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The Journey of Challenging Walls

By Vanini Belarmino Berlin, Germany

This article was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports, Republic of South Korea as a part of the Hub City for Asia Culture project.

Art is not the solution nor it is the conflict but it has the power to create awareness, build a base for discussion and a starting point for action,” declares Ruthe Zuntz when asked about her view on the role of art in conflict. The art-peace project Challenging Walls (CW), which Zuntz initiated together with her Walkscreen Co-Founding Director, Michael Reitz, was conceived in Berlin by the creative duo with the aim of drawing attention to the lives of people living within the parameter of physical and mental walls using art as a vehicle for peace and understanding.

Challenging Walls photo installation along the separation wall in Israel and Palestine. Photo: Uta Freia Beer

Challenging Walls photo installation along the separation wall in Israel and Palestine. Photo: Uta Freia Beer

After two and half years of preparatory work, CW was launched along the separation wall in Israel and Palestine manifested through a large-scale 60-metre photo installation series and international conference in July 2007. With firm commitment to realise this ambitious independent artist initiative, eventually the organisers succeeded gathering the support of established funding institutions like the European Commission, Institute for Foreign Affairs, European Cultural Foundation to name a few. A detail not to be missed in commending the project initiators is in securing the permit to use the wall from the Israeli authorities (military, border police) and moreover, convincing and finding a Palestinian partner, Al Quds University, amidst the existence of an embargo boycotting cooperation projects involving Israeli artists/intellectuals.

As the brainchild of Israeli and West-German born artist-photographers Zuntz and Reitz, CW took pride in presenting not only artistic works but personal experiences of individuals and/or artists who have had their share of living in wall divided environments using their artistic talents in visualising both their personal narratives and critical perspectives about the manifestation of walls.

Together with an alliance of photographers, artists, researchers and institutions originating from the opposite sides of the boundaries in Cyprus (Greek and Turkish), Northern Israel (Catholic and Protestant), Germany (former East and West) and Israel/Palestine, CW provided a glimpse of the realities that exist in conflict regions and/or those areas that have history of physical division. Through the language of images, stories about the lives of the people in the wall challenged nations, the CW art installation made the 9-metre high separation wall between Israel and Palestine momentarily invisible, using 640 images of daily life taken by 8 participating photographers.

“We are firm believers that art is a universal language of communication and has the power to open zones that are normally blocked. It has a way of touching and appealing to people’s hearts and minds, far stronger that geographical or physical divides, “ states Reitz as he explains the process creation took place between the participating photographers coming from the opposite sides of the wall who worked as couples to capture the nuances of day to day living in their neighbourhood. This was one of the bold steps taken by the project organisers to signify the overcoming of the mental and concrete divides – enabling each of them to meet the so called “other”. The individuals who were involved in the work processes, either as active and passive contributors witnessed the possibilities of opening windows of understanding between and amongst individuals when the mask of the so called enemy from behind is put aside. With the photographs taken by photographers coming from the both sides of the conflict areas, CW was able to highlight the similarities of people while simultaneously presenting the diversities in the way of seeing and narrating perspectives through the artistic installation.

In the process of documenting the daily rituals, practices and ways of life reflected in the photographs, CW offered a fresh perspective to the audiences, many realities, which were not usually visible, providing a view of oneself and that of the other, stories that cannot simply be expressed through written or spoken words but can be verified with the moments captured through images.

As the area of the installation took place in Abu Dis in Jerusalem, with the Israeli side taking place in the military zone parallel to the Al Quds University on the Palestinian side, shuttling over 500 Israelis over two-days from the centre of Jerusalem was an experience in itself. It was interesting to note that many of the Israelis, who took the bus to view the art installation in wall, were first time ‘wall visitors.’ On the Palestinian side, it generated positive attention from those living within the vicinity as well as the university student body.

When questioned about the political stand of CW, Walkscreen retorts, “We are artists not politicians. We are not interested in defining any political position.  We believe in the importance of continued exchange between artists to facilitate communication and understanding through artistic process.  When artists cease to speak to each other, it is a reaffirmation of the wall’s existence.” Both Zuntz and Reitz are aware that the situation in these areas (conflict regions) is generally associated if not joint to the politics of the wall, but the efforts are addressed to communicate people stories and not politics. The two initiators further stressed that CW is not about the wall nor does it wish to speak, represent, defend or take either side but rather getting in touch and putting people in contact with people, their sensibilities, their values.

Now, nine months since the successful implementation of Challenging Walls, similar to the process of child conception in a mother’s womb, the journey of rearing CW continues in Berlin, Germany on 2-6 June 2008. This time, together with the Akademie der Kuenste (AdK), CW pursues the exploration of diverse creative languages in an intimate gathering with the AdK scholars together with invited artists and researchers from Germany and abroad, in preparation for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Fall of the Berlin Walls in 2009.

Embarking on a new journey towards the articulation of stories specific to the Berlin Wall, talks, forums, film screenings, performances, inspirational meetings and interdisciplinary exchanges will be organised for this Spring meeting in Germany.

Following the believe of Zuntz and Reitz in the importance of continued exchange by starting on grass roots efforts of independent artists, CW will once again engage people and artists in a reciprocal dialogue through its activities and open up a space/s for the different voices to speak up, be heard, have a conversation and establish a neutral environment.


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