In Oakland, California, twelve artists have been working diligently for the last three weeks to create a mural that covers the entirety of a 157-foot-long building in the downtown section of the city.
The artists were brought together by Art Forces, the Estria Foundation and NorCal Friends of Sabeel. Their collaborative creation expresses solidarity with Palestine, connecting each artist’s personal history to Palestine’s ongoing struggle to resist colonialism and dispossession.
Contributing artists include Native American IROT; African American and former Black Panther Emory Douglas; Japanese American Erin Yoshi; Chicano-Pacific Islander American Miguel Bounce Perez; Palestinian-American Chris Gazaleh; Asian American SPIE; Latino American Fred Alvarado; and African American Deadeyes.
Squeezed between old auto repair shops and car dealers, the mural is composed of nine separate panels unified by a theme as well as certain visual symbols. Against a sky blue background, each panel utilizes the image of a tree to tell the story of struggle and resistance. Along the bottom of the picture, we see those trees’ roots tangled with water pipes, signifying the uniquely treacherous role water plays in the lives of Palestinians, having been dispossessed of it by Israel since the state’s founding.
The mural is part of a larger project undertaken by Art Forces and Estria Foundation in 2011 to bring attention to Palestine’s lack of access to water and promote the issue as a nexus between Palestine’s and the global struggle for fair access to water.
Cartoonist, artist and long-time contributor to The Electronic Intifada Nidal El-Khairy was invited to travel to Oakland from his home in Amman, Jordan to contribute to the mural. The Estria Foundation also invited artist Dina Matar from Gaza, but she was unable to attend due to Israel’s refusal to grant her permission to leave.
But Matar still designed her panel and artist and lead organizer of the project Susan Green has been painting it onto the wall.
The dedication ceremony of the The Oakland Palestine Solidarity Mural will take place today, 10 August, a day that will also mark the opening of an art exhibition just across the street. The exhibit runs through 30 September and will feature photography from journalists covering the current Israeli assault on Gaza, work by artists from Gaza, and historical photos from the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine of 1948.
The Electronic Intifada met with El-Khairy to discuss the mural in Oakland, and his artwork in the Middle East. El-Khairy’s family is originally from Ramla, a Palestinian city whose residents were violently expelled as part of Israel’s ethnic cleansing operations in 1948, and now lies within present-day Israel.
After being forced to evacuate their homes, his family was dispersed to what are now called the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. While El-Khairy has spent most of his life in Amman, he has also lived in Massachusetts and Montreal, Canada, and has spent significant time in the West Bank, where many members of his family still live.
In Amman, he is active in Palestinian solidarity organizing, as well as in the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. In addition to The Electronic Intifada, El-Khairy’s work has appeared in Jadaliyya, the Lebanese newspapers As-Safir and Al-Akhbar — the last to which he no longer contributes.
Charlotte Silver: Could you describe the mural’s image and the various components that you painted, and how you came to design it?
Nidal El-Khairy: When I drew it I was thinking about a song that was written by a Syrian songwriter and singer, Sameeh Shqeir, and in his lyrics he says, “We die like trees standing up.” It reflects the resilience of people, their steadfastness, and their pride as well. He sang a lot of songs for Palestine during the 1970s and ’80s, and of Lebanon during its civil war [1975-1990].
When I start to create an image, the way it works is that it just happens subconsciously, I don’t really plan anything. I don’t even use a pencil to sketch it to see how it looks. I just start. And it becomes something. So I did the base filled with the refugee camps and from that comes the faces of the people — people in the trunk of the tree — and then the leaves are the faces of the new generation.
CS: Where were you when you designed it?
NE: I was in the Mission [neighborhood] of San Francisco. It wasn’t a pre-designed thing, because we decided on everything here as a group. When the nine artists met, we started to talk about a theme and how we could tie in the different struggles together, and we thought about the idea that trees are a common source of struggle when it comes to colonization — people uprooting your trees and taking over your land.
CS: What other experience do you have doing public art, like this mural?
NE: Not much — just random spray paint on the walls; in Jordan you don’t have the luxury to take time and come up with an intricate design. I worked with Susan [Green] in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps — we went there last year to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre.
Before that we went to al-Faraa refugee camp — a very, very old detention center — close to Tubas [in the northern West Bank] that is now a museum controlled by the Palestinian Authority. This place is older than Israel: it was Turkish, and then it became British, and then the Jordanians took it over, and then finally there were the Israelis.
