Don’t confuse me with the monkey: on Banksy’s 'Walled Off Hotel'
The Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem. Courtesy The Walled Off Hotel.
Upon entering Banksy's Walled Off Hotel, strategically located in Bethlehem where the concrete structure of the Israeli separation wall cuts through the city, I am greeted by a Palestinian man dressed in the costume of a British doorman. I ask him if I can take his photograph. He responds with a yes, but that he does not want to be framed with the now-famous sculpture of a monkey wearing a bellhop's uniform at the entrance, holding a suitcase that opens to reveal what appears to be personal belongings. I adhere to his request but ask him why. He says: 'I don't want people to confuse me with the monkey.'
His response opened up a debate in my head as I made my journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem across multiple checkpoints, and gazing on the unavoidable view of the Israeli separation wall that now violently marks the landscape. Also referred to as 'the apartheid wall', or as the Israelis like to refer to it 'the security fence', the wall is more than a concrete structure of surveillance. It is a system of division that confiscated strategic Palestinian agricultural lands, interrupted natural Palestinian urban expansion, and separated Palestinian cities from other cities and villages, and from Israel. Most importantly, it is a clear marker by Israel to create a reality on the ground that would dictate any future final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When The Walled Off Hotel was initially unveiled unexpectedly one day on 3 March 2017 as a hotel with the most 'unsightly view' in the world, it felt like the surprise release of Beyoncé's monumental visual album Lemonade, which was first aired on HBO to great acclaim on 26 April 2016. In today's world, only a few artists with a certain pedigree of fame and independent financial resources could create a mega-project with a political message that involves many people, yet keep its details under wraps until the right moment, thus creating publicity and circulation on the project's own terms. An undeniable 'wow' factor takes over.
We are missing an element of surprise in art today. We live in a time where everything is made public. Art, activism, cultural, political and social projects have bought into the marketing idea of exposure and transparency—making an idea public from its very inception. As a result, marketing and fundraising have become synonymous, with projects gaining momentum through fundraising strategies that engage the public from their inception. In that way, we as the 'public' have been missing the power of the basic ingredient of surprise—and it's only artists like Beyoncé and Banksy who currently have the privilege to remind us of this.
So already there is something satisfying about Banksy's PR-savvy Walled Off Hotel. By definition, Banksy is not Beyoncé—a pop artist who has figured out a position of power that is strategic in both its marketing and its economic gain, while also delivering a social, cultural and political message. Banksy is a street graffiti artist, whose political gestures have always been part of his power and notoriety. And over the last decade we have witnessed him push the boundaries of what this means. To begin with, he created a commercial market for his work by offering it for collection, then directly intervened within the sphere of commercial gallery spaces and art museums by exhibiting within and selling through them. Both of these gestures, although problematic to many of his initial fans, created an independent financial reality for the artist, which marked his legacy.
But unlike many of the projects Banksy has created in the past, The Walled Off Hotel has an additional layer of 'How did he do this?' to it. For one, unlike his earlier temporary intervention project Dismaland (21 August–27 September 2015), which consisted of a constructed dystopian world in a derelict seaside resort in Weston-super-Mare that appropriated Disneyland's theme park aesthetics, The Walled Off Hotel takes things further. It does so by using mega-dystopian and surreal aesthetics that are built upon an already dystopian reality—the Israeli separation wall and all its baggage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The message, it seems, is that this situation's absurdity needs to be pushed to the max in order for it to be comprehended.
No matter how you feel about it, The Walled Off Hotel, which is made up of nine bedrooms, a gallery space hosting an exhibition of Palestinian artists, and a permanent museum dedicated to the biography of the wall, has quickly become a tourist attraction, and has been met with a range of local reactions. There are those who have accused Banksy of fetishising the occupation, like curator and architect Nora Akawi who boldly stated, 'Apartheid porn is nothing to celebrate'.1 Others have embraced the project and its satirical humour as an attempt to bring much-needed attention to the plight of Palestinians in light of the now seemingly permanent reality created by the wall. Some have interpreted the museum wall text and other statements made by the artist on the project's website—which openly reaches out to Israeli visitors—as a way of neutralising the conflict. A wall painting of an Israeli soldier engaging in a pillow-fight with a Palestinian protestor above one of the hotel beds was seen as normalising and levelling out the field between the oppressor and the oppressed. For many Palestinian visitors, the belief was that Banksy was not taking up a clear pro-Palestinian position, yet benefiting from his association with Palestine.
