On 6th September 2012, with the participation of residents, an international group of artists originating from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the United States, completed a series of murals in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.
Spanning 2,000 square feet across the walls of Shatila Mosque Square, the murals commemorate 30 years since the 16th September Sabra and Shatila massacres and 64 years of Palestinian resilience.
The initiative originated from a collaboration between Break the Silence Mural and Arts Project USA and Lebanon’s Al-Jana Arab Resource Center for Popular arts.
Among the project participants was director of Break the Silence, Susan Greene, who has recently returned from Lebanon. Greene is a US interdisciplinary artist and clinical psychologist. She has led or participated in more than 30 public art projects worldwide. Here she discusses the initiative with The Majalla’s Cultural Connection:
Q: How did the idea of a commemorative mural for Sabra and Shatila anniversary start?
I was invited to facilitate community mural workshops for Al-Jana Center. The timing of the encounter coincided with the approaching 30-year anniversary since Sabra and Shatila massacres. So I thought about doing a community mural as a way to raise awareness on a moment of history that gets little coverage.
Q: The mural is entitled ‘Mourning and Action’. Why did you choose this theme?
Partly, it was to commemorate the massacres. But I also wanted to frame the project within the context of colonialism and the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians. The plight of Palestinians in Lebanon is not talked about much, particularly in the West. The idea is to acknowledge their trauma, and present alternative stories that people don’t have easy access to.
Q: How did you work together at Shatila camp?
The people in the group were very experienced and developed artistically. We established relationships in the camp during the process of obtaining permission for the murals, and while talking to people. Many children helped us in the mural design and painting.
Q: Could you describe any images in the mural design?
There are some abstract images, others express dreams and visions for a better time. The bottom part of the mural has references to electrical wires close to water cables that run through the camp, hanging in mid-air, to indicate the unhealthy and pathogenic conditions of Shatila.
The project coincided with the verdict on Rachel Corrie’s court case. So we included a portrait of Rachel in the mural to highlight connections between these victims of colonialism and oppression.
Q: How was the project perceived by people inside the camp?
People responded well to the images and colours, and told us how grateful they were, how that made the place look so different. Besides, the mosque allowed us to paint on their wall, which was a very beautiful gesture as they didn’t initially approve the project. But the deeper level of the response still has to be found.
Q: What are you planning to do to generate interest back in the US?
We’ve started doing social media outreach, and we will use various platforms to talk about Palestinians in Lebanon. There will be an event on October 18th where we will make a presentation about the project. Next April, there will be an art show in Washington DC.
We want to make connections between different flashpoints in the way these oppressions are very wide-reaching, and affect different communities in the world.
Q: Where is the project leading to?
This is the beginning of an ongoing project, there’s a lot of research to be done. What needs to be more fully developed is conducting interviews with survivors of the massacres, talking to people about how the murals have affected their environment, what they mean to them in deeper ways. I hope the kids from the camp will lead this by documenting oral histories of their families and taking pictures of the murals.
Ultimately, we will compile a web-based book about the project. We are also planning to have an audio program on the walls, as we did for the Olympia-Rafah mural, whereby visitors can call a phone number, listen to audio files illustrating the designs and to recorded stories from Shatila residents.
Q: What impact do you think an artistic memorial can have in the larger struggle?
Culture has the ability to touch people at multiple levels. I think that attitudes can shift because of the intellectual and emotional stimulation. Culture can help in terms of the larger struggles by making these issues come alive.
Q: What is powerful in community art in this context of recollection and engagement?
In part, the collaborative nature of it is very powerful, people coming from other parts of the world to do art work together, witness the experience of Palestinians in the camp and bring it outside.
Through culture, we can find other ways to capture people’s imagination, depict a different reality, and reach new audiences.
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** This Interview was submitted to the IMEMC by Its author **
Alessandra Bajec holds a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Between June 2010 and May 2011, she lived in Palestine working as a freelance journalist and contributed as English radio newscaster to Voice of An-Najah (An-Najah University).
Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, Mashallah News among others. She has a focussed interest in Palestine, the Middle East, and independent journalism.
This piece was submitted to the IMEMC by its author, and was first published on