1989 – The Fall of the Wall

    Confronting the New Wall
    Artistic Resistance in Palestine

    Part of the exhibit “Walls”; Photo: Mira Stobbe © Goethe-Institut e.V.Although Mauerreise (Walls) opened in the Goethe Institute in Ramallah this summer, it will not culminate until this autumn, on the 9th of November to be precise, the date of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall. Then cascading giant dominoes representing pieces of the Berlin Wall will symbolise the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    The point of the exhibit Mauerreise - also known as Walls and My Story is Your Story: From Palestine with Love - is the effect of these two walls on the lives of people in Palestine and Germany. The Palestinian exhibit, which was organised locally, comes in the form of a large number of artistic works of many forms, styles, and types including plastic arts, photography, music, song, theatre, and film. The production of these works has coincided with the construction of the ethnic separation wall, which was begun in 2002. Exhibitors include both Palestinian artists and artists from various other countries. Members of the latter group have been inspired by a will to demonstrate their solidarity artistically, by the wall as a vital subject for art, or by their concern for both solidarity and art.

    The exhibition My Story is Your Story has both a local and a worldwide context, since artists from around the world, including Palestinian artists, are joining in the celebration of the Berlin Wall’s destruction via a symbolic demolition. So walls considered in general, in terms of what walls represent - whether in Germany, Palestine, or elsewhere - have become a subject for socially committed art.

    From 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, until 2002, when the wall in Israel has started to be built, not enough years passed for Israel to learn this lesson from history. While Germans have affirmed the importance of the fall of their wall, Palestinians currently suffer and will continue to suffer from the wall that divides them. The tragic thing is that they do not know how long their suffering will last in the shadow of their occupiers’ mentality.

    A comparison of the German and Palestinian walls has different aspects that do not favour the Israeli occupation. Seven hundred and twenty kilometres long and six to eight metres high: these are the current dimensions of the separation wall in Palestine, whereas the Berlin Wall, which was demolished, was smaller. It was one hundred and fifty-five kilometres long and between three and a half and four and a fifth metres high, and its lifespan was twenty-eight years.

    One fell and the other will fall

    Jörg Schumacher, Director of the German Cultural Centre in Ramallah, mentioned that Germany will commemorate on November 9th the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the famous Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The area between the Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag, the German Parliament Building, will display a line of a thousand dominoes created by young German artists to mimic the original concrete blocks used in building the Berlin Wall. He said, ‘There, in Germany, students and famous artists will supervise the cascading fall of the domino blocks, and all these works of art will be destroyed to symbolise the one wall that did fall and the others that will fall.’ He mentioned that a number of works of art produced by artists from different countries that have suffered from partition will be selected to be added to the thousand dominoes. Schumacher was daring in his frank statement, especially in his comment about other walls that will fall, although for diplomatic reasons he did not specifically mention the Israeli separation wall.

    A wall that circles the world!

    Alia Rayyan from the Goethe Institute in Ramallah explained this idea: ‘The fact of the matter is that this idea is not itself beautiful, but the wall’s journey acquires a breath of hope and solidarity from peoples across borders, especially when in the end this wall falls. In any case, this is what the Palestinians who are participating in the project of the wall’s journey feel as a people whose reality is demarcated by the existence of a real, concrete wall.’

    As she has mentioned, the wall’s journey tries to direct attention to other walls that still stand in world. At the beginning of May, twenty symbolic depictions of chunks of the Berlin Wall were dispatched to Palestine, Israel, Korea, Cyprus, Yemen, and other places where divisions and borders cast their shadows over daily life. These ‘stones’ have become screens on which artists, people of culture, academics, and young people can project their feelings and reactions when they stand face to face with a phenomenon called ‘wall’. The closing ceremony will take place in November when these blocks, which symbolise chunks of the Berlin Wall, will fall in a cascade of dominoes to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago.

    Part of the exhibit “Walls”; Photo: Mira Stobbe © Goethe-Institut e.V. As part of a workshop directed by the artist Vera Tamari and the architect Yazid Anani, thirty architecture students at Birzeit University have jointly created an array of works of various artistic types for an installation. The students wanted this work to support the hope of overcoming this wall one day, as they said. Their sketches have similarly inspired designs on the large dominoes. ‘We wanted to focus on the positive, since nothing remains the same forever.’

    I wish I knew the answer to Alia Rayyan’s questions: ‘Will the Palestinian works encounter the Israeli ones on their trip? Which will arrive in Berlin first?’ Rayyan mentioned that three of the works produced by the Birzeit University students will begin a journey through Israel to Berlin and that ‘ironically enough, these works will cross the real wall on their trip abroad’!

    It is a good sign that young Israeli artists are participating in an artistic exhibition that opposes the idea of walls and racism. It’s an effort that should be added to Israeli artistic efforts that have expressed artistic solidarity against the building of the ethnic separation wall. It is a rejection that shows the existence of people - even in Israeli settler society - who refuse walls, based on a sound reading of history, which has toppled walls, one after the other, through the agency of alert people, not the people who built the wall and continue to build.

    My Story is Your Story: From Palestine with Love

    No doubt students who pass by the wall in Palestine see the paintings on it and naturally feel its effects. So it is not strange that these five groups of artists scarred by the wall should create artistic works that oppose and mock the wall.

    First Group: Liberty, Bright and Outright

    Design: Jana al Araj, Rana Hannouneh, Rula Zhour, Shadi Hoshieh, Maha Mohtasib and Ru'a Jaber.
    The scene is an olive tree breaking through the wall. The painted tree is composed of rectangles - inspired by the works of Piet Mondrian - of many different colours that express the Palestinian people’s hopes, love of life, and enjoyment of its joys. Some of the rectangles seem to be released by the tree exactly like leaves that fly from its branches into the sky when violent winds blow. For hundreds of years in different cultures, olive leaves have symbolised victory when arranged in a wreath around the heads of winners in athletic competitions or in wars.

    Second Group: Faris’ Story

    Design: Rana Abu Ghannam, Riham Saadeh, Hiba Talalweh, Atheer Mir'ib, Maliha Muhammad and Dua' al Baba.
    The second group decided to narrate Faris’ story in comic-strip style so that young and old alike can identify with it. Besides, it lends the work a charming air of playfulness. The story itself was inspired by a song by the artist Marcel Khalife: ‘A Child and an Aeroplane.’ The story begins with a child playing with his ball. In no time at all he sees an aeroplane. So he calls his friends to come and look, but the plane drops a huge concrete slab that finds its way into a row of diverse dominoes. It settles in a position among thousands of other concrete slabs that form a tribal separation wall. Discovering that his ball has disappeared, the child grows angry. The ball symbolises here the things we love and hate to lose, even if they are ordinary items we have purchased. Faris summons his friends to tear down the wall. Since the wall in Palestine has not fallen yet, the group decided to paint the wall in the process of falling.

    Third Group: Easily Erasable

    Design: Baha Ghosheh, Sultan Nabil, Abeer Muthafar, Amani Barakat and Ahmad Batieh.
    The third group wanted to demonstrate that there is no place for the wall here or anywhere else in the world. This why the group used an eraser to show clearly how easy the wall is to erase but how silly it is too!

    The splattering and dripping of paint used in writing and drawing on the walls (graffiti art) was employed in painting the wall - a matter that highlights its effervescence and folly. I do not need bulldozers to destroy it; all it takes is a pencil topped by an eraser. With a stroke of the pen you can restore the future. The moment depicted is when the eraser has finished rubbing out the wall. What has been revealed is a rural scene unaffected by human offences. It is a tranquil scene, and nothing troubles its serenity. The artists chose to paint a scene from nature in an Expressionist style inspired by the works of the artist Van Gogh in order to highlight the wall’s problematic internationalism, since it is not a monopoly of Palestine. The road between the trees provides the naturalistic scene with greater depth and prompts the viewer, who fixes his eyes on it, to follow this road unconsciously away from this reality toward a better future.

    Fourth Group: We Can . . . .

    Design: Marwa Tamimi, Aya Qirrisha, Riham Marrar, Aiysha Kleib and Tarek Joudeh.
    This group chose to emphasise hope and community and expressed the idea that human solidarity can help realise dreams. The group deliberately painted sarcastic and comic stick figures to allow the viewers to identify with them and the existing situation. Very small figures spring from the wall, which is far too big for them, not to mention their lack of appropriate means to scale it. These figures use everyday objects to climb the wall, and you see them hurrying to support one another when they lose their balance and holding on to each other when they are about to fall. All of this occurs in a situation of precarious balance, especially since any individual misstep could result in total collapse. Even so, the top climber has succeeded in scaling the wall. The hope of the other climbers remains that if they continue in the attempt they will necessarily reach the goal.

    Fifth Group: Stitch By Stitch – Woven Deliverance . . . .

    Design: Hiba al Souki, Shifa' Salah, Rozan ‘Imleh and Rinal Ghoul.
    The fifth and final group depicts a Palestinian woman - in traditional attire - who is weaving a kaffiyeh, which is used worldwide as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian people. They have mentioned that they deliberately painted a faceless woman to allow her to symbolise every woman. (It would have been possible to gloss over the body’s anatomy so that it could have represented any person, not just a woman.)

    The net-like kaffiyeh is woven on the loom of Palestinian society. Every decorative line and dot - each individual in it – is part of the social fabric in which no individual is alone. The artists liked the idea of weaving, which is a peaceful activity, as a means of surmounting the wall, which is a symbol of cruelty, separation, and loss.

    Inspirations for form and content

    The penetration of the wall by the roots of the olive tree expresses not only hope and the role of art and literature, but also the daily visual awareness of the participating artists who have explored in this scene the way the tree’s roots penetrate the tree’s surroundings - the dirt, boulders, and walls. The same thing happened in the scene of climbing the wall, an idea that apparently came to the attention of the students from the world of acrobats and the circus, especially acts involving climbing walls. The most famous of these episodes in Palestine is the time young men climbed the wall in a pyramid formation on Laylat al-Qadr during Ramadan three years ago.

    Conceptually these young architects in their installation art have tended towards peaceful, non-violent resistance to the wall. The consensus among the thirty participants in support of non-violence raises the question about the amount of intervention there was by the directors of the workshop of which the exhibit was a product. We are not here to evaluate the respective merits of violent and non-violent resistance, but we fear having the participants stamped with a specific ideology. It seems preferable to see a representation of numerous points of view, not merely one.

    Although the viewer is charmed by the many colours that were inspired by the works of the artist Piet Mondrian and that express hope in the work of the first group, and by the choice of a scene drawn from nature in an Expressionist style inspired by the works of the artist Van Gogh in the work of the third group, all the same one wonders whether these choices were influenced by the supervisors. It can easily be considered as a type of meddling with thought, taste, and experience. This has been camouflaged as artistic advice from adults to students, but this is not the first time we have observed artistic advice stamping young artists in a specific way.

    A lesson nonetheless

    The lesson about walls comes from Germany, Palestine, Korea, Yemen, and Cyprus and echoes the statement of Jörg Schumacher - Director of Ramallah’s Goethe Institute – who spoke of commemorating ‘the one wall that did fall and the others that will fall.’
    Tahsin Yaqin
    is a Palestinian journalist living in Ramallah.

    Translated by William M. Hutchins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    December 2009

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