In reality, the for-profit nature of the hotel itself is an important element of the project: budget bunk beds are a modest $30 per night, the cost of the luxury rooms is not specified but there is an immediate $1000 deposit, and non-local visitors pay a museum entrance fee. The Walled Off Hotel also encourages financial transactions through its museum bookshop and Piano Bar, which serves some food and tea. Even the gallery space, curated by Dr Housni Alkhateeb Shehada, has the declared intention of selling original artworks and postcards. So Banksy appears to be making a statement for a sustainable economy that takes on the form of a privately owned business model built on both art and politics, in order to push against the stunted tourism economy of the city of Bethlehem in particular, but also of Palestine as a whole. However, nowhere on the project's main website is this issue of 'money' mentioned, beyond the promise of providing locals with jobs. For example, do the profits go directly to the owner of the hotel, Wisam Salsaa, who played an important role as the key local partner during the press launch, but is not listed on the project's website?
Some, like Tamara Nasser,2 see The Walled Off Hotel as a cynical gesture about gentrification within this particular area of Bethlehem. But this argument is built on shaky grounds, since the local businesses within this area have already been displaced by the separation wall's suffocation of the city. If anything, Banksy's gesture can be read as making that very suffering and absurd reality into a commodity that Palestinians can financially gain from. This latter view is perhaps more uncomfortable because of its underlying cynicism and suggestion that Palestinians can and should see their suffering as a commodity.
This flirtation with Palestine, and art and politics in relation to commerce, has a precedent within Palestinian contemporary art. Paintings by Sliman Mansour that have now defined Palestinian resistance and nationalism have been auctioned off at Sotheby's in the past few years. Khalil Rabah controversially created the Third Annual Wall Zone Auction performance exhibition at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah in 2004, where he auctioned objects taken from the natural environment and the surroundings of the wall. Rabah commented, 'I wanted to auction the wall because I didn't want it to be a natural institution where people paint on it. Let's sell it. Get rid of all of it.'3 In recent years Khaled Jarrar created concrete sculptures based on sporting paraphernalia: footballs, volleyballs, basketballs and ping-pong rackets that were formed from materials secretly chiseled by the artist from the separation wall.4
I don't want to dwell much on the aesthetics of The Walled Off Hotel (from the fact that people can lounge on a leather sofa while overlooking the actual wall, to the commissioned art and design of each of the hotel's nine rooms). The hotel's Wall Museum uses a standard tongue-in-cheek tone for all of its components, which are made up from a range of media-films, video animation, photographs, illustrations, posters and other paraphernalia, to narrate the wall within a biography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the very obvious British involvement in it. (Starting from the British Balfour Declaration; the 1948 Nakba; the Arab-Israeli War of 1967; the First and Second Intifada; the Peace Process and the construction of the Israeli wall and its blockade of the Gaza Strip.) My simple conclusion is that The Walled Off Hotel, with all of its humour and grand gestures, seems to be 'The Wall For Dummies', only because the wall is a reality with a very apparent absurdity if you travel through any part of the occupied Palestinian territories.
If I was not Palestinian myself living within this reality, I could see how using humour to engage with this dark reality might work. Banksy's project proves that the Israeli occupation is not absurd enough for people to register it. You need to be able to drink British-style tea in a lounge overlooking the wall in order to truly see it. This might be a bit of a harsh characterisation for those who will visit Palestine and intentionally visit the hotel to get a quick and intense summary of what they would already see and experience if they travelled within the occupied Palestinian territories. Not only does The Walled Off Hotel offer the 'most unsightly' view in the world, it also offers an experience as disconcerting as its context.
While navigating through the hotel's Wall Museum I became aware that I was being shadowed, until I finally confronted the hotel representative about their issue with my note-taking. I was told I had not obtained permission to write notes, to which I responded: 'Given the public nature of this project I was not aware that I needed permission.' As I stood at the museum's entrance to jot down some final thoughts, I was again met with interrogation. In this hyper-absurd situation it was hard to tell whether I experienced an enactment of Israeli security treatment, or a real place of insecurity towards local journalists who speak Arabic due to the local criticisms surrounding the project.
There is an underlying discomfort to The Walled Off Hotel, in that Palestinians are essentially performing their struggle within a pretext of a joke, which brings us back to the request the doorman made on my arrival to not be photographed alongside the monkey. For this man to make a point about separating himself from the sculpture means that he is aware he is performing something. That holds true to the Palestinian performance of reality throughout this project—there is an awareness that those involved are playing a role, but the question of whether this performative role is empowering or demeaning remains.
I made my way outside the hotel to a frantic scene. The one-way road leading to the hotel along the separation wall is undergoing construction, creating a false sense of a traffic-jam in an otherwise desolate area: tourist buses dropping off groups, other tourists making what seems like a new pilgrimage-walk around the separation wall in Bethlehem. This area will not remain desolate for long. The Walled Off Hotel will create an effect on the economy that activates politics, art and tourism. And as Palestinians who will perform different roles around this scenario, I hope we remember the words of the doorman: 'Please don't confuse me with the monkey.' —[O]
1 Facebook Status, 5 March 2017.
2 See: http://mondoweiss.net/2017/03/banksys-walled-gentrification/
3 'Displacement and Re-placement' by Stanley J Milan, http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?164
4 See: http://www.ayyamgallery.com/exhibitions/khaled-jarrar