Beautiful/Ugly: Against Aestheticizing Israel’s Separation Wall

14 May, 2021
The Wall with a mural of activist   Ahed Tamimi  , who in 2017 was jailed for slapping an Israeli soldier. Italian street artist  Jorit Agoch  was later arrested for deifying Tamimi.

The Wall with a mur­al of activist Ahed Tami­mi, who in 2017 was jailed for slap­ping an Israeli sol­dier. Ital­ian street artist Jorit Agoch was lat­er arrest­ed for deify­ing Tamimi.

Malu Halasa


The Sep­a­ra­tion Wall, 700 kilo­me­ters long, is eight meters tall in some places and built of con­crete; in oth­ers, it is deft­ly cam­ou­flaged behind shrub­bery and trees. It incor­po­rates bar­ri­ers, elec­tric fences, trench­es, check­points, sen­sors and watch­tow­ers. Behind the Wall, on the Israeli side, are addi­tion­al fenc­ing and razor wire, mil­i­tary patrol roads and sand paths for track­ing foot­prints, all cov­ered by sur­veil­lance cam­eras. This phys­i­cal bar­ri­er between Israel and Pales­tine dis­rupts the views from either side as well as the pos­si­bil­i­ty of inter­ac­tions between peo­ple at ground lev­el. Should a struc­ture like this have any rela­tion­ship to art or artists?

In 2005, British graf­fi­ti artist Banksy was spray-paint­ing on the Sep­a­ra­tion Wall on the Pales­tin­ian side when an Israeli sol­dier inter­rupt­ed him and asked: “What the fuck are you doing?”

Banksy replied that he would have to wait until it was fin­ished, which prompt­ed the sol­dier to inform his col­leagues: “The safe­ty’s off.” He was refer­ring to the gun he was car­ry­ing. With the trig­ger unlocked, he could fire at will.

Min­utes lat­er, an elder­ly Pales­tin­ian man passed by and said to Banksy, “You paint the Wall, you make it beautiful.”

The Bris­tol graf­fi­ti artist mis­took the remark for a com­pli­ment, and thanked the man. How­ev­er, appre­ci­a­tion was­n’t the man’s inten­tion. He quick­ly clar­i­fied: “We hate the Wall, we don’t want it beau­ti­ful. Go home.”


This brief but telling encounter, report­ed on graf­fi­ti-relat­ed web­sites includ­ing Banksy’s, encap­su­late a bit­ter para­dox. Here, occu­pi­er and occu­pied are in total agree­ment — albeit for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Nei­ther the sol­dier nor the elder­ly man want­ed an out­sider using the Wall for his pur­pos­es, no mat­ter how famous he might be.

The scene cap­tures a strict polit­i­cal hier­ar­chy that has become more intractable since 2005: an armed Israeli sol­dier con­trols Pales­tin­ian land, while the elder­ly Pales­tin­ian, ground down by years of dis­ap­point­ment and abuse, is dis­grun­tled and dis­il­lu­sioned. Banksy’s involve­ment — then part of San­ta’s Ghet­to, a project with a group of graf­fi­ti artists — sym­bol­izes the good­will inter­na­tion­al artists have towards Palestine. 

Palestinian artist Majd Abdel Hamid and two assistants spent 10 days painting a 14-metre long, 2-meter high portion of the wall in what appears to be a jumble of Arabic letters. Unscrambled, the letters spell out the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, written in 1988 by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Pales­tin­ian artist Majd Abdel Hamid and two assis­tants spent 10 days paint­ing a 14-metre long, 2‑meter high por­tion of the wall in what appears to be a jum­ble of Ara­bic let­ters. Unscram­bled, the let­ters spell out the Pales­tin­ian Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, writ­ten in 1988 by Pales­tin­ian poet Mah­moud Darwish.

