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Issue 31 - March/April 2005

The Art of Resistance: Palestine
By Samir Yamin

Nothing in my two weeks in the West Bank was as expected. The horrors were more horrific and the oppression more oppressive than I could have ever imagined. Hearing a mother whose son was shot dead while standing on a sidewalk; walking through the rubble of newly-demolished homes; seeing soldiers shoot at boys throwing stones at the Apartheid Wall; visiting the town of Jayyous where said wall separates residents from their farmland; or witnessing countless other atrocities that should not be imagined, let alone experienced  — the struggle seemed hopeless. Yet amidst the horror, oppression, and inhumanity, a vibrant, revolutionary poster and public art movement endures, with the explicit goal of bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of a people and the land they still call Palestine.

Walking down Jerusalem’s alleys, or the streets of the West Bank — whether in Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nazareth, or wherever, it is certain: the art of resistance is everywhere. It’s as I imagine the poster-adorned streets of Cuba looked in the ‘60s, or Chile’s mural movement in the ‘70s, or even perhaps tagged New York subway trains flying by in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Whether calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to the construction of the Apartheid/Annexation Wall, or mourning another unnecessary death, these images give artists creative control over an ever-changing, asphyxiating landscape.

With the new, nine-meter high, concrete incarnation of the Apartheid Wall, symbols of Israeli occupation are increasingly visible across the landscape. The Wall snakes through hillsides, sometimes encircling entire villages, separating sister cities, and in one instance even surrounding a single home on all sides. Emblematic of Israeli occupation, the Wall is more than an obtrusive visual element; it represents an oppressive force that controls both people and land. While much of the wall has been landscaped on the Israeli side, the better to meld into the surrounding countryside, it has been left a stark, menacing reminder of occupation on the Palestinian side. But wherever the Wall goes up, so do images condemning it.

Representing the Everyday

Amongst the various public art forms, posters are by far the most prevalent, especially on the walls of high-traffic streets in heavily populated cities. In Ramallah, posters literally cover the streets and every conceivable surface, with messages ranging from memorializing the life of Edward Said, to advertising a parade for Arun Gandhi to still others demanding the release of political prisoners. Some are worn and withered, their colors faded and their words illegible. But constant postering quickly replaces old cracked images with fresh ones, adding to the palimpsest of messages that bolster the walls of virtually every building in Palestine.

Posters are the most visible public art form for a few pragmatic reasons. As opposed to murals or graffiti, they are cheap and easy to reproduce and distribute. Taken as a whole, they record and direct the energy of the street, preserving the minutiae of daily events, and thereby protecting against what Carol Wells of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics calls historical amnesia. “Posters,” she says, “are the collective memory of the oppressed.” Because the general population has no access to mainstream media, posters serve to empower and inform, as an alternative outlet through which the surrogate voice of the people can reverberate throughout the streets.

Most common are shaheed, or martyr, posters, commemorating the lives of those killed while fighting, or as a result of military action. Generally, images of shouhada serve a dual purpose of grieving and immortalizing. Family members display framed photos of those lost during resistance in the home, and show them regularly during the storytelling process, connecting the narration to its human essence. This dual function manifests itself in posters as well, where a picture of the resistance fighter is accompanied by his name and a short description of his life story, or of his efforts at combating the occupation, along with how he died. Some posters depict children who were killed by the IDF, including a description of the events leading up to their deaths. Stenciled images of shouhada can also be found throughout the West Bank.

Organizations also produce posters to spread news about their campaigns to document and bring an end to human rights violations. Al Haq, a Ramallah-based human rights organization, recently began a poster campaign promoting their documentary, The Spider’s Web. These posters, printed on much higher quality paper with a restricted palate of black, white and red, illustrate the phrase “Collective Punishment is a Crime,” and feature images of mass arrests, house demolitions, movement restriction, property damage and the Apartheid Wall. The Jerusalem coalition, Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON), created a similar poster series in conjunction with their campaign to resist the Wall. These posters were made specifically for PENGON by international artists and come in several languages. They depict the Wall and either its effects on people and the land, or alternately, acts of resistance that result in the Wall’s destruction.

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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