Story and photos by G. JAMES DAICHENDT
In 2002, Israel approved the construction of the most infamous wall in the world: the Israeli West Bank Barrier. The State of Israel intends for it to serve as a security blockade against terrorist attacks. The Palestinians on the other side of the wall see it in a negative light. To those who live in the West Bank the wall has become an unfortunate tool that has created a form of racial segregation that cuts off wages, social services, farmland, and schools from those who live there. While the towns along the wall have limited violence, the wall has also blighted many Palestinian villages.
This summer I had the opportunity to cross the security checkpoint from Israel into the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where the street artist Banksy has established an installation and hotel, appropriately named the Walled Off Hotel (humorously sounding like the renowned and luxurious Waldorf Hotel). The fully functioning hotel and art gallery claims to have the worst view in the world; that serves as a smart critique of Middle Eastern politics.
Banksy has long been interested in the West Bank Barrier, having painted several large pieces on it over the years. His views are quite obvious, stating that the wall "essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.” To bring attention to this frustrating circumstance, Banksy’s hotel is both a commercial venture and a critique, adequately capturing the dilemma the artist often falls into as a populist who makes accessible imagery yet strives for larger ideals. Encouraging tourists to cross the checkpoint, the hotel leverages the artist’s popularity to draw visitors to Palestine, something they may be frightened to do if they watch western news.
The hotel opened its doors during the winter of 2017 directly opposite a section of the wall that predated it by 15 years. The dirt road is now paved, and this small section of street appears to have been slightly upgraded because of the venture. These minor improvements may be considered both negative and positive changes since many locals are obviously not fans of the wall and would prefer to not normalize it.
The nine-room hotel houses an art gallery featuring Palestinian artists, a gift shop that sells Banksy-approved pieces (some painted by local artists), and a graffiti shop that hosts workshops so visitors can paint the wall. However, there is a lot of sadness in this part of Palestine and such a spectacle seems odd and insensitive. This juxtaposition is not lost in the design; you can even spend the night in the hotel bunker rooms that can be reserved for a discounted price.
There is reverence and apprehension for the hotel by locals. Cake$, a Palestinian street artist, says the “Banksy Hotel is like big white male (instead of whale) as Greyson Perry told once about art market.” It’s a huge force and one that clearly attracts a number of international artists, including a recent visit by Lush Sux, who painted several huge pieces around the area of the hotel (and a few for the gift shop).
Art for The Walled Off Hotel. Click on photo to enlarge.
The creations and artwork within the hotel are really what appeal to Banksy fans. The lobby functions as a giant installation with several small pieces curated around the space.
Visual overload is an understatement; there is a lot to take in. Two bowls placed next to one another feature fish that want to kiss but are held back by their isolated locations. Another three-dimension installation features a faux cat attempting to capture a bird locked in a cage, while a painting opposite the gift shop depicts young children climbing over St. Peter’s gates to gain entry into heaven.
Notice the theme? The “on-the-nose” messaging is part of the frustration with Banksy but it’s also why he’s universally understood and fun to engage with.
As one peers through the windows of the hotel, the contrast of the ironically luxurious interior with the gray slabs of concrete that make up the wall just outside is stunning. The walls feel insurmountable and the sections continue in an unending rhythm down the street and out of sight. The lookout/sniper towers that reach up higher in particular areas reinforce a trapped feeling, much like if you were to fall into a well and several enemies watched you from the top to ensure you could not escape. Yet there is an escapist mentality inside the hotel and it’s very easy to forget where you are.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has layers of history, and while this wall was intended to prevent attacks, it had dreadful effects on several communities. Cake$ reminded me that, “Painting the wall in Bethlehem is like overpainting the horizon.” The Walled Off Hotel is so much more than a painting on a wall; it’s a political statement that encourages people to cross the border, support local artists, and stands as a symbol of protest, while simultaneously functioning as a profitable business that is booked solid, much like Banksy himself.
G. James Daichendt is Dean of the Colleges and Professor of Art History at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of 'Kenny Scharf: In Absence of Myth, Shepard Fairey: Artist/Professional/Vandal" and "The Urban Canvas: Street Around the World."
Murals on the West Bank barrier commenting on Middle Eastern politics. Click on photo to enlarge.