The anec­dote echoes a mul­ti­fac­eted faceted debate alive in the Pales­tin­ian arts com­mu­ni­ty, which lies at the junc­ture of aes­thet­ics, pol­i­tics, and moral­i­ty. When sec­tions of the Wall were new­ly erect­ed and it sur­faces unblem­ished, Pales­tini­ans argued the rel­a­tive mer­its of alter­ing its appear­ance. In 2010, mural­ist Muhan­nad Al-Azzeh, a mural­ist on walls in Beth­le­hem refugee camps, argued for the con­struct­ed, pris­tine nature of the wall: “It’s a mil­i­tary col­or, and an ugly col­or, so keep it … ugly. I [would] not want to make this wall a beau­ti­ful thing.” 

Oth­ers were more inter­est­ed in the oppor­tu­ni­ty of a blank can­vas like Majd Abdel Hamid. He plied the wall with an intrigu­ing mash-up of words tak­en from the 1988 Pales­tin­ian Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, by poet Mah­moud Dar­wish. “This space is there,” said Abdel Hamid, “You have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to use it in a con­scious way.”

For the 2012 Qalandiya Inter­na­tion­al Bien­nale, with the theme: “Life and Art in Pales­tine,” Abdel Hamid scraped the Wall and gouged into it. The dust he col­lect­ed was re-pur­posed into sands of time and placed inside three-hour glass­es that the artist cre­at­ed through tra­di­tion­al Pales­tin­ian glass blow­ing meth­ods. In effect, an embod­i­ment of oppres­sion had been trans­formed, refig­ured, and recy­cled into an object imbued with var­i­ous inter­pre­ta­tions. For some, the pas­sage of time will heal all; for oth­ers, Pales­tine is a brides­maid always waiting.

The Bien­nale, the first of its kind to be held in vil­lages and towns across the West Bank and Gaza includ­ed oth­er art­works with more dust from the wall. It was mixed with water, and formed into a soc­cer ball, for Con­crete 2012 by Khaled Jar­rar. Artists, both who use the wall as a can­vas or fea­ture its mate­ri­al­i­ty in their work, face a quandary: Should oppres­sion be wit­ty or beautiful?

In her essay “Mak­ing an Ugly World Beau­ti­ful: Moral­i­ty and Aes­thet­ics in the After­math,” British crit­ic and aca­d­e­m­ic Dr. Sarah Edith James explored the haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful images tak­en by West­ern pho­tog­ra­phers dur­ing the 2003 Iraq War — the most heav­i­ly pho­tographed war since the US war in Viet­nam. As James wrote, “The rad­i­cal­i­ty [sic] of the aes­thet­ic projects of these pho­tog­ra­phers lies in their tak­ing beau­ti­ful pho­tographs of grue­some subjects…” 

The beautiful/ugly debate encom­pass­es ear­li­er art­works such as Goy­a’s paint­ing El Tres de Mayo, which takes as its sub­ject the arbi­trary exe­cu­tions of Madrid cit­i­zens dur­ing Napoleon’s 1808 inva­sion of Spain; Robert Capa’s The Falling Sol­dier, a recon­struc­tion of a Span­ish Civ­il War death, staged thir­ty miles from the place attrib­uted in the pho­tograph’s orig­i­nal title — Loy­al­ist Mili­tia­man at the Moment of Death, Cer­ro Muri­ano, Sep­tem­ber 5, 1936; and Picas­so’s ren­der­ing of the bomb­ing of Guer­ni­ca, in 1937 

This imagery is in sharp con­trast to “the cheap cur­rent of 24-hour live cov­er­age end­less relayed to our liv­ing-rooms via the world’s news agen­cies and the spec­ta­tor­ship this pro­motes.” Replace “liv­ing-rooms” with com­put­er screens and James’s ideas on voyeurism and con­sump­tion could equal­ly be applied to the report­ing on ter­ror­ism, the Sep­a­ra­tion Wall and Israel’s con­tin­u­ing assaults on Pales­tini­ans wher­ev­er they hap­pen to be, in Gaza or at the time of writ­ing this essay, Jerusalem. 

No Exit through the Gift Shop

Twelve years after Banksy first paint­ed the Sep­a­ra­tion Wall, in 2017, he designed with oth­er cre­atives a bou­tique hotel in Beth­le­hem. The Walled Off Hotel, known for its gift shop and “the worst view in the world,” turned its hop, skip and a jump away from the Sep­a­ra­tion Wall into a sell­ing point.

As Trip Advi­sor book­ings poured in — cur­rent rooms range in price from $60 to $235 per night — local mural­ist Al-Azzeh reit­er­at­ed his pref­er­ence for the Wal­l’s raw ugli­ness to the Inde­pen­dent news­pa­per, in London.

“I want peo­ple to see an apartheid wall, a mil­i­tary wall. I don’t want them to dis­cuss whether this paint­ing is by Banksy, or whichev­er artist. I don’t want to for­get all the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple killed there … when Israeli sol­diers shot them.”

The hotel’s con­ve­nient loca­tion attract­ed inter­na­tion­al street artists like Lush­sux from Mel­bourne. His kiss between Trump and Netanyahu pro­voked a neg­a­tive reac­tion from con­ser­v­a­tive Pales­tini­ans. Anoth­er of his murals, show­ing Amer­i­can come­di­an Joe Rogan, with the text bub­ble: “Can you pull up that pic­ture of me on the ille­gal bor­der wall?” brought out activist Soud Hefawi, with his paints. He wrote in Ara­bic over it: “This is not a bor­der wall. It’s an apartheid wall” and “Pales­tine is on both sides of the wall.”

The decod­ing of the scratch outs, re-writes and paint-overs on the wall has cre­at­ed a new area in aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies.

Hefawi con­tin­ued his fight on the blo­gos­phere, where he ques­tioned Lush­sux’s “right” as “a colo­nial­ist to teach me how to fight colonialists!?”

Pales­tini­ans are upset and not just for his­toric rea­sons, as Walled Off Hotel man­ag­er Wisam Sal­saa, explained to the web­site Aspir­ing City, “Locals don’t look at the wall the way inter­na­tion­als might see it. This means a lot to us because this wall has con­vert­ed our towns and cities into an open-air prison. It’s pre­vent­ed our towns from expand­ing. It’s lim­it­ing our move­ment. It’s been cat­a­stroph­ic for us as Palestinians.”

A mural of  Leila Khaled , the first woman member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The photograph of her in a kaffiyeh holding an AK-47 rifle, taken by Eddie Adams, became a symbol of the Palestinian resistance in the 1970s. She was also the first woman to hijack a plane in the late 1960s, and has consequently gone down in history as both a hero and a terrorist. Her mural on the wall, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, is a staunch reminder of both the resistance's past and its contested presence.

A mur­al of Leila Khaled, the first woman mem­ber of the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine. The pho­to­graph of her in a kaf­fiyeh hold­ing an AK-47 rifle, tak­en by Eddie Adams, became a sym­bol of the Pales­tin­ian resis­tance in the 1970s. She was also the first woman to hijack a plane in the late 1960s, and has con­se­quent­ly gone down in his­to­ry as both a hero and a ter­ror­ist. Her mur­al on the wall, near Beth­le­hem in the West Bank, is a staunch reminder of both the resis­tance’s past and its con­test­ed presence.

