BEIRUT: In 2005, British graffiti artist Banksy set out to adorn what to him might be the ultimate canvas. He traveled to Palestine to paint on the West Bank barrier, a wall of razor wire and concrete more than twice the height of the Berlin Wall, projected to eventually extend over 700 km – twice the length of the Green Line, the recognized border between Israel and the West Bank.
Israel has designated this barrier the “Security Fence” while Palestinians refer to it as the “Apartheid Wall.”
Banksy, in his typically irreverent style, described it on his website as “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers.” During his trip, the artist sprayed several now famous tableaux on the Palestinian side of the wall, among them a young girl frisking a uniformed soldier and the silhouette of a girl being lifted up and over the enormous concrete wall by a bunch of balloons.
During the course of his work, he met resistance from those on both sides. An Israeli soldier asked what the artist was doing, only to be told he’d have to wait until it was finished. In reply, the soldier gestured to his gun with the words, “The safety’s off.”
Soon afterward an elderly Palestinian man told Banksy, “You paint the wall, you make it beautiful.”
Banksy thanked the man, who clarified, “We hate the wall. We don’t want it beautiful. Go home.”
Both exchanges are cited by London-based writer, editor and curator Malu Halasa, in “Oppressive Beauty: Against Aestheticising the Wall,” one of four short essays that form the textual bulk of “Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes.”
This concertina-style art book showcases the work of four writers and eight photographers who have taken the wall and its surroundings as the subject of their work.
Edited by London-based editor Mitchell Albert and Paris-based editor and journalist – and sometime contributor to The Daily Star – Olivia Snaije, the book is a beautifully balanced combination of visual and textual explorations of the wall as a physical and psychological barrier. As evidenced by Halasa’s essay, the possible benefits and pitfalls of incorporating the wall into artistic production are tackled head-on.
As Halasa points out, in their opposition to Banksy’s use of the wall as a canvas, oppressor and oppressed are for once in agreement. Yet several prominent Palestinian artists have made the wall integral to their practices.
Artist and filmmaker Khaled Jarrar’s recent solo exhibition at the London branch of the Ayyam Gallery, which closed earlier this month, took the wall not only as its focus but as its material – Jarrar recreated a (shrunk down) facsimile of the wall that bisected the exhibition space. Alongside it, he exhibited several concrete sculptures, created using dust painstakingly chipped and scraped away from the surface of the wall itself.
Whether or not such projects are considered “beautifying” the wall, or – as one reviewer suggested of Jarrar’s exhibition – demonstrate the abandonment of active resistance to, and acceptance of, the wall as the status quo, comes down to what you believe the purpose of art to be.
While art certainly can beautify, it can also serve as a vehicle to expose a truth, provoke a new perspective in the viewer, pose questions, document events, educate or tell a story. The photographs in “Keep Your Eye on the Wall” do all this and more.
Raed Bawayah, who alternates living between France and Palestine, focuses on the people affected by the wall rather than the object itself. A series of beautifully shot black-and-white portraits, Bawayah’s photographs capture the Palestinian workers who illegally cross the wall in search of work, spending months away from home under the constant threat of arrest.
German photographer Kai Wiedenhofer – who photographed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and documented the construction of the Israeli wall from 2003-2010 in his book “Wall” – conveys the wall’s sheer size and diversity in his images. From a panoramic shot of a section painted to resemble an expanse of green grass and blue sky, glimpsed through a series of arched windows, to a road imprisoned by towering concrete walls on both sides, he shows the many guises the barrier takes.
Taysir Batnaji, who also works in both Palestine and France, has contributed a series shot in 2001, “Untitled (Gaza Walls),” which focuses on a double disappearance, that of the “martyrs” from the Second Intifada whose posters were hung everywhere, and that of the posters themselves.
The Palestinian artist – one of the winners of the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize – captures the ragged pieces of posters left on rough walls. Some are reduced to colorful fragments that create an abstract pattern on the stone. Others depict men whose eyes have been gouged out of the paper. Still others are rolled into a ball and stuffed into a hole in the wall.
Raeda Saadeh’s “Concrete Walls” is a surreal, magical series. A selection of portraits, it captures the same dark-haired woman in a variety of fairy-tale scenarios – her closed eyes overhung by impossibly long lashes, onto which are threaded a collection of small gold keys, her back turned as she trudges alongside the wall, wearing a purple backpack out of which protrudes a wooden ladder that towers above her averted figure.
The texts that accompany these images provide both factual and emotional context.
Sociologist Christine Leuenberger explores the origins of the wall, the barriers it poses to interaction between even like-minded Israelis and Palestinians, and anchors it to a history of barriers stretching back to 1990 B.C. From Athens’ Long Walls to Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, she emphasizes, barriers may present short-term solutions, but always end up obstructing peaceful solutions.
Activist Yael Lerer describes the complex logistical process of crossing the wall. She recounts the complex machinations needed to reach the Jenin refugee camp from Tel Aviv, which involve her and her companions posing first as settlers, demanding entry in Hebrew, and minutes later presenting themselves as Palestinians, requesting directions in Arabic. She describes navigating between the well-made streets reserved for settlers and the winding, poorly maintained roads for Palestinians, who are not permitted even to cross Israeli roads.
A poignant short story by writer Adania Shibli provides a poetic description of a man who loves the freedom of the yard outside his modest home, but finds himself menaced by terrifying noises and half-glimpsed figures. Gradually his terrace is fenced off until the only view left to him is the sky above his head.
Whatever your take on the dangers or benefits of art inspired by the wall, this is a beautiful book, balancing insightful, thought-provoking writing with a wonderful and varied selection of photographs by some of Palestine’s most talented artists.
“Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes” is published by Saqi Books and will be on general release starting in September.