‘Lost conversation’ by How & Nosm
By Demian Smith
Let me warn you that the title of this post is ironic, How & Nosm have recently been painting in Bethlehem, but their new works are not what they’d ordinarily paint around Bushwick, NYC.
A disclaimer on what you read below, which is pretty hard hitting: the pair have been teaching ‘hip’ art to Palestinians, refugees displaced by the conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab governments. The majority of the people living as refugees in Bethlehem are there after their families were displaced in 1948.
In 1948, the day after the Jews declared the new State of Israel, which by that time was in every other sense a functioning state, with an administration, hospitals, roads, and most importantly an army, every one of the surrounding Arab nations declared war on them, all while spouting horrific rhetoric reminiscent of the dictator whom had been deposed three years earlier.
Israel, with the support of the allied powers, won the battle and Israel occupied huge swathes of land in every direction as a buffer against further attacks. Britain it’s said by Israelis mostly sat on the fence in typical style, but the USA offered hands down support. For sympathetic, ideological and pragmatic reasons it wanted Israel to exist. It still wants Israel to exist. The billions of dollars of support Israel has received every year; a few years ago it was in the region of five billion dollars per year, I understand anecdotally. You’ll have to drill down to find exact figures, but you get the idea.
While mentioning dollars it’s a good time to let some air into the copy, dollars breed conspiracy theories, which always end up becoming anti-Semitic sentiment, or worse. Since 1948 there have a number of further conflicts, over which Israel has each time claimed victory. Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza generally hate Israelis, Israeli Jews generally don’t hate Palestinians, but they don’t want to live with them. However, there is a consensus among everyone I’ve met in Israel that they want peace and that the settlements are screwing everything up.
This said, get onto the subject of the Mavi Marmara killings and you get an impression of the difference between the Israeli and the British mentality. Brits are liberal softies who think the world is fluffy, and the BBC will always make sure things go right, who’ve never had to do mandatory military service, who’ve not grown up at war with neighbours living a handful of kilometres away, who’ve never had Hezbollah or Hamas rockets explode just over the road from their homes.
The crew and passengers of the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, which led a flotilla headed to Gaza a few years ago on an ‘aid mission’ brutally attacked Israeli soldiers who were attempting to board in order to stop the boat from entering Israeli controlled waters. After they were beaten with metal chains and even knives, the soldiers took aim and shot dead a number of the assailants. I watched the reports on the story closely and to me it looked like the soldiers fucked up, they panicked when people started charging them with chains, knives and broom handles. However, speaking to Israeli friends, it becomes clear that regardless of whether or not the soldiers panicked, my friends would have done the exact same thing, and shot people in the same way. This is the mindset they know from the culmination of historical events, of repeated attacks by Palestinians on Israeli military and civilian targets. The wall is to stop that from happening, as well as to take yet more land from the people who have been trying to fuck the Israelis all these years, as much as the Israelis have been fucking them, it seems.
Bottom line: The State of Israel utterly dominates the Palestinian territories and its people, life is made harder than we can ever imagine from simply watching the reports on the BBC, collective punishment is committed by the Israelis – that is punishment on a mass of people for the misdeeds of one or a few of the group – land is continually being seized from the Palestinians. But let’s not judge the situation as it stands without assessing what has happened in the past. The wall is a stain on global humanity, but imagine what ends you’d go to if you were repeatedly kicked in the face by your neighbours.
This is a two way assault and when a Palestinian kid pulls out his silver penknife, asks you if you love Israel, to which you mumble something inaudible hoping that he changes the subject back to the Barcelona vs Real Madrid dichotomy, and then makes a sideways stabbing motion in the air, while uttering the word “Israel”, you can bet that wall or no wall, both sides are guilty.
Before reading the interview, it’s important to note that How & Nosm were invited by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) to conduct art workshops through MAP’s local partners in the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem, and outside of that they painted Bethlehem in their trademark style, and that the answers are compiled by William Parry of MAP, with How & Nosm’s direct answers in quotations.
What is the meaning behind each of the works?
“One of the main symbols the [kids at the Saraya Center] taught us was the key. One of the girls painted it and we asked why she painted it and she explained it to us and we thought it was very powerful symbol and we painted it on one of the gates of the separation wall.
“Apparently the Israeli government/army doesn’t like this symbol at all and when we painted it they came down quickly and told us we were painting it illegally — on the illegal wall. It seems like they recognize that symbol in particular, and told us to stop and even took our spray paint and defaced the key. It’s a powerful symbol.
“We wanted to leave a big, impressive piece. The image is two individuals in the middle of shaking hands, they have a brick face to symbolize their non-existent dialogue. They’re both facing the wall and so can’t speak to each other. They try to shake hands but the wall is making it impossible. There is an individual hugging them , trying to bring them together. It symbolizes anybody out there who puts an effort into supporting the Palestinian people and to fight this injustice. There’s a big trumpet sending out the message.
How & Nosm mural in Bethlehem
How & Nosm mural detail
“The other murals are based on the injustices that are going on – the settlements, and a story about the ‘terrorist cows‘ that a local friend who helped us out told us about. Little things from all around about the conflict have made their way into the murals. In ‘More is not enough’, a pigeon is being killed – tree trunks are a reference to the trees being cut down… and there’s a big guy, that is, an Israeli settler sitting in his garden holding a house, ready to transplant it.
