Monday, September 30, 2013

Anonymous Words

The Artist Lab gathered recently to hear Adam Heffez talk about the meaning embedded in the graffiti of Israel and the West Bank.  The theme of this past year’s Artists’ Lab was Text-Context-Subtext and I don’t think there could be a topic more to the point than this discussion.  Graffiti is composed of text as well as image. It needs to be evaluated in its context to fully understand its meaning and subtext.  It is an uncensored expression and as such presents insight into the views of the people in the region.

Adam has written a book Words & Walls: Social Commentary through Graffiti in Israel and the West Bank which shares graffiti that represents the views of not only Israelis and Palestinians, but also the division within those groups, reminding us that each group does not speak with one voice.  Adam is a Middle East foreign policy analyst who became interested in the local graffiti in the course of his work in the region. He lives in Washington, DC, but accumulated his material while living in both Israel and Jordan.  

Adam shared a number of images with us on such themes as Holocaust related imagery, Arab-Israeli divisions, terrorism and peace. We frequently began by identifying where the graffiti was located and considering what languages it was written in as we tried to decipher the intended audience and the authorship.  In many cases Adam tracked down the creator of the graffiti so he often had a first-hand interpretation of the meaning. He pointed out that the Arab community was a closed community where saying what one thinks is not encouraged. That means that graffiti is one of the ways that people can express themselves anonymously.  Often we would see conversations where the opposing or amplifying view was expressed in relationship to the initial graffiti.

I have always been intrigued by the visual impact of graffiti, but had never delved into the content.  In the case of Adam’s material I lacked both the language proficiency and sufficient knowledge of the cultural issues to fully grasp it without a guide.  As this exploration began with visual material I would encourage you to access a slide show of some images at Tikkun or Tablet Magazine.  Among these you will see one that I found particularly moving.  It took the national anthem HaTikvah and translated it into more inclusive verse.  Here is the graffiti artist’s version.

As long as deep in the heart
The human soul yearns Inside, backwards, and forward,
To justice, an eye sees
Our hope will not be lost
The hope of the dawn of days
To be cool in our land
The land of [crossed out] and Israelis

Now contrast that with the actual lyrics below.

As long as in the heart within 
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The focus on a Jewish nation is clearly dominant from a Jewish soul to worshiping facing east.  The altered version appears to be more inclusive to the Arab minority.  A word which we believed was Arab was crossed out and we debated the meaning of that.  Was it saying that both Arabs and Jews were Israelis and amplifying the inclusive message or was it excluding Arabs?

We examined imagery related to keys, a powerful image in the Palestinian community where many left their homes with their house key in their pocket and still expect to return to open the door to their home.  Adam spoke of, a mall which now stood on the site of a former village, a fact that was not acknowledged by the Palestinians from that original town.  Palestinians are stuck in a sort of limbo, afraid to leave the refugee camp as that would end their right to return and unable to move forward with their lives without leaving the camp.  There is a divide within the Palestinian community between those who remain in the camps and those who left and considerable pressure to stay.  Similarly there is a divide in the Jewish community between secular Jews and the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox.  Graffiti represented different voices from these various communities.

Heffez shares graffiti that represents many perspectives.  He doesn't take one position, but rather his focus is on using graffiti as a means to gain a better understanding of the beliefs of people in the region, beliefs that are unfiltered by political spokespersons. 

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