“Neoliberals use nationalism and [xenophobic] ideologies to implant fear in people’s minds toward ‘other’ people and build their walls to keep them out,” Khaled Jarrar told me as he spoke about his latest installation at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai. Jarrar is a politically engaged Palestinian artist whose goal is to offer new ways of seeing without walls in an emerging world order of divisive and fragmenting power.
As a Palestinian, Jarrar is no stranger to separation and xenophobia. Israel’s separation wall inside the West Bank taught him all that he knows about isolation, exclusion, and enclosures. Currently pursuing an MFA in photography at the University of Arizona, Jarrar’s first forays into the world of art began in Ramallah within shouting distance of the wall. The concrete slabs that tower over Palestinian villages, cities, and landscapes separate farmers from their fields and entrap Palestinians in a system of military checkpoints and 24/7 surveillance. The wall is built upon the ideology of separation between one class (characterized as vulnerable) and the alleged menace posed by the “other” class.
Security-through-separation has now spread far beyond Israel’s occupation of Palestine: Brexit, Britain’s vote of separation from Europe, was fueled by the fear of immigrants – particularly Muslims. Bulgaria has erected a wall to keep out Syrian refugees. Elsewhere on the continent, far-right parties preach nationalism, protectionism, and an exclusionary identity politics. Then there’s Donald Trump, whose contributions to this ascendant illiberalism are too numerous to mention in this short article.
At the heart of the new nationalism are discourses of purity and danger. The physical manifestation of these discourses is the closed border. In response to this grim reality, Jarrar’s artistic interventions challenge the conceits of nationalism. Consider his 2011 “State of Palestine” live-action exhibition staged at Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie,” the dividing line between West and East Berlin. The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of closure and division throughout the Cold War. In his exhibit, Jarrar unveiled a Palestine passport stamp to draw a parallel between Berlin’s former barrier and the checkpoints that restrict Palestinian movement under occupation. Jarrar’s stamp was an artistic statement in support of the free movement of peoples and the Palestinians’ natural
Jarrar’s symbolism took on more complex symbolic meanings when he chipped concrete off of Israel’s separation wall to mold objects, from a paddle set to a soccer bar and cleats. As a corollary, Jarrar filmed a video of backyard paddleball over the wall and documented Palestinian Jerusalemites slipping ka’ak (Jerusalem bread) through a hole in the wall to Palestinians on the other side who are barred from entering Jerusalem. Together, these acts conveyed a convivial and resilient human spirit overcoming the cruelty of the separation wall.
Like any Palestinian, Jarrar has had troubles with Israel’s military regime. I Last year, however, his artwork sparked controversy among some Palestinians. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, after seeing his family and friends on Facebook adding a rainbow colored filter to their profile photographs in solidarity with the LGBT community. Widely regarded as a queer symbol, Jarrar wrote at the time that he adopted “the rainbow as a symbol of freedom and equality” for its representative power “for other oppressed groups.” The rainbow mural briefly transformed a monument to the “racist and bigoted policies of Israel” into a symbol of hope for international solidarity between queers and Palestinians (): “While people in the United States celebrated, and I celebrate with them for their victory, we in Palestine are still divided from our own communities and families.” The mural was painted over — erased — by conservative Palestinians, but Jarrar noted that the voices of support were more numerous than the criticisms by detractors.
Jarrar is also challenging barriers outside of Palestine. Last year in Finland, he again positively reimagined a different kind of blockade and ignorance: the hunger crisis affecting homeless people in the capital city of Helsinki. To make visible the divide between rich and poor, Jarrar built a wall of fresh bread that was subsequently torn apart piece-by-piece and handed out to passersby. The spirit of breaking down walls and breaking bread couldn’t have been better represented.
In January, Jarrar accepted an invitation from Culturunners, a mobile art foundation, to undertake a project at the U.S.-Mexican border. Jarrar ripped an 18-foot rail from the wall that separates Tijuana south of the border from the state of California. With local help, he repurposed it into a ladder “to change the functional use of this object from separating people to something that brings people together as a bridge.” Jarrar’s ladder peers from the Mexican side of the wall toward America. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Jarrar noted the similarities between the border between the United States and Mexico and the wall in occupied Palestine. “‘The police officer [said], ‘Are you sure you want to go to Juarez?’… ‘I was shocked because this conversation brought to my memory the same discussion for an artist who was visiting me in Ramallah. She was stopped for extra interrogation by the Israeli border police…The border police said, ‘Why are you going to Ramallah? Do you know this is a dangerous place to be?’”
In Dubai, Jarrar brings his years of rich experience challenging separation barriers to an exhibit entitled “Castles Built of Sand Will Fall.” The gallery floor features the U.S.-Mexican border ladder leaning against a replica of the Israeli barrier. Visitors can walk through a map of Palestine cut into the wall, and upon reaching the other end they’ll see television displays, one featuring Donald Trump discussing his proposal for a border wall. Elsewhere, the now blackened bread from the Hunger Wall is displayed, along with Jarrar’s short video on the smugglers satisfying the West Bank’s demand for Jerusalem’s bread. The exhibition is summed up in Arabic script: اللي بيته من زجاج ما يرمي الناس بحجار. (People in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.)
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly three decade ago, the “end of history” was supposed to give way to the “McWorld” of globalization, open borders, and hybrid identities. But the country that anchored the subsequent international order has now produced the greatest threat to it in the form of Donald Trump. Walls — literal and figurative — are emerging across our world.
Jarrar’s art asks us to confront the question: what went wrong? He doesn’t have a definitive answer, and it’s not his place to provide it, but his work compels us to reimagine a failed system and to find creative opportunities to subvert symbols of oppression. Jarrar doesn’t shy away from political art; he is not diffident about artistic responsibility. He’s one artist who’s pushing against a world that champions separation walls. His artwork is a form of intervention, leaving its mark — often literally — on a bleak landscape in order to reimagine objects of separation as canvases for human connection.
Separation between people, Jarrar’s work tells us, is an ideological conceit whose physical manifestation makes it no less artificial. These barriers can be demolished and there’s no better illustration of this fact than Jarrar’s repurposing of the walls of separation into artwork that brings people together.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer for the Institute for Palestine Studies based in Tunis. He previously served as Online Content Editor for IPS-USA in Washington, D.C.