The True Story of The Artist Who Travelled East to Find Himself or Truth or Something and Found All Three. In Prison. Twice.
As Joe the Artist’s girlfriend pointed out the second time he was arrested and thrown in a Middle Eastern cell with little hope of release, “You wanted this to happen.”
It was news to him. As far as he was concerned, travelling to █████ with weed in his pocket was negligent – or arrogant perhaps – but hardly asking for it. He’d been to this airport before and was never searched. It wasn’t even a sellable amount. But it was enough to land him interned with 14 inmates in one cell, among hundreds, underneath a city suburb highway: his visa revoked, his life ruined. How could he have ‘wanted this to happen’?
In retrospect, his girlfriend Mira’s words made perfect sense to him. “I’d been painting safe landscapes of rivers and vineyards for middle class buyers to hang over their mantelpieces, and urban cityscapes for wealthy Arab patrons to satisfy their vanity. I prided myself on being this deep artist, but everything I created was emotionally and artistically limited. My existence was shallow. I questioned the validity of my work. There’s no doubt that I was looking for a challenge; not just trouble, but for something real, something powerful, something true and life-changing.”
He would find it in that cell. Not for the first time, he had travelled east in search of truth and found more than he had bargained for.
Three years earlier, Joe, blond and pink in a beige Arab town, was sketching a bombed out building that was being reconstructed, when four bearded men with machine guns surrounded him. They blindfolded him and threw him, along with three of his friends, into the back of two jeeps, with blacked out windows. He had sympathized with the plight of these people and their struggle with the West, but now found himself terrified of the very stereotypes he had sought to overcome.
“It was naivety,” he says, carrying the same fire in his eyes, as he did the first time he told the story. “I had some romantic view of Joe the Arabist roaming the dunes and uncovering the truth about these noble freedom fighters.” One gun in his face later and he was recalling the Libyan terrorists from Back to the Future who murdered Emmett “Doc” Brown in cold blood. How could he be so stupid?
After a winding ride through bumpy terrain with a muzzle trailing him, he found himself in a cell the size of a toilet cubicle with only himself for company. A two-way mirror separated him and his captors. A deep voice came through a speaker and began asking him questions: Who are you? What are you doing here?
All he could see was his own haggard face in the mirror. Talk about finding yourself.
In his reflection, he saw his own wretched vanity: a dumb Westerner who romanticized his welcome in this part of the world, a casual risk-taker who only now understood the truth in the fears of the poor local friends he had dragged along, the extent of his ignorance and, for the first time, true fear.
It was a far cry from the bubbles of the artists back home. Joe asked his interrogator if he could draw.
The voice sounded surprised, but agreed. “There was a discarded shawarma wrap on the floor of the cell. I picked it up and drew what I could see.”
As he sketched, the voice asked increasingly personal questions, as if helping him to get to know himself better. “What is the worst quality in your personality? What is the best? Do you believe in God?” When Joe cited himself as his only enemy, the voice reassured him, “Don’t worry, you will be all right. I can see you are a good person.”
It was easily the most honest self-portrait he’d ever drawn. And, in the process, Joe made another discovery: his latent prejudices about his captors, which had so readily jumped to the surface, were still woefully short of truth. These bullies, who had kidnapped him with such authority, were considerate and philosophical, ready to see past their own prejudices: measured. This realization struck him before hindsight romanticized the story, before they released him and his friends unharmed, hours later, on the road back into town.
It led to his best work in years, his paintings suddenly hinting at the dark, unfathomable depths of existence, like vast shadows beneath icebergs. He earned some success in Europe and the Middle East. Far from hating ██████ after his ordeal, he fell in love with it, moving his whole life there and working on commission. He grew comfortable again. His art grew comfortable too. Soon he was back in the commercially viable landscape trap, back in frustration, presenting facades as meaningful, dining out on his kidnapping story, hoping the spark of authenticity it ignited would continue to burn. It didn’t.
There must be a way of finding truth that doesn’t involve doing something forehead-slappingly stupid. Unfortunately, Joe didn’t know it. In 2011, he strolled through █████ airport security with weed in his pocket, like a plump pig prancing into a lion enclosure, and he was pounced upon.
The laws in Arab counties, for even minor drug possession, involve long sentences. He would be here for some time, unless, by some colonial-hangover diplomacy miracle he was returned back home: banished from the country he loved, where he had chosen to live and work, where he had recently fallen in love. For a short while he understood from the inside, without pity or strained empathy, the self-loathing that helplessness fuels.
