I have walked the length and breadth of many a wall over this past year but there are three that stand out decidedly more than all the others. They are the ‘Peace wall’ of Belfast, the ‘Separation wall of Palestine’ and the crumbling ‘Berlin wall.’
These particular walls stand out to me for two main reasons: The first is the years of conflict and fear that have been passed down along their lines as so much blood has been spilt in the name of religion and opinion and freedom and oppression. Walls that were built high between the people, both figuratively and in reality. Thank God that at least one of them, in Berlin, has slowly crumbled away. The second reason that these walls have grabbed my attention is the artistry that drapes itself upon them.
Just a few months ago my wife and I were walking around the beautiful and fractured city of Belfast. We made our way over to the western suburbs where much of the violence of the past had been situated. There, between the red, white and blue of the Union Jack and the green, white and gold of the Irish Nationalists, stands tall a fence. Commonly called the ‘Peace Wall’, it, along with many others in Belfast, were first constructed in 1969, to separate Protestant areas from Catholic. Some of the fences have been torn down, others still cut a line through the neighborhood. A physical wall of separation standing as a mirror to the deeper socio-cultural walls of separation.
In the part of Belfast where we walked the wall is covered in the signatures and scribblings and artwork of thousands of tourists. It has also become a place of commissioned artistic mural. Local artists and youth initiatives have brought sculpture and poetry and painting and graffiti art to the wall. Much of it as statements of solidarity and the desire to see the wall torn down both physically and socially.
In Berlin it is the same. In one particular section of what used to be the separating wall of East and West there is now an official gallery of wall art with contributors from all over the world.
The final wall we experienced was this past week as I write here from Jerusalem in Israel. The Israel/Palestinian conflict is one of the most bloody and sad continuing realities in our world. There has been a horrific amount of displacement and oppression that has sunk such a wall deep into the foundations of this land. Yet, once again, the artists have come out in droves to make their mark upon this dividing wall. Not just Banksy and his famous graffiti, but on the walls that surround Bethlehem, on the Palestinian side, there is a mass of artistic expression from hundreds and possibly thousands of artists.
What I realised in each of these places, looking up at each of these dividing walls, was that the artistry sits atop the fence as a complete defiance of the fence. It is held up by that which it challenges. It is subversive. I like this about art. That it has the ability to sit between us. Not as a separating wall. But as the creative expression of a common desire. It makes bridges out of walls. In this sense it is prophetic. In that it sees what could be and declares it. It whispers to people of a new reality. A world beyond our walls and our conflicts. It encourages us to step over the walls that separate us and see what lies on the other side.
Such artistic expression reminds me of the work of Goncalo Mabunda, an artist from Mozambique. He creates stunning sculptures out of the rifles and the bullets that once were shot in the violence of that nation. It is an aesthetic of redemption. The artistry of peace. He makes his sculptures knowing full well that he may be making them out of the very guns that have killed his family members and neighbours.
As a poet and as a writer I must recognise that every piece that I create will either perpetuate the walls that separate or they will subvert them. Whether I want to realise it or not, as soon as I let others see my artistic creations they become in and of themselves a social statement. They become a perpetuation of the walls or a step toward dismantling them. As a human I must recognise the same. Every social interaction that I have, including the way that I shop, the way that I work, the way that I interact on facebook, the way that I treat those who are of a different culture or religion than my own, every interaction will either build up the walls or shall make bridges from them. In the end we are all engineers. We are all architects. We are all artists.
So may the artistry of our lives dismantle these walls that divide us, ‘until justice rolls like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ I wrote the following poem that day as I walked the ‘Peace Wall’ of Berlin.
The circle was a circle
till I walked around the corner.
The square to stay a square
till she walked around my own.
The powers that be built a wall upon our street.
Between the buildings and the factories
Between the circles and the squares
Between I am right and you are wrong.
They built a wall and we threw our stones.
I threw my stones till she asked me
to walk around the corner,
cross the wall that stood between us.
where she had always
looked up upon my circle
to blink in disbelief to see
it was a square.
The next day
she came to where I had always made my home.
She turned to her square, she saw it as my circle.
From the shapes
that we believe in
to the God of three dimensions
do betray us
till we walk around the corner.
Joel McKerrow is an author, speaker, performance poet and educator from Melbourne Australia. He has, for the last five years, been on faculty at Tabor College Victoria is the founder of ‘The Centre for Poetics and Justice’. Joel is a regular host on ‘indiefeed performance poetry podcast’ (the most well known spoken word podcast in the world) and in 2012 was the third ever Australian to represent his nation at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships. He is the author of Beyond Rhetoric, Writings in the Tradition of Kahlil Gibran and is passionate about discovering a new way to live outside the system of the Empire of Greed and spends much of his time trying to match his actions with this belief.