Buried Realities

For decades the invis­i­bil­i­ty of Pales­tin­ian art has been entwined with the era­sure of Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty, first by colo­nial pow­ers and then by Israel. Even Pales­tin­ian schol­ars have had a dif­fi­cult time dis­cussing the pre­cur­sors of art in Pales­tine. For a long time, it was thought that the ori­gins of Pales­tin­ian paint­ing began in 1948. By the 1990s, the Pales­tin­ian painter and art his­to­ri­an Kamal Boul­la­ta (1942–2019) broke with his ear­li­er claims to that effect, and traced the begin­nings of paint­ing in Pales­tine to sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Arab Chris­t­ian painters of reli­gious icons. For Boul­la­ta, accord­ing to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty’s Joseph Mas­sad in his essay “Per­mis­sion to Paint: Pales­tin­ian Art and the Colo­nial Encounter,” the year 1948 was “a par­tial rup­ture.” The schism between fig­u­ra­tive and abstract paint­ing was relat­ed to “the phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to — and dis­tance from — his­tor­i­cal Pales­tine” as well as “the dif­fer­ing kinds of phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al exile expe­ri­enced by all Pales­tini­ans, whether the five mil­lion who still live in the coun­try — or the five mil­lion liv­ing out­side it and pre­vent­ed from return­ing to it by the Israeli state …” 

In his mas­ter’s the­sis Recon­sid­er­ing the Val­ue of Pales­tin­ian Art & Its Jour­ney into the Art Mar­ket for the Sothe­by’s Insti­tute of Art, Pales­tin­ian artist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Steve Sabel­la wrote that by the 1990s, art from the Occu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries had “shift­ed from col­lec­tive sym­bol­ic, illus­tra­tive, fig­u­ra­tive and nar­ra­tive expres­sion” char­ac­ter­is­tic of old­er gen­er­a­tions of artists “to more indi­vid­ual or per­son­al expres­sion.” Despite this change in focus, “place” or “home­land” remains vital­ly impor­tant to all Pales­tin­ian artists.

1. 1. Banksy’s bal­loons on the Sep­a­ra­tion Wall at the Qalandiya check­point. 2. 2. The eight-meter Sep­a­ra­tion Wall built by Israeli cuts through the heart of East Jerusalem. 3. 3. The Sep­a­ra­tion Wall zigza­gs around neigh­bor­hoods in East Jerusalem, and sep­a­rates Pales­tini­ans from oth­er Palestinians 

Sabel­la quot­ed Boul­la­ta: “Wher­ev­er they live … Israel’s Sep­a­ra­tion Wall and its mil­i­tary check­points have entered their art as their lan­guage con­tin­ues to cross bar­ri­ers between exile and mem­o­ry, iden­ti­ty and gen­der, dis­place­ments and frag­men­ta­tions. Some have con­tin­ued to find their expres­sion in paint­ing where­as oth­ers went on to explore new tools and media. Togeth­er, their work gives body to an art of resis­tance that nev­er ceas­es to inspire.” 

For the the­sis, Sabel­la includ­ed his pho­tographs of the Wall, from 2005-06. His pho­tographs’ unmedi­at­ed view of ordi­nary Pales­tini­ans mak­ing their way around a snaking, con­crete riv­er that divides seem­ing­ly run-of-the-mill city blocks or dis­tricts only enhances the abnor­mal­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. Sabel­la’s images recall James’s eval­u­a­tion of the beau­ti­ful with­in the hor­ror of the Iraq war: “So that an aes­thet­ics of sub­lim­i­ty serves not to tran­scend vio­lence but col­lapse into it, pro­mot­ing a strange rev­e­la­tion or reflec­tion on the real that would be oth­er-wised buried.”

Artis­tic Defiance

Cre­ative resis­tance and artis­tic dis­sent came into sharp relief dur­ing the 2011 “Arab Spring” mass upris­ings. Pro­fes­sor Charles Tripp, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, has been research­ing the ways in which art can shift rela­tion­ships of pow­er, first by man­i­fest­ing as forms of defi­ance and then by mobi­liz­ing these to even­tu­al­ly dimin­ish pow­er itself. He observed in his lec­ture On Art and the Arab Upris­ing that art was at its most effec­tive dur­ing the 2011 upris­ings when it chal­lenged pow­er open­ly, in pub­lic space. By doing so it not only gen­er­at­ed a sense of com­mon pur­pose, it also iden­ti­fied an engaged com­mu­ni­ty — and in the process it rad­i­cal­ly changed per­cep­tions of who should be in charge. Sim­i­lar ques­tions arise when stand­ing by Israel’s Sep­a­ra­tion Wall.

