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Photo by Sherry Ann

On Walls, States of Exception, and the Power of Public Art

The wall at the US southern border and the wall in Israel are are material testaments to ethnic exclusion. Both walls are partially constructed. Both are resisted and ridiculed by public art.

Walls are presently dominating the domestic politics of both the United States and the State of Israel. Both physical and conceptual, the walls in both political contexts are material testaments to ethnic exclusion as well as symbolic structures of anti-Indigenous national security ideology. Both walls are partially constructed. Both are justified by their respective country’s exceptionalist claims. Both are resisted and ridiculed by public art.

The Government of Israel began constructing a barrier around Palestinian population centers within the occupied West Bank in mid-2002. The barrier’s route, especially in boundary zones like Bethlehem and Qalqilya, serves a double biopolitical function of limiting the expansion of Palestinian areas while maximizing possibilities for the ‘natural growth’ of adjacent, Jewish-only settlements. As a symbol, the barrier harkens back to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s 1923 essay promoting an “Iron Wall” to frame colonial Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine and figures the state’s relations to its Arab neighbors. 

In the United States, President Trump has intensified his quest to build a southern border wall by declaring a state of emergency. He promotes the wall as a national security priority protecting American ‘sovereignty’ and ‘greatness’ by preventing the immigration of Mexicans, South Americans, and Muslims framed as threats to both national character and the personal safety of normative American citizens

Both the State of Israel and the United States rely on exceptionalist claims to justify their wall-building projects. Carl Schmitt’s opening maxim ofPolitical Theology(1922)—“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”—is followed by the expanded reflection that “the exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.” President Trump’s invocation of a state of exception to build the border wall verges into that territory; although the 1974 National Emergencies Act gives the Executive such authority, it has not been usedto subvert constitutional checks and balances from the legislative branch. Such an obfuscatory claim to exceptional action is analogous to Israel’s continual efforts to reject normative interpretations of international humanitarian law in order to normalize and perpetuate Jewish controlover territory belligerently occupied by Israel since 1967. These two states share intertwined and mutually reinforcing mythologies of exceptionalism, the basis of their claims to miraculous legal exceptions.

Given the global monopoly over economic, political and military power presently enjoyed by the United States and the State of Israel, subverting their claims of exception is left to the sphere of civil society. This resistance is most effective in grassroots civil society activismtrans-Indigenous solidarity(what Steven Salaita has called Inter/Nationalism) and public art. The walls built by the United States and the State of Israel to protect their demographic priorities from undesired populations have been clear targets for subversive public art. 

Although Bethlehem is a modern city in occupied Palestinian territory, it is inescapably linked, in the western world, with the birth and infancy narratives of Jesus. Graphic design and graffiti artists have exploited this double reality by merging Christmas imagery with contemporary life.

The images range from relatively crude graffiti …

Photo by Sherry Ann
Photo by Sherry Ann

… to renowned British graffiti artist Banksy:

Photo by RASA

In Bethlehem and other densely populated Palestinian cities hemmed in by the separation barrier, graffiti is the public art of choice. In August 2017, Australian graffiti artist Lushsuxbrought the two walls together during President Trump’s visit to Palestine and Israel. Juxtaposing a depiction of the President at the Kotel—a portion of a retaining wall from Herod’s Temple platform—against the wall in Bethlehem, the artist depicted Trump’s thoughts: “I’m going to build you a brother.”

‘I’m going to build you a brother’ reads new West Bank separation wall graffito (AFP)

Public art on the US-Mexico border has often sought to humanize immigrants and citizens of Mexico who do not wish to immigrate. In the 1980s, after a series of immigrant-related deaths on California highways, the state placed several signswarning motorists of people who may be crossing busy roads. 

The signs inspired a series of parodies, some intended to emphasize the humanity or promise of persons crossing the border.

The Orange Country Dream Team helped promote the DACA program, while political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz emphasized the pursuit of freedom by representing the fleeing family dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

In September 2017, installation artist JR, who has also worked in the West Bank, constructed a scaffolding-based piece in Tecate, immediately adjacent to the US-Mexico border.

Installation by artist JR.

The piece shows one-year-old Kikito, a resident in Tecate, looking playfully over the US-Mexico border wall. As JR’s website says, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.” 

The present US border with Mexico was set as a result of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In Race and Manifest Destiny, Reginald Horsman details how the border is not just political but racial. At the time, a newspaper argued “We are Anglo-Saxon Americans; it was our ‘destiny’ to possess and to rule this continent—we were bound to it! We were a chosen people, and this was our allotted inheritance, and we must drive out all other nations before us!” In the end, Horsman concluded, the “Rio Grande boundary … was the most acceptable to the majority of Americans as it obtained the largest possible area from Mexico with the least number of Mexicans.”

Horsman’s observation that American “settlers wanted all of the land and none of the Indians,” was echoed Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling’s 2003 conclusion that Ariel Sharon’s policies, including the Separation Barrier, were driven by a “desire to possess the whole Land of Israel without the Palestinian inhabitants.” These are the policies that set the US border on the Rio Grande, that established the Israeli separation barrier mostly within the West Bank, and that President Trump, through his declared state of exception, is seeking to protect today. Public art, it appears, is the tool most effectively addressing these interlocking concerns and sparking pro-Indigenous resistance to confederated American/Israeli settler coloniality.

In the face of walls that are physical monuments to xenophobia, exclusion, and political theological commitments to states of exception, public art demonstrates its capacity to transcend, challenge, ridicule and subvert ethno-nationalist presuppositions and the national security ideologies they spawn. In the face of death-dealing biopolitical and necropolitical systems of surveillance and control, public art, even when produced by monied elites, creates cracks through which subalternized voices can speak and be heard. 

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Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, partisan murals litter the landscape of Northern Ireland reminding all of the thirty-year civil war between Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

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On Walls, States of Exception, and the Power of Public Art

The wall at the US southern border and the wall in Israel are are material testaments to ethnic exclusion. Both walls are partially constructed. Both are resisted and ridiculed by public art.

Democratic Discernment and the Fate of Community Murals

To illustrate the centrality of democratic discernment in the fate of public art, I turn to two cases where the voices of local communities have been ignored in decisions about the removal of murals from public spaces on the Northside of Denver, Colorado.

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