Elusive British graffiti artist Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel, just a stone’s throw away from the divisive 700km long, 8m high apartheid wall that runs through Palestine via Jesus’s birth spot in Bethlehem. Since the opening of the hotel earlier this summer, the business has been met with mixed feelings.
These mixed feelings were further heightened this week as the hotel announced the opening of a gift shop adjacent to the hotel. The gift shop will sell ornaments that look like the apartheid wall of separation, signed canvases, and limited-edition crucifix’s. Early versions of the products are available on the hotel’s website.
On one hand, Palestinians are relieved that an international artist is bringing their situation, plight, and reality to life to tourists who may be attracted to the idea of staying in a hotel room with real-life Banksy artwork.
On the other hand, some Palestinians are concerned that Banksy is profiteering from the Palestinian struggle, putting other neighboring hotels out of business, and arguably trivializing the situation.In a sense, Banksy is seen to promote tourism based on cultural appropriation, where people ‘live a day in the life of a Palestinian’, whose sunshine is blocked by the 8 meter high wall.
Banksy did not invent the wheel of allowing tourists to experience a day in the life of Palestinians; he merely built a wheel that has the ability to be cast into the international spotlightYara al-Wazir
Reinventing the wheel
It is important to recognize that Banksy did not invent the wheel of allowing tourists to experience a day in the life of Palestinians; he merely built a wheel that has the ability to be cast into the international spotlight.
Opening a hotel with the glorious view of the apartheid wall is not something new. Local residents opened Anastasa’s house in 2007; the guesthouse has received great reviews on the travel website TripAdvisor.
However, there is no denying that a local guesthouse run by local people does not have the international backing or reputation to gain worldwide news. The local residents of Palestine have been making souvenirs such as the kuffiyeh and the “key” keychain for decades since the war started over 60 years ago.
While traditional souvenirs represent a political symbol of resistance, they tell the same story: 60 years ago, 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes when their land was taken from them. Banksy tells the continuation of the story: those who remained continue to suffer, generations and decades later.
Art does not trivialize war
While painting murals of a girl holding a balloon, a dove with a flag, or various slogans on the wall can be seen to trivialize the situation in Palestine, the reality is that this art can break through language barriers. For decades, artists such as Xavier Pick, Linda Kitson, and more have used their medium to communicate conflict.
Even throughout history, art pieces have lived through the wars they were painted to represent. Tactful art does not trivialize the struggle; rather it brings the situation to light. Banksy’s following of fans is international, many of who are not aware of the Palestinian cause, or even the existence of the apartheid wall.
Additionally, the gift shop is providing aid to the local community. The Walled Off Hotel’s website states that a $1000 deposit is taken to ensure that the art is not tampered with as it is seen as a donation to the local community. The items in the gift shop have been “painted by local cartspeople”.
Those who work at the hotel are also local Palestinians. Not only has this hotel helped bring the situation to light, it has also helped the local community, which is the key condition to accepting any form of cultural or historical appropriation. The future of the hotel is uncertain. If Banksy stays true to his own history, it is likely for the pieces to hotel to be taken down, and for the pieces to be sold to raise funds for the local community.
Hotel to the rest of the world
The reality of the situation is that the Israeli government bars hundreds of people from entering the border every year due to their political affiliations. Searches through mobile phone, e-mail, and social-media are almost considered to be part of the ‘standard procedure’ when flying into Tel Aviv airport. As such, there are people who are unable to see the struggle at all.
The Walled Off Hotel tells the story of a struggle by thousands of people in Palestine every day. The hotel needs to target foreigners, particularly in the Western world, who aren’t aware of the ongoing atrocities in Palestine.
If anything, a pop-up version of the hotel should be built in the West to truly depict the conflict, along with the 8 meter high wall that can be seen from the windows.
Only then will Banksy’s work truly reach the target audience and be able to garner enough attention to create change in the region.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir.