Political statement, social satire or cultural misappropriation? Banksy's latest 'installation' is nothing if not divisive
As of March 11th, Banksy’s latest installation – The Walled Off Hotel on the West Bank of Bethlehem – is officially taking bookings, marking 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, whereby Britain took control of Palestine.
The hotel, its name, interiors and proximity to Israel’s controversial security wall beg a variety of interpretations, the most obvious parodying Trump’s obsession with building a wall and the US President’s hotel empire. But not all are so forgiving. Mondoweiss’ Tamara Nassar calls the hotel ‘a form of gentrification’ in the worst possible way, whilst fine art blog My Art Brokerhighlights the irony of the location as a whole, as an inn in Bethlehem once welcomed one of the world’s most famous of refugees, baby Jesus himself. In contrast, the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison, pointed out that despite Banksy encouraging guests from Israel, their visit would entail breaking the law to get there. The hotel relies on the existence of the wall, and it has been noted that the hotel declines to comment when asked if they had spoken to locals before building it.
Furthermore, Banksy’s use of the wall itself has drawn accusations that painting it only normalises its presence, and means people are coming to the area for the wrong reasons. Others argue that it doesn’t matter why people are coming to the wall, but that they do at all; Banksy’s museum at The Walled Off presents an incisive history of the area and the wall.
“The aim is to tell the story of the wall from every side, and give visitors the opportunity to discover it for themselves,” the hotel says online. Taking no profit from the hotel, Banksy also intends to increase awareness, improve the local economy and create jobs (45 local staff are employed at The Walled Off, including owner Wisam Salsaa) as well as give local artists a space to exhibit their work, a first for the area. He added in a statement that “it felt like a good time to reflect on what happens when the UK makes a huge political decision without fully comprehending the consequences”.
As for the hotel’s ambience, bleak views of the stretch of concrete wall and barbed-wire lined watchtowers are only the start of the harrowing visuals. Rotund cherubs with oxygen masks dress the hotel lobby, a bust is shrouded by tear gas and a pride of graffitied leopards stands over a bloodied zebra print sofa. The inevitable sense of danger and threat that comes with depictions of war and violence is heightened by their unusual presence in a domestic space that is supposed to offer comfort and safety.
If the intention is to get people talking about the culture of divide in Palestine and Israel, you can’t fault Banksy for starting the conversation. Even if he is in danger of distracting from the real issue, his efforts to shine a light on a dark situation are commendable, and through his art and his open door policy, he has made it accessible to a whole new generation.