Painting the Wall

I am back in Ramallah and just spoke to Mahmoud Abu Hashhash at the A. M. Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian arts organization. I wanted to pick up on a conversation Mahmoud and I started the last time I was in Palestine in 2007 about art and the Wall.

Mahmoud told me that many foreign artists come to Palestine and want to create art with the Wall. Many of them are politically motivated, and want to be in the sort of ‘heated place’ that inspires them artistically. He suggests, however, that only a few of the artists seem to be fully engaged in the conflict, and they forget that everything that the Wall represents – seperation, racism, oppression – all existed before the Wall was built. Mahmoud himself has never been allowed to travel to Jerusalem, for example, regardless if the Wall was there or not. What the wall has become, especially for foreign artists, is an encapsulation of the entire conflict. It is the conflict cast in concrete. A solid, tangible manifestation of an otherwise amorphous and multi-hued struggle.

Mahmoud compares the Wall to the weekly demonstrations that occur in villages like Jayyous. Like the Wall itself, these actions condense the entire conflict into a few hours of marching, slogans, tear gas and stones. For foreigners wanting to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the Wall and the protests against it provide a convenient outlet. Mahmoud does not mean to belittle the artists and other Internationals that come to express solidarity. Far from it. The Palestinians are grateful for the solidarity and welcome the Internationals into their midst. But the focus on the Wall or on weekly demonstrations can be a rather narrow one.

I asked Mahmoud why Palestinian artists do not seem interested in creating ‘Wall Art.’ The first answer was a simple one: painting the Wall is trendy, and artists do not like to follow trends. But he had another, more compelling answer. Contemporary Palestinian artists seek to free themselves from the patriotic symbols that have occupied Palestinian political art for decades. Artists are not portraying national ideas and collective pain anymore. Instead they are looking inward and describing the situation through their own inner space. Gone are the old symbols. Instead artists are ‘talking’ about disappointment and personal loss. Mahmoud told me that in the wake of the destruction in Gaza, artists there are not talking about grand ideas of loss. They are not waving flags, Instead they are writing about their own homes, their own studios, what has been damaged and what has been destroyed. It is through this intimacy that they express a more general pain.

Artists in Palestine have internalized the Occupation and are creating art from within themselves. For this new generation of Palestinian artists, the Wall is simply too broad a canvas. It is too public and too blunt.