Most want structure to remain ugly symbol of strife, oppression
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Bethlehem, West Bank -- On the northern edge of Bethlehem, on the road that once led to Jerusalem, a wall of tall cement blocks looms darkly over the Al-Aida refugee camp. Much of it is covered in graffiti, but around one corner two huge, empty two-dimensional armchairs suddenly appear, with a pastoral scene of snow-covered mountains on view in the window between them.
"When I see these two chairs, I understand there is no one sitting there to talk about our situation, on both sides," Mohammed Fathi, a local souvenir salesman said of the painting. "There is a very beautiful place through the window, but we can't see it because of the wall."
For Palestinians, the 451-mile-long security barrier snaking through the West Bank is an ugly symbol of everything they hate about the Israelis.
For Israelis, it's the most effective way they have yet discovered to protect themselves from the wave of suicide bombings that has marked the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Monday's deadly Islamic Jihad attack at a Tel Aviv fast-food stall, in which the bomber and nine others were killed, was the first suicide bombing to kill Israelis on their side of the barrier in 2006. In all of 2003, before the barrier was begun, there were 144 deaths.
But for many artists, it has become the world's most inviting canvas.
The eye-catching paintings that adorn some sections of the barrier have ignited a sharp debate among Palestinian artists. Tayseer Barakat, curator of the Ziryab Gallery in Ramallah and founder of the League of Palestinian Artists, said he was fiercely opposed to anyone attempting to hide the ugliness of the barrier.
"The wall should be torn down, not made to be beautiful," he said.
In November, Barakat organized "3 Cities Against the Wall" -- an international exhibition in New York, Ramallah and Tel Aviv involving dozens of Palestinian, Israeli, American and European artists protesting the existence of the barrier (www.3citiesagainstthewall.net).
Most of the barrier is being built through the wilderness close to the Green Line, the old West Bank border between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 Six Day War. Across isolated hills, the route is delineated by a chain-link fence equipped with electronic sensors and topped with barbed wire. Running alongside is a 50-yard-wide "exclusion zone" with an anti-tank ditch, patrol roads and more barbed wire.
The 5 percent of the length that passes between houses in urban areas is a narrower, starker 30-foot-high gray cement wall that has been daubed with slogans, posters, even advertisements for local shops.
The painting of the two chairs flanking the window is the work of the radical British graffiti artist who goes by the name Banksy, who came to the West Bank in August to paint nine thought-provoking illustrations on the wall. One shows a ladder providing an escape route. Others appear to depict dreamlike scenery of tropical islands and rolling European countryside beyond the wall. Another shows a silhouette of a girl holding a bunch of balloons, apparently rising gently to freedom.
Returning to Britain, Banksy recorded on his Web site (www.banksy.co.uk) a conversation with an elderly Palestinian who told the artist his paintings made the wall beautiful. But when Banksy thanked him, the old man responded: "We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home."
Fathi, the souvenir salesman, also was concerned with the international infatuation with the barrier. "I used to sell my bead necklaces by the Church of the Nativity. We don't have many visitors these days, but they all come here to see the wall. It's become like a place of pilgrimage," he said.
Catherine Yass, a British artist who was short-listed for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2002, came to the Sakakini Arts Center in Ramallah earlier this year for the opening of her film "Wall" -- a video installation tracking about half a mile on the Israeli side of the barrier between Jerusalem and Abu Dis, in haunting silence.
"When I first saw the wall, I had a very immediate reaction, and I felt like I was both blinded and made dumb," Yass said. "It does not tell you the history or the context, it tells you more about the visceral effect, a gut reaction."
Yass said she did not believe the wall had contributed to Israeli security, but instead symbolized a form of oppression for which, as a Jew, she said she felt partly responsible.
"The wall almost looks like a modernist sculpture from the 1970s," she said. "It's very disturbing that something as oppressive as the wall can have the aesthetics of modernism."
Fatin Farhat, director of culture at the Sakakini Center, said almost all the art -- as opposed to the graffiti -- on the wall has been painted by foreigners. She said she had met dozens of foreign artists who wanted to use the wall as a canvas, and she always tried to dissuade them.
"My main fear is the institutionalization of the wall," said Farhat. "I get tens of artists every day who want to work on the wall. I say, 'Look, the Palestinian experience is not only identified by the wall.' Nonetheless, I know that the wall is the epitome of the siege, so it's easier to work with because it's solid, it's there, it's concrete, it's big. So many artists find it much easier than to deal with more complex issues that have to do with Palestinian society."
"Leave it ugly and terrible and call for its demolition -- definitely, definitely," she said. "The only future I see for the wall is for it to be demolished."
Veteran Palestinian political cartoonist Baha Boukhari uses the wall almost daily in his newspaper cartoons -- crushing the dove of peace, for example, or as a nightmarish, endless maze. But he admitted he rarely went near the wall in his hometown of Ramallah, because he found it so depressing. He said he would never paint on it and objected to its use by artists.
"I do not encourage people to paint it, to use it as a canvas," Boukhari said. "I am against that. Leave it to show that it is very ugly. I don't like it to be nice. I like it to be in a very ugly, dirty, not acceptable for any normal person. ... Whether they paint it or leave it as it is, I just want this wall to be removed."
But Steve Sabella, a Palestinian artist and photographer living on the Israeli side of the barrier in East Jerusalem, said the protest art should be welcomed. Sabella curated an Italian exhibition about the wall by photographer Andrea Merli, including its copious images and graffiti.
He recalled that when Israel erected concrete-block walls in 2000 to shield the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from shooting attacks by Palestinian gunmen in the Al-Aida refugee camp, Israeli residents immediately turned it into a trompe l'oeil, painting on it the pastoral scenery -- including the Arab villages -- now hidden from view.
The artists "are not painting like the Israelis are doing," Sabella said. "I see it as a giant ugly canvas."
"Who said that art was always about aesthetics and beauty?" he asked. "Art could be ugly. There is this feeling that art is about aesthetics, about beauty. But I don't think so. Art has many purposes and the artist has many roles in life. An artist can be an activist, trying to give the world a new truth, to show the world something they don't know about. I agree. Paint on the f -- wall."