Keep Your Eye on the Wall, Palestinian Landscapes , edited by Mitchell Albert, Olivia Snaije, published by  Saqi Books .
Keep Your Eye on the Wall, Pales­tin­ian Land­scapes, edit­ed by Mitchell Albert, Olivia Snai­je, pub­lished by Saqi Books.

“How does art defy or dis­rupt the hold of pow­er itself?” Trip asked. “First by con­test­ing the pub­lic face of pow­er — going out and phys­i­cal­ly defac­ing the dic­ta­tor’s image. Sec­ond. How do you under­mine the author­i­ty of pow­er? Although it is very dif­fi­cult to ensure … there is the slow drip-drip of artis­tic defi­ance.” He argued that one way to gauge the effec­tive­ness of this kind of art was to observe the reac­tion of the pow­ers-that-be. In the case of Pales­tine, he said, “The very act of pro­duc­ing art under occu­pa­tion and mil­i­tary retal­i­a­tion is resis­tance.” At key junc­tures, the Israeli author­i­ties have react­ed bad­ly — wit­ness, for exam­ple, the 2002 ran­sack­ing of the archives, doc­u­ments and art col­lec­tion of the Khalil Sakaki­ni Cul­tur­al Cen­tre in Ramal­lah by Israeli sol­diers dur­ing the Sec­ond Intifa­da and the block­ade of Yass­er Arafat’s compound.

Anoth­er exam­ple, cit­ed by Tripp, was Vera Tamar­i’s instal­la­tion of cars wrecked by Israeli tanks. (It seemed that Israeli tanks pur­pose­ly rolled over parked cars in the streets and in peo­ple’s dri­ve­ways, again in 2002, leav­ing a trail of side­swiped and crushed vehi­cles.) The artist assem­bled the wrecks on an asphalt road placed in a field out­side Ramal­lah for her instal­la­tion Going for a Ride.

When pass­ing Israeli tanks mauled the cars in the instal­la­tion for a sec­ond time — the sol­diers even stopped long enough to uri­nate on them — Tamari had record­ed the inci­dent on video, footage that was added to the installation.

Beau­ty can be ter­ri­fy­ing and vision­ary. As the French philoso­pher Jacques Ran­cière wrote in The Pol­i­tics of Aes­thet­ics, the “aes­thet­ic acts as con­fig­u­ra­tion of expe­ri­ence that cre­ate new modes of sense per­cep­tion and induce nov­el forms of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.” Art and pho­tog­ra­phy from Pales­tin­ian serve this purpose.

The debate over the val­ue of rep­re­sent­ing oppres­sion in art or leav­ing it alone in the name of resist­ing nor­mal­iza­tion is use­ful and nec­es­sary. How­ev­er, for artists inside and out­side the region it is not pos­si­ble to remain neu­tral. Those who elect to paint and write on the Wall or include its mate­ri­al­i­ty in their art­works pro­voke reflec­tion on ques­tions about pow­er and its pre­rog­a­tives. Giv­en the choice, they seem to ask, where would you pre­fer to live? On one side or anoth­er of an impos­si­bly high con­crete wall or in a place where fruit­ful dia­logues between neigh­bors are pos­si­ble, and sep­a­ra­tion walls no longer exist?


An ear­li­er ver­sion of this essay appeared as “Oppres­sive Beau­ty: Against Aes­theti­cis­ing the Wall” in Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Pales­tin­ian Land­scapes, the anthol­o­gy edit­ed by Olivia Snai­je and Mitch Albert, pub­lished in French by Édi­tions Textuel; and in Eng­lish by Saqi Books, in 2013. 

Malu Halasa is a London-based writer and editor. Her six co-edited anthologies include—Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with Zaher Omareen; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a former freelance journalist in the London, she covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.”

Ahed TamimiBanksyIsrael/PalestineJerusalemKamal Boullataseparation wallSteve Sabella


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