The French artist Thierry Noir (one of the first artists to paint the Berlin Wall in the late 1970s when graffiti culture was still in its infancy), when questioned by Berlin residents as to why he was striving to make the wall beautiful, would reply:
”We are not trying to make the wall beautiful because in fact it is impossible. 80 persons have been killed trying to jump over the Berlin Wall, to escape to West Berlin, so you can cover that wall with a hundred kilos of color, it will stay the same.”1
According to Noir, their aim was “to paint the Berlin Wall, to transform it, to make it ridiculous, to help destroy it”. Through an army of painted images, by the time of its destruction in 1989, artists such as Noir had certainly succeeded in transforming the political meaning of the Berlin Wall. The graffiti on the wall had emerged as a symbol to channel resistance essential to the undermining of authority.
Graffiti art these days is very much in vogue. The mysterious guerrilla artist Banksy, for example, has sold work for upwards of half a million on the London art market. Indeed, it could be argued that this new materialistic enthusiasm for graffiti art has brought it into the mainstream where it is dangerously close to losing its edge. It would therefore be very easy for a book like Against the Wall by William Parry – filled, as it is, with full colour photographs of works by the likes of Banksy, Swoon and Ron English – to be merely a trendy coffee table picture book. However, from reading the introduction alone, you realise that this is not going to be the case.
Since the West Bank Barrier Wall was started in 2002 (under condemnation from the United Nations that it constitutes an “unlawful act of annexation”) it has cut Palestinians off from jobs, healthcare facilities, irrigation and clean water, as well as from their own families and communities and it is this that constitutes the subject of William Parry’s poignant photo essay. Against the Wall follows the passage of the concrete barrier and documents the graffiti that adorns it as well as the lives ravaged by the wall’s juggernaut-like passage across the landscape.
One of the things that seems apparent by the graffiti documented in the book, is that the local graffiti by Palestinian writers and artists is more aimed at uniting the local people in their struggle against Israel. It speaks to the direct community, and acts like a message board for the culture. In contrast, some locals have shown indifference and mild hostility towards the work of the more well known international muralists that the wall has attracted. This is something that Parry is certainly mindful of:
“Some Palestinians have objected to beautifying the wall and believe it best left in its plain, oppressive form as a reflection of Israel’s nature… Other Palestinians may not have time for the artwork on the wall – they’re too busy trying to cope with an oppressive daily existence that is made more so by the wall – but most I spoke to welcomed the show of solidarity from the outside world. Taxi drivers and businesses owners in Bethlehem were effusive, ready to adopt Banksy as a son of the struggling city, given the number of tourists the project’s work has attracted.”
The debate is perhaps academic - as Parry points out, most Palestinians “don’t object to Israel giving the world’s graffiti and street artists the largest canvas on the planet: what is primarily objected is its route – it doesn’t follow the green line, the internationally recognised Palestine-Israel border”.
One of the more bizarre stories documented by Parry is that of Abdul Halim, whose home is commandeered by IDF soldiers and scheduled for demolition as it is directly intersected by the planned route of the wall. He is then given a temporary reprieve from the threat of demolition - but only due to the army’s decision to use it as a military installation. It is a tale that seems to graphically illustrate the Kafkaesque insanity that is rendered commonplace by the absence of basic human empathy. Barricades actually block off half of the home and in one shot Abdul Halim poses in his stairwell beside an enormous role of barbed wire that prevents access to the roof that the IDF have turned into their outpost. “When it comes to Israel’s security, they’re deadly serious,” says Abdul Halim. “But for us, look at how they treat us. If we go to our land, they harass us. The people here are defeated, there’s no resistance. They just want permits to get to work to live. That’s their priority.”
It is this factor of the wall as a weapon that has probably most influenced the graffiti that adorns it. In contrast to the Berlin wall, the wall is not merely a symbol of the struggle, but it is also a major component of the daily fight. Several series of photos document the long, dangerous and often humiliating journey that Palestinians must make across the border checkpoints. As Parry notes: “Witnessing the reality created by Israel in occupied Palestine – its policies of colonial expansion, control and repression, and its Wall, which is a manifestation of all three – is shocking the more one sees what Palestinians are made to endure, and what the rest of the world allows to happen”.
If the aim of this book is to open the rest of world’s eyes to the graphic realities of everyday life then it certainly succeeds. I only hope that we will soon be able to read it as nothing more than a historical document, akin to Leland Rice & Charles McClelland’s “Up Against It: Photographs of the Berlin Wall”. Like Thierry Noir, I imagine none of the artists featured in the book would have any regrets to see both the wall and their work that adorns it, gone forever.
“Against The Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine” is published by Pluto Press, ISBN: 9780745329178, £13.50.