can navigate the gallery and even zoom in on the art. Reserve a self-guided visit from anywhere in the world, through this link.