When we went to al-Faraa we asked the youth what they wanted on the wall. It was more interactive and we got a lot of community support in the camp. Whether it was taking care of our paint or helping us move things — they participated. One of the youth said, “I like this poetry line which says, ‘I ask the Mediterranean Sea if I’m a part of you or not’ ” — because most of the refugees there are from Haifa [a Palestinian city in current-day Israel on the Mediterranean coast]. So we used this poetry line and painted a lot of faces.
CS: It must be pretty markedly different to be here where the art is presented to people who are more disengaged or aren’t invested in Palestine.
NE: This is what I’m thinking: with the editorial work that you get involved with you’re often targeting a Western audience, whether with The Electronic Intifada or Jadaliyya. I did work with Arabic newspapers but I feel that I am not doing this enough with the camps. I’ve done these projects in the last three years, but I want to do it more. But it is hard to find support to do it.
So I look at this piece in Oakland. I want to do my work in the camps with the kind of precision I’ve spent here.
CS: What makes doing it at home and in the camps more compelling?
NE: Both are important, it’s important to be in both places, because it’s important to support the BDS campaign and advocate for it.
Why is it important to do this kind of work back home? Because right now is a critical moment, but I think people back home are tired. And if I want to do something on a mural over there, it’s going to be done totally different than what I do here. Here it’s a message you’re sending; over there you really need to work with who’s there, what’re they saying, like al-Faraa camp.
You can’t go in as an outsider, as I do consider myself — as someone living in Jordan, I’m not living under the occupation — I can’t impose my ideas on someone who’s under the occupation. So it’s important to have this dialogue with your own people and see what they want on the wall. Of course not everyone will be perfectly pleased, but to get people involved in the actual painting of the mural and to build an actual relationship with these people.
CS: How do you feel that visual art and imagery can help the understanding of a subject that is so dominated by words and language?
NE: Both are important. I got started in grassroots organizing and artwork when I was in Montreal. When they mobilized for migrant workers and refugees there, they had both an art and a propaganda committee. It was important for them to have their art in demonstrations. In Jordan that is what is lacking in the “movement.” It’s all lectures, theories, but you’re just talking to yourselves. How is this translating to a lot of people? Although the Arabs have a huge history in political art: illustrators, of course [like] Naji al-Ali, Ibrahim Burhan Kakutly and Mohie El Deen El Labbad.
It’s important because what I’ve noticed is that people who are political and know theory, when they become political prisoners they find themselves really close to the common person, and they realize that all this theory is not worth shit in prison— when it comes to people, when it comes to growing as a movement and covering a wide base.
I talked to one Panther from New York — Ashanti Williams — and a guy I knew in Jordan, he was PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political faction]. Both of them shared the same experience because they were put in the same position [being imprisoned]: you have to figure out how to communicate this theory in prison.
So drawing is the same. Illustrations will make ideas simpler. When I went to Venezuela in 2010, sometimes I would think, who is going to understand this? And I was totally wrong. People just sit and look at the portfolio and they get it.
It’s a blessing to be able to communicate these ideas with illustration. It’s a tool that should be used politically and socially, in a way that anybody who passes by a mural will get the idea and they will feel it.
Palestinians, we had our propaganda posters during the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. They were brilliant.
CS: When did you start drawing?
NE: I think everyone starts when they’re kids. I remember in the first [Palestinian] uprising, in the late 1980s, we were drawing other kids throwing stones. I used to go back and forth to Palestine every summer. I was exposed to the humiliation on the Bridge [the Allenby Bridge, the Israeli-controlled border crossing used from Jordan to the occupied West Bank] by the Israelis at a very early age. I thought strip-searching was normal. I thought that taking my clothes off was normal going to this place. Witnessing the first intifada, this is what I drew about, this is what I saw. It wasn’t a choice, it was involuntary, what we were drawing.
CS: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work on the mural in Oakland?
NE: I’m just honored to work with all these other artists and Native communities. I was familiar with the Black Panthers and Native struggles, but after this trip I want to get more involved and learn more. Sometimes I feel like everything centers on Palestine, but we need to give more, like we used to do in the ’60s and ’70s — when Palestinian artists were involved in other causes in Latin America — so I want to do that.
Mural images courtesy of Hillary Hacker.