In the past week, Banksy’s “Walled off Hotel,” located in the occupied Palestinian city of Bethlehem, has generated an incredible amount of media attention.
It’s not the first time Banksy has drawn attention to the situation in Palestine – several of the artist’s paintings on Israel’s apartheid wall have become iconic images of resistance to occupation. And while some Palestine advocates have praised the hotel as an anti-colonial triumph, as a Palestinian artist and activist, who is, like many others, attempting to create work that pushes the political conversation, I couldn’t help but cringe as I began to learn more about this particular project.
The hotel, located just a few feet from Israel’s apartheid wall, is cynically billed as having the “worst view in the world.” Designed to be not-for-profit, it is effectively a living art installation that transforms the occupation into a grotesque tourist attraction for foreign consumption, all under the guise of “raising awareness” about the situation in Palestine. Despite this, the hotel still fails to increase understanding around what Palestinians are actually up against, and in many ways ends up minimizing Palestinian suffering in its narrative approach.
The most obvious visual representation of Banksy’s failure to adequately represent the situation in Palestine is the mural depicting an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian having a pillow fight. This image visually mirrors the written rationale behind the project, which is located on placards placed around the hotel, and on the hotel’s website. These written components fail to mention the occupation even once. Both the painting and these written pieces effectively normalize the situation, suggesting two sides that simply can’t get along, fighting like children.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is not that of “neighbors,” as one of the placards in the hotel suggests. Banksy’s invitation for Israelis to visit the hotel could, initially, be read as sarcastic. But when paired with the artist’s claim that the wall restricts movement “for both sides,” and the decision to include the Zionist argument that the wall is necessary for Israeli “security,” it becomes clear that the invitation is not entirely ironic.
Yet, with Jewish-only settlements, Israeli-only roads, and checkpoints facilitating Israeli travel into the West Bank, while simultaneously rendering the majority of it inaccessible to Palestinians, inviting Israelis to the hotel only reinforces the status quo. As it stands, Israelis are effectively free to travel, live, and work anywhere in Palestine, and do so on a daily basis with state and military support. Meanwhile, Palestinians living in areas of the West Bank outside of Bethlehem may not even be able to visit the hotel at all. Banksy’s approach fails to highlight this fact.
While Banksy seems to have a lot of ideas about what Palestinians need to do to achieve “peace,” the artist’s choice of Elton John as the (skyped in) performer for the hotel’s opening event demonstrated a lack regard for the kind of solidarity Palestinians are actually asking for. In 2016, John not only played a show in Tel Aviv despite calls not to from BDS activists, he also dedicated “Your Song” to Israel, and bragged onstage about violating the BDS call. It was a slap in the face to Palestinians.
Just days after the opening, Banksy withdrew an invitation to Fatboy Slim after he violated the BDS call in a similar way. But it remains to be seen whether Banksy will take the lead from Palestinians in other ways, namely, by giving those most impacted the opportunity to structure the narrative around the hotel.
Many Palestinian artists and activists have struggled for years to survive and create work under occupation and in exile, often laboring tirelessly to write our histories in the face of erasure, push forward our a narratives despite censorship, and to fight normalization.
Perhaps the hotel’s worst offense is that it fails to center Palestinian histories and narratives, yet uses Palestinian land and labor to present Banksy’s personal (and often problematic) analysis of the situation.
The hotel situates Banksy’s art and analysis alongside museum-style representations of history, such as a re-enactment of the signing of the Balfour declaration. In doing so, the project presents Banksy’s presumably even-handed analysis as cold, hard fact.
In an interview about the hotel, Banksy stated, with a kind of smug self-assurance, that because 2017 marks 100 years since the signing of Balfour, now “felt like a good time to reflect on what happens when the United Kingdom makes a huge political decision without fully comprehending the consequences.”
There is a kind of morbid irony in a British artist making such a statement while presuming the authority to parachute into occupied Palestine for the sole purpose of writing and presenting a personal take on Palestinian history and possible “solutions.” What Banksy fails to acknowledge is that the “consequence” of doing so is publicly undermining years of Palestinian efforts at writing and narrating our own histories and present realities.
Banksy has announced that the hotel will soon open a “Wall-Mart,” where hotel guests will be invited to purchase art supplies they can use to add their own message to Israel’s apartheid wall. It is fitting that an artist who feels so entitled to come in and publicly promote their own analysis on the situation, and on an international scale no less, would invite fellow outsiders to come and do the same.