Arts & Culture

Collaborative exhibit reexamines Guantanamo Bay’s history

Undergrad co-curators tweak traveling project to highlight Providence refugee stories

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2014

Since its foundation in 2009, the Guantanamo Public Memory Project has promoted discussion about the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The exhibit, which has travelled internationally since 2012, now makes a stop in Providence. Visitors will not only experience an exhibit co-curated by a group of undergraduates, but will also have the chance to attend campus events promoting discussion of the lesser-exposed history of Guantanamo Bay. 

The project, which is modified at each location it stops, explores the history of the base since its U.S. occupation, including a collection of personal narratives featuring fresh, diverse viewpoints.

Anne Valk, deputy director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, spearheaded the University’s involvement in the project along with Esther Whitfield, associate professor of comparative literature and Hispanic studies, who helped coordinate related events on campus. The two sat down with The Herald for a conversation about the importance of the project, as well as the educational impact they hope it will have.


Herald: Professor Valk — how did you manage to get Brown involved with the Guantanamo Bay Public Memory Project to begin with?

Valk: I actually received an invitation to get involved from Liz Sevcenko, who is the person in New York. She is based in Columbia at the Institute for Human Rights, and she was just in the initial stages of planning the Guantanamo Bay Public Memory Project. She had begun identifying people around the country who taught museum studies or public history who she thought would be potential partners for this project. So she called me up, and it seemed like a great fit for the kind of work that the Center for Public Humanities at Brown was trying to do — really thinking about how do you take, in this case, a historical topic and think about its contemporary relevance and use history and the humanities as a lens to creating conversation and dialogue around important and sometimes controversial contemporary issues.


Professor Whitfield, could you tell me about how you became involved? If I understand correctly, you organized the conference that will be held on Friday called “Guantanamo: Arts, Activism and Advocacy.” How does your conference fit into the larger project?

Whitfield: Well, it was quite a coincidence for me to find Annie and the Humanities Center and the Guantanamo Bay Public Memory Project all at Brown at once. I’ve worked on Cuba for many years — decades in fact — and as of the past two years, my real interest has been in Guantanamo Naval Base as part of Cuba and the ways in which these areas are involved in a political dimension but also the sub-local history. So I was interested in that for my own research, and I had known about the Guantanamo Bay Project from the beginning, and then I heard that it was coming to Brown. Annie and I were able to work together to think about bigger ways to create programming around the event, around the exhibit coming to Brown.

The other thing I’ve been involved in this week is that I have two artists visiting from Guantanamo in Cuba who have done a really interesting project that involves a lot of oral history from the little towns that border the naval base. And so they’re here as well, and I thought that it was an important way to bring out the Cuban dimensions of what was happening in Guantanamo.


How did you end up choosing these two artists that you mentioned?

Whitfield: There’s a real history of silence about the naval base within Cuban political language, and so people don’t really talk at all. So as I was looking for my own research project, I heard about an exhibit that they did which discussed a very complicated way (of) thinking about the naval base in Cuba, and so I guess the short answer is that they really were the only artists.


There is a set centerpiece of the exhibition that travels wherever the project goes, and the host school develops the other piece of the exhibition based on a specific theme. What theme did Brown work on? Did you get to choose it?

Valk: The traveling piece of the exhibit puts Guantanamo in the historical context going from the late 19th century, when the U.S. began to establish its military presence there, up to the present and the post 9/11 context. Brown students worked on that larger exhibit and focused on the piece of that that features the Haitians brought to Guantanamo in the 1990s (who) were fleeing political persecution and most of whom got deported back to Haiti.

Because Brown students worked on that piece that has to do with immigration and refugees and U.S. policy around those issues, and because of the local context of Providence, we decided to expand the exhibit and really put it in the context of immigration and particularly issues about refugees, connecting to Providence’s role as a place that has become a home for refugees and also a place that has a large immigrant presence. So the exhibit has gotten expanded in order to draw on some of the local interests and the work of local artists.


How did you pick the undergrads who got to participate in the project?

Valk: It happened in several different ways. The first group that worked on the exhibit was a group of Brown undergraduates who had approached me at the end of their freshman year at Brown. They had come up with a (Group Independent Student Project) proposal to focus around the issue of new sites for communities to look at political conflict, and they were really interested in what role museums could play in post-conflict society. They read a lot about museums in general and about museums in post-conflict societies and then worked on the exhibit. That group of students, who were then sophomores, have all stayed connected to this project, which I think is remarkable. I’m not sure they realize how remarkable it is, but they signed on to something that they continued for their entire time at Brown.


Working on this project for two years, have you discovered anything in your research that has surprised you or changed your understanding?

Valk: I’ve learned an incredible amount about the history of Guantanamo, and one piece that I hadn’t appreciated before I was working on this project was the stories and the connection of the U.S. military folks to the base — particularly people who have lived and, in many cases, grown up on the base, who have a connection to Guantanamo that is very nostalgic and idyllic in many cases. To me, that kind of connection to Guantanamo was really a revelation.

The other thing I’ve noticed in the reactions to the exhibit as it traveled around is that, by and large, people in the U.S. have forgotten Guantanamo’s connection with history of immigration before its current use as a place to hold suspected war on terror criminals. So everywhere it has been, people have responded to the exhibit by saying that they had no idea that it was a place to hold Cubans who were fleeing Cuba and Haitians.

Whitfield: A piece that definitely surprised me is that although you would think that the presence of the naval base would be a constant political rallying cry, it’s actually talked about much less, and that’s something that I think would also surprise a number of people. Annie made a mention of Guantanamo as a home for the military family, and it’s just so interesting to me particularly in how it carries over to the present day. I was reading the blogs of military people who have lived in Guantanamo over the past decade, and they describe a place where it’s very safe to raise your children. It has scuba diving. It’s completely antithetical to the way one would think about Guantanamo. … The fact that there is this tranquil life in the shadow of the prison is very interesting and surprising and shocking to me.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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