The Occupation of Art: an interview with Susan Greene

by Josh On

Susan Greene is a muralist, an activist and a psychologist based in San Francisco. She grew up in New York City where she first was introduced to political murals. She has been painting and organizing murals around the world with many different groups, from New York to Oakland and Nicuragua to Palestine. Today she is very active in the Palestine solidarity movement and has been using her talents to aid that struggle. She recently returned from a mural painting trip to Palestine with Eric Drooker and today is organizing a San Francisco showing of the acclaimed Made in Palestine Show.

Josh:  Tell me about the Made In Palestine show.


Susan: The first time I heard about the show Made in Palestine (MIP) was this past summer when I was in Palestine, working on murals with Break the Silence Mural Project, which I co-founded in 1989.  I met one of the artists in MIP, Tayseer Barakat, when he invited Eric Drooker and me, to make a presentation to the Palestinian Artists Association. Tayseer told us that MIP was curated by the Station Museum in Houston, TX and subsequently it could not find other venues because it was by Palestinians.

I heard about MIP again a few months later from two art professors at the University of San Francisco, where I am an adjunct professor. Then I started getting emails about it and how it was being censored in several US cities. All this was happening while a few colleagues and I were planning a show about occupation. We decided that if San Francisco’s South of Market Cultural Center (SOMARTS) - the proposed venue for our show - would accept it, then we would give our three week time slot to Made in Palestine and devote ourselves to its production and promotion. SOMARTS did, in fact, accept this offer. In December we obtained the sponsorship and backing of the Justice in Palestine Coalition, which has a large membership of groups organizing against the Occupation of Palestine.

In addition, the exhibit will feature film screenings, spoken word, and panel discussions by various groups using creative expression to discuss the injustice that is being done to the Palestinians.  It is also about making the connection between what is Palestine and the rest of the world.  People say Palestine is the heart of the matter - this matter of empire and imperialism - and I really think that is true. 

Josh: Why go to the Justice in Palestine Coalition?

Susan:  I needed to go to people who truly believe in a vision of justice for all. So where else could I go? Justice in Palestine is a group of half dozen or so activist groups that all believe that the Palestinians deserve the right to return to their homes, and that the United States should divest from Israel.

It makes a lot of sense to me that a political coalition is producing an art exhibit like this.  An important part of the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been the attempted denial of the Palestinians’ existence. This makes artistic expression an especially defiant act. I have met Palestinian artists who have done hard time for the content of their art.

A lot of the work in the show is conceptual and evocative. For example, Mary Tuma has created an installation of 30 foot high black gossamer dresses called Homes For the Disembodied.  All the dresses are on hangers and made out of one 50 yard piece of silk. Just incredible. Some of the work makes use of irony, like Nida Sinnokrot’s rubber coated rocks.

Josh:  Can you explain the “right of return”?

Susan: The right of return acknowledges UN Resolution 194, which gives Palestinian refugees the right to return to their original homes. 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and 500 villages destroyed in the formation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. In Arabic it is the Nakbah - or the catastrophe - and what the Israelis call the “War of Independence.”

Josh:  It seems like a pretty simple thing, yet it is so contentious. Why do you think that it is?

Susan:  People are in a lot of denial about what really happened in the formation of the Israeli state and all that that implies. I have spoken to Israelis who have had a moment of revelation from which there was no turning back, where they were able to allow in information about their own history that they had not been able to previously. Here they have been raised to believe that Israel was a “land without people for a people without a land” and it happens that something cracks that veneer of denial and causes a rupture in their perception. That is the moment when change can take place. For example, I met a woman who spent years looking out of her bedroom window onto the remains of a Palestinian village called Deir Yassin. She was told by people she loved and respected that these ruins were of an ancient Jewish village. Imagine what it was like for her to find out that these “ancient” ruins were but decades old and were of a Palestinian village whose inhabitants had been brutally murdered in the Nakbah.

Josh:  How do you respond to the Zionist argument that there is a need for a Jewish State given the historical oppression of the Jewish people?

Susan:  What I say is that I don’t think that the safety of Jews or any group of people can come at the expense of another people. It is not going to work - practically, ethically or morally - and the evidence shows that it is not working in Israel. Typically, when I have this discussion, people will say “What about the suicide bombers?” And then I say, “Well, the first suicide bombing took place in 1995.” The question that needs to be asked is: “What are the conditions that would cause someone to carry out such a heinous, gruesome and destructive act? Why are people are driven to that. What is the context? What are the circumstances?”

I believe that these bombings are, in part, a response to trauma. I have had several young people say to me that they liked the idea of suicide bombing because they could choose the time of their death. The youngsters who said this to me had aspirations and dreams for their future, but at the same time they lived in a reality where they could not leave their town, where their schools were bombed, where they and their loved ones had been beaten and humiliated by the Israeli army.

The intense lack of autonomy experienced by Palestinians is incredibly hard for people in the US to understand because there is arguably nothing like it here - especially in middle-class society. These youngsters can’t control whether they can get to school in the morning. Their parents don’t know if they are going to be able to go to work or even leave the house. They are living in outdoor prisons. The psychological condition created by the feeling of having no future, and a sense of having no control or agency in the present, is very dangerous. The Israelis have created this situation, and therefore, I argue, are implicated in the phenomenon of suicide bombers.

Josh:  You have seen this while you were in Palestine?

Susan: During the time I spent there this past summer with Eric we painted three murals. One was on a part of the apartheid wall that is in front of a house owned by the Amer family in the town of Mas’ha. This house is surrounded on all four sides by the wall, completely enclosed.

Josh:  One house? How did that happen?

Susan:  They live on the outskirts of a village, right next to a settlement that has encroached upon it. The family was offered money to move from their land, which they declined. On three sides, the wall is a fence that you can see through – but right in front of their house is a concrete section. It is probably 100 feet long and 24 feet high, before going back to being a cyclone fence. The Israelis erected the concrete portion as punishment when the family refused to move, just so they can’t see their village.

Josh:  And they get locked in there? They can’t get their car out?

Susan:  They have to ask the army to open big gates if they want to get their donkey cart in or out (they don’t have a car). There is a locked door in the fence that they can use, but every time that the fence is touched the Israeli army is electronically alerted.

Josh: How many people live there?

Susan:  Eight: the mother, father and six children. For a very long time they were not allowed visitors and were threatened with home demolition for violations. Then an Israeli film crew made a documentary about them which was shown on Israeli television. The army was very angry with them, but did relax some of the restrictions. They are now allowed to have visitors.

Josh: How did the mural happen?

Susan: Kate Raphael, from the Women’s Peace Service, had been working with the family and suggested the mural.  We went to visit them and did a drawing project with the children. When we asked what they thought about a mural project, they said yes!

When we returned a few days later with paint and brushes, the army stopped us for about a half hour, checking our passports, asking what we were going to do, telling us how dangerous it was and that they had to protect us. We told them we were doing art projects with the children. When they asked if we were going to paint on the wall we said, “Well, you know how children are...” They finally allowed us in, and we met with the family and showed them some images for the mural.

The family picked a drawing of a big tropical bird in flight by Eric. So this glorious bird is part of the mural, along with trees, hills, flowers, butterflies, birds, bees and several suns painted by the kids. Now when you look out of the front door of the house you see the bird and trees instead of just grey concrete. The mural covers the bottom six feet of the wall.

About a week or two later, I returned to ask the family what they thought about the mural.

The army had not bothered them about it - a risk they knowingly had taken. They wanted us to come back and finish it, paint the entire wall and add the sky. They said that it meant a lot to the kids and that it made them happy. The project had made them feel like they had a feeling of greater control over their environment. Minimal, of course - yet significant, nonetheless.  The father said, “When you come here and paint with the children like this, they feel that they can live.” Kate said that she had never seen the mother so happy.

Josh: Tell me about your other projects.


Susan: We did another mural in the Qadura refugee camp in Ramallah.  This pictured all twelve of the people from this very small camp who were killed since the first Intifada. People came by all day long to say thanks, to tell us that they liked it, and even to correct us (“I knew him, his eye wasn’t like that.”). People cared a lot about it looking correct. Some relatives of those pictured said that the mural pleased them because it meant that the community was remembering their sacrifice - their sons, husbands, and fathers. But they also said that it was very painful to see these lifelike portraits up on the wall, that it was like a wound had been opened. So it wasn’t just one thing, it was very complicated.

Josh:  What do the Israeli Defense Force soldiers think of these portraits?

Susan:  Palestinian art is often threatening to them because it means that they have to admit that Palestinians exist. In the Israeli creation myth, there are no Palestinians. If a people have never existed, then they can’t have a culture. In this case, you can see how creating culture is a powerful act of defiance and resistance. As I mentioned earlier, artists have been imprisoned for this.

The third mural we painted was in the Gaza strip, in a town called Beit Hanoon. Here, the Israeli army had destroyed thousands of citrus trees and had kept the town under curfew for more than a month. At the end of the day it was all about access to water. If the Palestinians don’t have trees to water, then there is more water to divert to Tel Aviv. The Israelis say that they had to do this for security purposes, but everyone knows the truth. The best water in Gaza is in this region. The Israelis have been drilling wells underneath the water table, and now the water in the middle of Gaza is salty. Beit Hanoon was famous for its citrus fruit, but now its economy is demolished. Ninety-five percent of its people had worked in agriculture. There was this constant sound of bulldozers because they were still uprooting trees and the place was surrounded by tanks. We snuck in on a little back road through the remains of an orange grove, which now looks like a desert. A couple of years ago the land around Beit Hanoon was verdant with miles of trees…

Josh: What is the mural like?

Susan: We painted the mural on a youth center, with its staff and teachers. It depicts a huge orange tree. Everyone joked that if the Israelis saw it, they would tear down the building.

These murals are all about memory and memorials. In this case, it is a memorial to all the dead trees. The director of the center said he wanted the children to remember what an orange tree looked like.