EAST JERUSALEM — At the end of a narrow alleyway in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, a maze of hanging black canvases have obscured the Silwan Club’s concrete courtyard. They are the size of bed sheets — draped over clotheslines, hung in layers around the community center’s small outdoor space. Their fraying ends hang down under the metal roof, below eye level, and form lines dividing the club’s tiny garden — a contemporary art installation with no visitors, in the unlikeliest of places.
The Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al-Amud is not an area associated with art. Rather, it is cited by liberal Israeli advocacy groups as a place where the “judaisation of East Jerusalem” can be seen firsthand — where, in the past 20 years, two Jewish settlements (Ma’ale ha-Zeitim and Ma’ale David) have taken root at the center of the Arab neighborhood, and now sit walled off and heavily guarded. Here at the Silwan Club, the cramped outdoor space is made to feel smaller by the presence of Ma’ale ha-Zeitim’s large apartment blocks, which loom overhead — the two areas separated only by a sharp wall of security fencing, grey bars that curve and end in sharp, delicate steel points.
Over the summer, Colombian artist Oscar Murillo, known for his monumental installations of black flags at the Venice Bienniale in 2015 (and more recently incorporated into this year’s Sharjah Biennial), came to Ras al-Amud to take this ongoing body of work, “The Institute of Reconciliation,” in a new direction. Invited to participate in the inaugural exhibition at the Palestinian Museum by curator Reem Fadda, Murillo’s work at the Silwan Club makes up a part of the public program associated with Jerusalem Lives.
It is one of the few associated projects that takes place in Jerusalem itself — the Museum is located in the West Bank city of Birzeit. Much of the Palestinian population (including Fadda) is barred from entering Jerusalem as a result of the ongoing Israeli occupation, which is considered illegal under international law. And the exhibition reflects the blunt political and daily realities of this divide through a dynamic mix of artworks, media coverage, and statistics-based graphic design commissions.
As plans for Jerusalem Lives got under way, Murillo’s approach to his black canvas work was changing. What had begun as a desire for intensity, rendered through experimentation with repetition and the possibilities of black paint, developed into a more site-specific practice. After taking part in Eungie Joo’s Anyang Public Art Project in South Korea, where he spent time with spiritual leaders in the mountains, as he assembled canvases at the end of 2016, he realized that the work was progressively evolving outside of the studio.
“I thought it should not continue, that same kind of rhythm of existence in the studio, because something greater had happened,” Murillo explained on the night Jerusalem Lives opened in Birzeit. “To just simply go back to the studio and to continue to make that work would just be to deny that experience. I don’t want the work to become transfixed into one singular kind of context.”
And so, to East Jerusalem. The Silwan Club is perched on the quiet ridge road that runs along the western side of the Mount of Olives, not far from the Garden of Gethsemane and the expansive Jewish cemetery that spreads out above it. The ridge boasts one of the best panoramas of Jerusalem — the Dome of the Rock dominates the skyline, its gilded shrine presiding over the 16th century walls of the Old City. Turn to face the entrance to the club, and crisp blue and white Israeli flags flying high over the Arabic businesses and signage below defiantly signal a Jewish presence in the Palestinian enclave.
“The Silwan Club is a club that has been incredibly important for the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem and more and more, the club has been stripped of its liberties, to the point where, in the mid-90s, its sites were invaded and the grounds were taken away,” Murillo said, speaking to the history of the organization, which began as a football club in 1965. He continued:
And so now the Silwan Club is this shadow of itself. There’s this incredibly imposing settlement that is erected, and the football grounds are gone, restrictions are in place in regards to noise, and so I did this installation in collaboration with some of the people there on the grounds of what’s left.
“What’s left” is a disquieting space. On this particular August afternoon, some 40-odd Israeli soldiers, in full riot gear with guns cocked, appeared suddenly on the street as I waited to enter the Silwan Club; surveillance cameras perched atop the settlement clocked every move happening on the street below. The club itself was empty of any youth or community members — now events happen there maybe once a week. Void of people, the voices of children from Ma’ale ha-Zeitim wafted over the walls.
Over the summer, however, the space was busier. Murillo began this particular iteration of “The Institute of Reconciliation” with local members of the club and the African Community Society from the Old City, and the courtyard became a space for conversation and creation.
The black canvases were painted and hung, and in the harsh afternoon sunlight, take on the sheen of an oil slick. Some remain folded in piles on the ground, surrounded by upended plastic chairs and scattered rubbish. At once, the black canvases confront and confound the Israeli flags and crisp white laundry that flutter from balconies overhead — one wonders what the response to this installation might be on the other side of the wall. Here the black flags function, as Murillo puts it, as a type of “silent witness” to the situation progressively unfolding around the club’s perimeter. Most importantly, they speak to how the realities of the community are relayed through time spent.
“Through the process of simply making, one begins to create a rapport,” Murillo said.
It becomes more about personalities, it becomes more about getting on and sharing experiences and not so much about being symbolic, this represents this and so on, because that’s nonsense. I know we have this installation in place, but that’s just really the result of spending some time together.
Oscar Murillo’s “Institute for Reconciliation,” a part of the Palestinian Museum’s Jerusalem Lives exhibition, is on view at the Silwan Club through 15 December. For further details about visiting the site, please contact the Palestinian Museum.