Sunday, September 09, 2007

Art Censorship in the Mission

A touchy issue has stirred up in the Mission district, where a Latino youth organization called HOMEY has painted a mural on 24th and Capp St depicting themes of racial/cultural unity, diversity, struggle, and self-determination. The controversy is between the young artists and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) plus the Anti-Defamation League. The issue focuses on one part of the mural depicting Arabic people breaking through a wall (implied/assumed as the Israeli West Bank barrier), on which "Iraq" and "Palestine" are written, as well as other countries and locations in plight around the world. One of these people bears a flag saying "Our Mission: Self-Determination for ALL!", further illustrating the themes of resistance and breaking down barriers. You can read about the issue in more detail here:

Personally, after reading the letter from the JCRC, it's hard for me to pick a side so easily. My knee-jerk reaction was to rally to the muralists' defense, for the sake of artistic freedom of expression as well as my own opinions regarding Israel's "security" barrier. I felt that the painting was relevant to the rest of the mural, and that it was done somewhat respectfully, since the identity of the wall is not overtly designated (except the shape of the hole in the wall is that of Israel).

However, I can see where Jewish people might feel targeted, considering there is no depiction of their historic struggles in the entire mural to fully justify and balance the Arabic people's representation. Also, as the authors of the JCRC letter pointed out, the insertion of the Arabic breaking through the implied Israeli barrier stands out from the rest of the mural, which was originally supposed to represent “the current lives of young people in the neighborhood, growing from rebelliousness into organized consciousness, guided by shared ancient roots and traditions.

I can understand why the artists wanted to insert the Arabic (pretty much Palestinian), but I can also see the JCRC's point when they argue that "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict segment of the mural depicts a scene some 6,000 miles away from the Mission neighborhood... this imagery victimizes Jewish members of the Mission neighborhood for whom the security barrier has prevented the loss of lives of family and friends in Israel. Further, this segment of the mural isolates the Jewish community in the Mission by raising barriers to inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding."

So obviously the artist for this segment of the mural tapped an extremely sensitive political, cultural, and religious vein here. I hope the artist did plenty of research before acting on this decision, and was fully aware of the consequences that come about from showing just one side of the struggle between these two cultures. I'm also aware of how the JCRC conveniently left out the part about the human rights violations towards Palestinians and their supporters by Israel's (and the U.S.'s) foreign and military policies. They also left out how the history of and foreign countries' involvement in Israel itself cultivated the anger, pain, and resistance of Palestinians for so many years.

So there ya have it. I'm unable to completely sympathize with both sides, since despite bringing up valid cases, neither is able (or willing) to present the other side of the coin. The artist did not acknowledge the suffering and self-determination of the Jewish people but instead focused on one group, while in their letter the JCRC expressed much bias for the Jewish community, the Israeli state, and tried to justify the controversial (and internationally protested) West Bank wall. If anything, this seems a smaller, local analogy to what's going on in the Middle East.

However, at the end of the day I still think the painting should stay unaltered. Yes, it only presents one point of view, but the controversy around it can bring enlightened discussion. This way, people learn to see eye to eye a little better. So I vote for keeping the segment.