“With these murals we are showing support with the Palestinian people.”
What was the purpose of your visit? Where exactly did you work, i.e. Ayda, Azza refugee camps?
How & Nosm were invited by a UK-based charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians, to do workshops with two of its local partners – these included Bedouin women living in the Jordan Valley and Palestinian children from Jerusalem’s Old City – as a psycho-social and advocacy project. Outside of this work, and briefings, How & Nosm were free to do their own work. They did three murals in Bethlehem, and the rest were done in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem.
Key painted by How & Nosm and defaced by Israeli soldiers, symbolising the Palestinian ‘right of return’
How was your work received by local women, and men; what were the effects of your teaching on your students? How relevant is your art and teaching style to inhabitants of an Arab town?
“The workshops were a great success. What we enjoyed most was that they were happy that we came. At first they were somewhat shy about having two strangers from NYC there trying to teach them something about what they do. After the first day they welcomed us and after the last day to see that they were happy with what we did with them. It was very pleasing to see the smiles on their faces.
“We weren’t sure what to expect when we drove into the Bedouin encampment – when we saw the condition of the camp, we were shocked. These aren’t villages, these are slums, and the people aren’t given an opportunity to lead normal lives because of Israel’s occupation. So we thought, ‘We’re going to have a lot of ice to break with these women.’ But their enthusiasm was immediate, which was really cool. Also, it’s quite surreal, bringing this modern day, urban society tool – the spray can – to this context and seeing it used in a very different way of self-expression to what we’re used to. We were surprised that we were allowed to work with these women as it’s a conservative society, but we were welcomed in.”
How & Nosm were told by a local partner to the course, that they came with respect and humanity, and that the women who took part felt this. The children also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the workshops.
Here’s what several said:
Tasneem: “With very simple tips you supported my learning of drawing and improved my work a lot.
I wasn’t that excited about the course to begin with but I learned a lot of great things. I enjoyed it a lot because I’ve always been interested in art. I learned many new words in English too and it improved my confidence, as I was able to help translate for Raoul and Davide with the other students when they needed help.
I hope they will come back so I can learn more and improve further in my art skills, and I hope that when I grow up I will be as skilful an artist as them.”
Aiya: “Through their way of teaching, they gave me the confidence that I could do it, they inspired us to do things we didn’t think we could do.”
Another child whose name still needs to transcribed from the recordings, said: “They encouraged us to draw and even if we made a mistake, the helped us to learn to correct the errors easily.
I learned a lot. They taught us how to mix and create colours from a few colours, and showed us how to create pictures using different media. I hope I will be able to continue drawing to be good like them.”
The Bedouin women created stencils that they asked How & Nosm to spray paint onto the wall in Jerusalem, where they can’t access because of the separation wall, so I think there was a direct application there. The workshops and murals were universal really, using common media, and they exchanged ideas, symbols and motifs. How & Nosm come from socio-economically deprived areas, and ones with political violence and repression, so I believe there were a lot of parallels between them and the workshop participants.
How easy was it to paint Bethlehem? Did you take your materials with you or buy them in Bethlehem?
Finding walls to paint was relatively easy, though they had run-ins with the Israeli military four times. Once (at the Zeitoun checkpoint, East Jerusalem) an armoured vehicle pulled up and the soldiers asked what they were doing. They said ‘We’re here from New York. We paint.’ The soldiers looked at each other, unsure what to do, then said OK and sped off. Another time, painting on a military gate by Rachel’s Tomb, soldiers opened the gate and threatened to arrest them. How & Nosm said they were Americans and paid for the wall, so go ahead and try to arrest them. They were told they couldn’t complete the key they were painting, so they left and returned the following day. Just as How finished signing it, the gate rolled open unexpectedly and they turned and walked away, and the soldiers didn’t pursue them as local kids from Aida camp, ready for action, were a few dozen meters away. The soldier took the abandoned spray can and defaced the key (see above, 1). Another time, in Ras el Amud, in East Jerusalem, they were spray painting political phrase/stencils on the wall and another armoured jeep rolls up. The soldier says ‘What are you doing?’ ‘We’re painting’ H&N answered. ‘It’s not right, you shouldn’t,’ he said, then drve off. They had one more to do, so they did it and signed the wall.
Otherwise it was like most other places: people curious about what they’re doing, where they’re from, what the pieces mean. People were accommodating and hospitable, offering to bring food and drinks.
They bought specific spray paints in a shop in Tel Aviv to capture their ‘signature’ colours. The rest was purchased in Bethlehem with the help of the guy who helped Banksy and Co in 2007.
‘More is not enough’ by How & Nosm
What advice would you give to other artists who’d like to paint at Bethlehem?
“It’s such a difficult situation here politically. We believe that just coming here and tagging, doing pieces, would be inappropriate and selfish. We felt an obligation to bring more than just out names so we brought some messages. If you’re an artist you should take that into consideration… As this area is occupied, and Palestinians are used to having things taken away from them – water, food, rights, freedoms – we didn’t want to be the tourists who come and do the same thing and take away and claim things that aren’t ours.”
William Parry is the communications officer at Medical Aid for Palestinians, and author of Against the Wall: the art of resistance in Palestine (2010), which was reviewed on Vandalog.
[First published 26 March, 2023 at streetartparis.fr]