“Art helps us identify with one another and expands our notion of ‘we’ – from the local to the global.”
– Olafur Eliasson
Sitting in India, roughly 4,500 km away from Palestine, is it possible for us to witness and be empathetic to the daily trials that Palestinians face for basic survival? As a person who has actively followed human rights violations by the Israeli apartheid regime in Palestine, I often find myself overwhelmed and consequently numb at the face of a vast repository of information available on the internet covering this issue.
This is when I resort to art. It is common knowledge that good art is supposed to be provocative. Something that forces you to confront how you truly feel about something. Away from the complexities of academic language, images that come with trigger warnings and news articles that must abide by strict reporting policies, the world of art plays an important role in resistance – not just locally, but on a global level.
I have never been to Palestine, but the murals painted on the concrete West bank barrier by an anonymous artist have helped me forge a deeper understanding of the horrors of life under occupation.
He calls himself an open-air prison artist on his Instagram page. He uses the alias ‘Cake$ Stencils’ to shield his identity in fear of being banned from travelling to Palestine by the authorities. The visuals are striking – his art portrays the struggles of Palestinians with bleak images capturing the daily lives of children under occupation.
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While speaking with him via Instagram DMs, he said, “I see what I paint as prison art aesthetics because in fact what we see in the West Bank and Gaza is a kind of open-air prison industry created by the occupier.”
A common element in most of Cake$’s art work is the “barbed wire” symbolising the forces of the occupation. The genius of his art lies in how he uses simple imagery to describe the atrocities committed by the occupation forces on those who dare to resist. It is very efficiently provocative.
For example, through one of his more recent murals on a wall in Bethlehem, titled ‘Barbed Wire Fetus’ , Cake$ communicates the soul-crushing story of Palestinian mother Anhar Al-Deek who was held in the Damon prison under harsh conditions until the very end of her pregnancy with no regard for her physical or mental well-being or the unborn child’s safety. She gave birth days after being released on bail that cost her family 40,000 Israeli shekels. Apart from finding out more about Anhar’s story, this mural also reminded me of Kashmiri student activist and research scholar, Safoora Zargar, who was jailed by Indian authorities while in the second trimester of her pregnancy in 2020.
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What makes Cake$’s art stand out is his use of single colours and single layered stencils, creating images that are elementary in nature so the message comes through loud and clear. The message of how difficult life is under occupation is the focal point of his art and not the art work itself.
He says, “I learnt that one colour paintings is the only way to paint something revolutionary”. The simplicity in his art is what enables him to connect with his audience and intensifies their engagement process with his art.
Art has definitely played a huge role in spreading the message of Palestinian resistance across the world. In fact, Banksy’s famous “The Walled Off” hotel in Bethlehem is a unique art installation in itself that gives tourists a chance to catch a glimpse of what life looks like under occupation. There is no doubt that Banksy’s investment in the project has helped the Palestinian cause by creating jobs for local Palestinians and giving the tourism industry in Palestine a much needed boost. However, some locals and critics have expressed concerns over the creation of an industry that commercialises apartheid.
Cake$ quotes Mark Fisher on this issue, and says, “In capitalist realism, it’s almost impossible to create art that is not ‘eaten’ by capital.”
Cake$ says, “While in Palestine you can feel revolution in the air. When you are in such a place it’s far more easier to create revolutionary artworks. My practice on the wall (West Bank separation barrier) varies from what artists usually do in Palestine. I paint there on and on. I see myself as practicing non-violent performance art by cutting my stencils walking around, painting and hanging around. Most of the outsiders who paint on the wall paint one thing or a couple of things during one stay (and may never come back). For me it is like a working class job to do. So you have to repeat the process to create impact on the real world.”
Cake$ is based out of the EU and isn’t from Palestine. However, he has travelled to Palestine dozens of times since his first visit in 2017. He says his work in Palestine is best described as “working class activism”.
Nilofar Absar is an intellectual property rights lawyer. When she’s not calculating her billable hours at work, she likes finding stories, in people.
Featured image: cakes_stencils/Instagram. Edited by: Pariplab Chakraborty