Here’s what else he found in his 12-man cell:
His stereotype-based fears were quick to resurface and, again, he would find them to be starkly irrelevant. Empty-handed criminals surprised him with their generosity. On his first night, as he writhed silently with a migraine, a Syrian cellmate banged for so long on the bars, demanding Panadol, that the guards eventually relented. The Panadol was for Joe. During the subsequent days, when mothers visited with parcels of home-cooked food, the recipient would divvy it up amongst his cellmates without question. Towels and cigarettes were shared freely with anyone wanting. Christians and Muslims prayed in the same room, taught each other prayers, helped each other lay out prayer mats, and they gave each other space and silence. The common enemy working its unifying magic.
He was equally astounded by the tenderness and decency of his cellmates. “They were sensitive to how freaked out I was. They looked after me.
“The prison authorities projected films onto the walls outside the cell every night. One night they screened ‘Robinson Crusoe’. The links with a Westerner stranded on an island, and finding friends with locals in a hostile place, didn’t go unnoticed by my Iraqi mate Sitar. He compared Crusoe to me, and he cheered for me, when, at the end of the film he goes back home. ‘That’s you’, he said.”
Didn’t any of them bully him for his foreignness, for his higher than average chance of getting out?
“One did. But he calmed down when I drew him.”
Joe had started drawing almost immediately. His new friends had secured him paper and crayons from the guards – “He’s an artist; he needs to draw” – and he immediately started sketching. On his first night, when his cellmates were high on recently smuggled-in crack, he stood by the wall with a pencil while they called out things for him to draw: cars, women with big boobs, couples shagging. This impromptu game of Cracktionary wasn’t all vulgar; some called out descriptions of hometowns, memories of childhood, young love, chains breaking. He drew it all. And in drawing, he made his most profound discoveries.
Within a few days, there was a queue of hard men with tattoos and stab wounds waiting to have their portraits, tattoo designs, or wall posters done by Joe the Artist. They valued the exchange, the opportunity to express themselves without being defensive, with a humility and tenderness he’d never known in his previous subjects. One talked about how he missed his mother. Another reminisced about his childhood playing in the orchards of Kurdistan. Art as Softener of Men. They often had suggestions on how they should be painted: at home, or as a child, or suffering behind bars. No one wanted to be portrayed as a tough guy, as a badass gangster – not one of them. Except, perhaps, the prison guard.
The guard, a weak and petty bully who Joe describes as “a bit lost,” helped introduce Joe to Art, The Transformer of Things. He kept returning and insisting Joe draw him, but Joe – unwilling to give up his main source of pride and belonging – refused. It became a focal point for the cell’s solidarity, culminating in a public face-off between the insistent guard and the stubborn artist, who repeated, inches from his face, his answer to the request: “No.” The guard lost; the cell cheered.
“It was like he was trying to get in, to belong to this club behind bars, but he couldn’t. He was trapped out there. Everything was inverted – art did that.”
Art did more. By rubbing a plastic bottle over the originals, as his Mum had once taught him in church when he was young, he could make copies of the portraits. Two cellmates would hold down the paper as a third rubbed it, while Joe created more portraits. The originals would go to the visiting families. Art: Cementer of Bonds.
“It wasn’t just like the art was something for us to do. It actually mattered that we were doing it.”
Another discovery was Landscape Art: Not Just a Pretty Face. One Iraqi inmate, a refugee with no crime or visa to his name, had gone grey for lack of light after 14 months in the cell. With colored oil pastels smuggled in by Mira, Joe unleashed all of his training on the landscape of his life – a huge mural of mountains, trees and the sea under a glorious sun – right by the man’s bed. The gift changed its owner’s days.
So Joe suddenly knew art, this thing he had known all his life, for the first time – not just as something transformative and useful, but also as having value in its pointlessness. A prisoner from Chad, who delivered chocolates and cigarettes on a trolley, also smuggled love letters between male and female prisoners, who had glimpsed each other at some point in the herding process. As the women were usually domestic workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Eritrea and the Philippines, French or English were the only common languages for these furtive messages. Joe began Hallmarking the men’s replies. First, a cover with a portrait of the sender. Inside, a translation of their reply into French and English (with one or two embellishments). Opposite, a landscape of the home or paradise to which the lovers would escape and live happily ever after, once this nightmare was over. It was never going to happen; these were the impossible dreams of hopeless lovers, captured as art and shared via the man from Chad. When something is shared like this – not fleetingly on Twitter, but longingly, at length, in depth, in the unconfirmed but certain knowledge that the other is cherishing it too – then that thing, however futile, becomes meaningful. The pointless becomes vital.
Released a few weeks later and banished back home, Joe has since produced the most powerful, honest, energetic work of his career. The relationship with Mira, also exposed to some truth during the ordeal, metamorphosed into marriage.
But with Mira struggling to gain entry to Joe’s country, and Joe banned from her home country, his explorations proved costly. His bumbling search was as destructive as it was productive, restricting his actual and future freedom as much as it liberated him on the canvas. Hence, the changed names and the censored places.
Hopefully next time he runs out of inspiration, he’ll find a way to look for it without jeopardizing his life.