Tear down this wall: Khaled Jarrar at the Ayyam Gallery

Khaled Jarrar has made playful sculptures from fragments chipped from the eight metre high wall which runs through the West Bank. Is this trivialising or accepting the wall's existence?

The looming grey wall confronts you as soon as you step into the gallery. It is claustrophobic and you have two options: walk all the way around the length of the wall, or squeeze through the chiselled opening in the shape of historic Palestine.

Khaled Jarrar’s provocative installation is a piece of the West Bank in the heart of London. Earlier this year I travelled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and was intrigued to see how the wall, a symbol of division, would be integrated to express freedom and unity. The Jenin-born artist combines video, photography and sculpture to reflect life in the shadow of the separation wall.

We are introduced to Jarrar in a short film, as he chips away at the eight metre high wall, working quickly with a chisel, hammer and red plastic bag. As you walk along the installed barrier, you come across a heap of concrete rocks in a corner of the gallery. It is the crushed and recycled sediment of the wall that acts as a base and links all of the sculptures in the gallery.

A football, table tennis rackets and a basketball are seated on plinths. They are sculptures made of concrete. The heaviness of the items contrasts with their usual lightness. Jarrar also makes international parallels, and a concrete figure of Buddy Bear, which was first exhibited at the site of the fallen Berlin Wall, stands in the gallery’s shadows.

We also encounter a short film featuring a surreal badminton match over the wall, in which a split screen shows the Israeli side of the wall painted bright, and the Palestinian side grey and dusty. The only thing unifying the uncanny scene is the blue sky and the ball going from one side to the other. It is a reflection that dark humour can be found in the most absurd situations.

Then there is the poignant film of an elderly woman who travels to the wall to talk through the gaps to her daughter, who was forced to live on the other side when the village was divided. It is heartrending to see her searching for her daughter’s voice, seeking her eyes through the gaps, touching her daughter’s fingers under the wall with her frail hands. “What can I tell you. It’s hard,” she says to the camera. You can feel the love they have for each other, but at the same time you feel helpless.

Jarrar’s sculpture of a halved olive tree, with a half-concrete branch is particularly powerful. The traditional significance of the olive tree to Palestinians, as a symbol of peace, resistance, life and growth, contrasts with the dead concrete. Yet at the same time, both sides are needed to make the branch whole. The lighting in the gallery creates a sombre mood, and all is still and quiet in the shadows aside from the distant sound of chiselling.

Eleven years have passed since the first slabs were erected separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. Referred to as the ‘Apartheid Wall’ or ‘Security Wall’ depending on which side of the fence you are on, is it right that this Wall is already being memorialised in a bourgeois gallery space, moving from active resistance to the realm of grieving, of history and acceptance of the status quo?

Jarrar is clear that his art is not an attempt to beautify the separation wall. Far from it – especially as he moulds his sculptures from its destruction and emphasises how the concrete could be used for a much better cause. But this debate has been raised before: there is a story that an old man confronted Banksy as was putting up his street art in Bethlehem, telling him to go home and not make the wall he hates beautiful.

Whether it is the old woman who communicates with her daughter through a crevice in the wall, a student who feels like she is living in an open-air prison, or a farmer separated from his olive groves by an electric fence, Khaled Jarrar’s work is fresh and at times eccentric. Although he could be bolder in exploring some themes in greater depth, Jarrar doesn’t use clichéd images and certainly helps to unpack and re-contextualise the wall. He is keeping the issue on our conscience.

Whole in the Wall is at the Ayyam Gallery London 20 June – 3 August 2013

Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar with a football sculpted from pieces of the Israeli separation wall in Qalandia. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images.
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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood