Demands for walls loom large in many nations today. Greece just completed a wall against migrants entering through Turkey. Walls and fences also interrupt our southern border, initiated and halted depending on who is president. A solid wall has loomed large in Israel since 1994. The “Israeli West Bank barrier,” “security fence,” “apartheid wall,” or “anti-terrorist fence” has been supported by candidates from both of our major parties. It was regarded as a model for Trump, who promised to build a wall that would keep out other people from a land they once inhabited and share the same aspirations as all human beings. Few presidential candidates (past and present) have dared to challenge a lynchpin of American foreign policy: its continued support of Israel. To continue, reshape, or withdraw that support is an issue that immediately polarizes but has great implications for freedom and captivity.
Life in Israel and Palestine is polarized and riffed with divisions of all kinds. There are lines between those in control and those who are controlled, barriers between the visible and the invisible, and chasms between the displaced and the settled. The instruments of these divisions, arising from political and ideological abstraction, often obscure what is happening on the ground—whether delight or profound misery.
AXES OF ACCESS presents images divided by poles, edges of walls, or doorways. Each axis is either a linear glimpse of ordinary life or a threshold between free entry, exchange, or its denial. Sections of the Separation Wall flank each axis or act as claustrophobic backdrops; the wall is always present mentally, if not physically.
The wall’s graffiti are marks of protest; when magnified, they resemble gestures of American Abstract Expressionism—a painting movement that the CIA and State Department promoted as an instrument of the cultural Cold War. Abstract Expressionism stood for autonomy: the autonomy of art in abandoning its mimetic role of representing the world and becoming absorbed in its own possibilities, as well as the autonomy of individuals to engage in pure expression. Its abstract nature resisted specific meaning or problematic content. Despite its artists’ actual politics and intentions, it was presumed to be apolitical, safely serving to promulgate American principles of individual liberty and freedom of expression. This glorification of autonomy is selective when applied to people abroad.
Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II. Its policies effectively deny autonomy to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. The “Separation Wall” is part of that denial. Abstracting its graffiti may parallel all the political niceties that seem to lead nowhere, beautifully excising all meaning from its raw, scrawled slogans. But neither beautiful words nor images can disguise or minimize the structure’s impact. They cannot temper the injustice that the wall perpetrates, ease the hardship it inflicts, or eradicate the ignorance it perpetuates. This barrier blinds Israelis to life as it is lived behind the wall, both the deprivations it causes (inadequate water, travel bans and restrictions, denial of permits that would allow modern amenities and updates, constant inspections and interrogations, and more) and the small pleasures that persist despite it (birthday parties and cotton candy, adorning one’s hair and dressing up, TV shows, and soccer balls). These are not abstractions.
Not knowing instills fear. Not seeing the humanity of one’s supposed enemies keeps them enemies. Instead of “axes of evil,” we need axes of access. We need fewer walls, not more.
I create art that deals with emotional trauma; I want to show the audience works that prompt them to remember and uncover the emotional pain that has been forced down into their psyches. If the pain can be brought to the surface, the viewer would be able to rethink it, share it with others, and translate it into action that would allow further healing.
There are many aspects to trauma in today’s world. Today over one-third of the world is uprooted and forced to move because of climate change, war, poverty, disease, and political or religious affiliation. Many of these people will spend their entire lives in internment camps. There are more people interned now than after World War II.
In addition to the detained population, there are still the survivors of the Holocaust, their children, and others who have survived forced migration after World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and now new global conflicts. People with a trauma history of forced migration are a significant part of the population and may even be in the majority. The trauma of internment is equal to the trauma created by mass incarceration. Both result in the loss of personal control over one’s location, living conditions, and decision-making. Art may be relevant to those who have experienced this trauma or serve as a historical reminder of when and what happened to those lucky enough not to be affected by it.
Art that deals with trauma is not a factual representation of a specific event or happening, but a catalyst that opens the psychic wounds and allows auditory or visual traumatic memories to emerge from the subconscious mind and be resolved. People may feel less alone and isolated and can begin the healing process. Understanding our trauma and healing are necessary first steps for one to imagine or “feel” what it will be like, in a better world without massive incarceration.
The use of art in helping children who have experienced physical or emotional trauma has been studied for over fifty years. Children who are gravely ill first draw images of the “bad or scary” things such as bombs, arrows, or missiles coming down on them. Children who have been abused draw large peering eyes, blackened windows, a person larger and outside of the main group, etc. After the children receive support and therapy, their pictures change, showing a person hugging them, flowers, sun, rainbows, etc.
For me to visualize how we are going to make a better, safer world without internment or massive incarceration, I made the works Internment and Broken. I needed to create the horror of the trauma. My piece Gimme Shelter made me realize that without my own space that I have control over and feel safe in, I would not be able to create. I would be broken.
Good Bye, Bad Old Days
Here’s what life was like in the bad old days, the days when students, for example, absorbed what was handed down from white men who controlled information and therefore thought. (As I tell my beloved white male relatives, I appreciate all that white men have created or invented, but it is easier when you control all the opportunities.) The first question at the University of New Hampshire’s World History 101 class was: “Has the United States ever held its citizens in concentration camps?” Shocking! Of course not! Because in the ’60s, only two decades into celebrating victory in WWII, no one disclosed imprisoning Japanese Americans. I knew zero about the Holocaust but received a crash course when, at the age of 16, I read the plaques and signs in Dachau.
Recently, I found a letter my widowed mother wrote to relatives that was full of frustration at being denied advancement or even pay equal to the men in her office. In terms of art, there’s an entire history of excluding women artists. “Is the body a prison?”
I am enjoying today’s societal change as people who were excluded are now acknowledged for persisting and contributing. I thrill at the opportunities for my granddaughter. Reading the names on US sports rosters is a broad lesson in immigration. I was taught a narrow history but now revel in access to vast knowledge. The only way to never repeat the bad old days is to understand what needs fixing and then get to work.
Image at top: Susanne Slavick, AXES OF ACCESS: Diversion/Devotion, archival inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper, 6.7 x 10.5 in., 2014 (photo taken at the West Bank in 2013).