This interview was conducted over email with human rights archivist Patrick Stawski, a member of the DHRC Faculty Advisory Board, and Caitlin Margaret Kelly, Director of the Power Plant Gallery at Duke University, by Zac Johnson, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.  

Zac Johnson (ZJ): Tell me a little bit about your upcoming gallery Witness to Guantanamo. Why are the experiences of the detainees important to understand?

Patrick Stawski (PS): The past year has marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and this month the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  An entire generation has been raised in a post 9/11 world, and many have little knowledge of Guantanamo and the impact it has had on the world.  Witness to Guantanamo, both the exhibit and the collection, provides an intimate connection to that history through the literal faces and voices of the detainees and the many others whose lives have been touched and forever changed by Guantanamo .

ZJ: When does the exhibit launch and how long will it be around for?  

PS: January 20, 2022 – February 27, 2022

ZJ: What led you and your co-curator to this issue?  

PS: The collaboration between The Human Rights Archive and Witness to Guantanamo began around 2015. Since the beginning both parties expressed a great interest in designing an exhibit that would showcase the power of video oral history to connect visitors to the people who experienced Guantanamo.  The opportunity to work with the Power Plant Gallery made that desire into a reality.

Caitlin Margaret Kelly (CMK): The Power Plant Gallery came into this process when it was well underway by Patrick and the staff at the Rubenstein Library, but as a gallery that features documentary works, we jumped at the opportunity to work with the Human Rights Archive and create an exhibition that highlighted the voices of those at Guantanamo, from detainees, to the attorneys and all involved. I’d also like to note the staff at the gallery and specifically Nathan Wright, a graduate student in the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts worked on translating the exhibit from the archive into the gallery.

ZJ: What mediums does the exhibit employ to demonstrate the human rights abuses at Guantanamo? How do they shed new light on this historical moment?  

PS: We think of history as a set of facts, but on the individual level history is a set of experiences mediated through memory. The exhibit tries to work in both registers, as facts and experiences.  The exhibit proposes a dialogue between the visitor and various documentary forms and archival objects: video, audio, photography, government documents, transcripts, maps, personal notes, court drawings,  and propaganda. Each of these forms contributes to our intellectual and emotional understanding of Guantanamo’s history, in complicated and, at times, even competing ways.

CMK: I think it is important to note that a gallery exhibit is one of the tools we have at our disposal to raise awareness for the human rights abuses at Guantanamo. The role of the documentary arts to enable pathways for dialogue and understanding is a strong ally.

ZJ: Why are archives important for human rights? How were they helpful with this gallery? 

PS: Memory is foundational for human rights, and archives are one, but certainly not the only, repository for memory.  I would also add that human rights are important for archives!  Almost everything visitors encounter in the exhibit is drawn from a collection at the Rubenstein Library.  We hope the exhibit space invites visitors to spend some time listening, watching, reading, and reflecting on the diversity of forms in which history and memory are preserved.  These are all enabled by the complexity of the archival work undertaken by the Rubenstein Library .

ZJ: You’re hosting some related events while the exhibit will be up. Would you tell me a little bit about the artist’s talk, the Screening of Uyghurs, Prisoners of the Absurd and Rushan Abbass’ talk? When will those events be and how can students access them?  Why are they related to the Guantanamo exhibit?

CMK: Christopher Sims speaks Thursday, January 27th at 6:30pm, at the Full Frame Theater (in person) which is located in the same building as the ower Plant Gallery. Rushan Abbas is scheduled for Feburary 15th, at 6:30pm at the Full Frame theater( in person) and we just added a virtual talk with Peter Jan Honigsberg and Cahal McLaughlin, moderated by Leela Prasad for February 10th, at noon, in collaboration with the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The registration link is accessible https://powerplantgallery.duke.edu/exhibitions/witness-guantanamo. All of the events we’ve created have a connection to the exhibit, and take the opportunity to expand on aspects of the exhibit. Chris Sims, for example, is a professor here at Duke, but also a documentary photography that has done work in Guantanamo. Likewise, Rushan Abbas was a translator for the Uyghers in Guantanamo and has gone on to be the voice behind Campaign for the Uyghers. Peter Honigsberg is the reason we are all here talking about this. It was his decision to create the Witness to Guantanamo collection and he and his team did the work of interviewing various people. We have him in conversation with Cahal McLaughlin from Queens University, Belfast, who has done similar work around oral histories and human rights abuses as well as bringing in Duke’s Leela Prasad’s expertise. I consider events a way to expand an audience and look for those roads and moments when a patron can connect with a subject, and hopefully through that expand into other areas, or issues the exhibit addresses.