Encounters between Aesthetics and Ethics in Public Art interventions in Bethlehem
The British street artist known as Banksy is no stranger to controversy and the recent debate over his new installation in the town of Bethlehem, the Walled Off Hotel, does not come as a surprise.
The Banksy statement said the hotel “offers a warm welcome to people from all sides of the conflict and across the world”. Banksy has maintained his anonymity despite numerous theories and attempts to reveal his identity since he started stencilling on walls in his native city of Bristol in south-west England more than a decade ago.
His artwork comments on war, child poverty and the environment, and has a long history in the Palestinian territories. In February 2015, he allegedly sneaked into the Gaza Strip through a smuggling tunnel and painted three works on the walls of Gaza homes destroyed in Israeli air strikes during the previous year’s conflict. In 2007, he painted a number of artworks in Bethlehem, including a young girl frisking an Israeli soldier pinned up against a wall.
Banksy claims that she exposes, subverts, and lampoons the naive Western liberal fantasy frame, by which Western travellers disconnect the struggle and travel itself from its colonial history, ignore the gross Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, and present the Israelis and Palestinians in the language of moral equivalency and parity.
The art work in both the lobby and rooms of this installation hotel also bear witness to the ugly realities of the occupation and the apartheid wall outside.
They carefully document the ongoing Palestinian Nakba under the Zionist settler-colonial project and apartheid regime.
The western wall of the lobby is adorned with hunting CCTV cameras mounts and a collection of slingshots as well as two criss-crossed sledgehammers, just above the royalty plate collection.
Banksy successfully juxtaposes the technologically sophisticated surveillance system of the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime as well as the brute force of the sledgehammers with the primitive “weaponry” that has functioned as an iconic symbol of Palestinian resistance.
The threat of the surveillance cameras is heightened by the few drones that are hanging to the left of the trophy wall
The most moving and highly emotional area of the installation-hotel is the Gaza Memorial, which was completely ignored in the media.
The magnitude of the destruction and death of Israel’s wars on Gaza is captured in three different exhibits: An elaborate recreation of the roof-knocking tactic of the Israeli military; a glass case showing children’s dusty shoes and a school backpack, probably scavenged from the rubles in Gaza; and the scale of justice, in which the artist placed heaps of fake teeth to represent the victims of Israel’s “protective edge” war on Gaza.
In countless objects and displays, Banksy undermines the ways in which Western liberal media and public discourses frame the Palestinian struggle for freedom in the language of moral equivalency, misrepresenting it as a symmetrical struggle between two equal and equally legitimate narratives.
The homosocial and intimate subtext of the pillow fight between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian youth betrays the dialectic of involuntary participation and forced identification in such power games between persecutors and their victims.
The homologous image of this pillow fight cannot be anything but the “death (soccer) match” in Auschwitz.
Some critics have accused Banksy of Pale-ploitation – of making profit off Palestinian suffering, normalising the occupation, beautifying the wall, and even worse, some have claimed that the hotel installation is an international conspiracy meant to represent the Israeli colonisers and the colonised Palestinians as equal sides in the struggle.
Amjad al-Qaisi, an adviser at the Al Haq Centre for Applied International Law, told Middle East Eye that initially he thought the hotel was a good idea, but he worries that it is an oversimplification of the conflict.
“I see how [Banksy’s] work brings a lot of people to Bethlehem to see the wall and the city,” says Ayed Arafah, another local artist. “But now all the people who come to take photos of the paintings and graffiti… it’s become like Disneyland. Like you are living in a zoo.”
“This whole idea of let’s drink coffee or have a beer together that the hotel seems to be suggesting doesn’t reflect at all the situation on the ground,” he said.
“The situation here is a brutal form of colonisation, which goes hand-in-hand with forcible displacement and the erasure of the Palestinian identity.”
There has also been anger at the fact the hotel intends to sell graffiti materials so guests, like Banksy before them, can leave their mark on the wall. Foreigners have long been criticised for such behaviour, which the hotel acknowledges.
“Some people don’t agree with painting the wall and argue anything that trivialises or normalises its existence is a mistake. Then again, others welcome any attention brought to it and the ongoing situation. So in essence – you can paint it, but avoid anything normal or trivial,” the Walled Off’s website says.