THE SMALL Palestinian village of Al-Aqaba, home to 300 inhabitants, lies atop a rocky ridge in northern West Bank. Its large, striking minaret punctures an otherwise earth-bound, rugged geography, and the Jordan Valley fans out to the east like a desert mirage. Waves of brown, orange, and red blur into one another—a striking view from the three-tiered scaffolding that precariously hugged the wall of the village’s most prominent building in the spring of 2015. Up and down the rickety structure for the better part of a week, Philadelphia-based artist Lily Yeh gave most of her attention to the aqua-colored expanse in front of her and the task of painting a mural on the twenty-five-foot wall.
Yeh is no stranger to this process, frequently choosing walls as her canvas. Her brightly painted murals enliven otherwise bleak environs all over the globe today. Under the auspices of her organization, Barefoot Artists, Yeh travels to impoverished or traumatized communities and brings art as a means of healing and transformation. Part visual art, part community building, bonding, and mobilizing, it is a process she describes as a living social sculpture. Yeh passionately believes in the power of communities to embrace their suffering and transcend it through creativity and beauty, a sort of alchemical transformation that can diffuse the heavy weight of living under oppression, persecution, or war.
Art Under Occupation
By now, after four visits to the Palestinian territories, Yeh is familiar with the humanitarian impacts of the ongoing Occupation and conflict in the region. In 2011, she led a community-based art project at the Balata Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Nablus—the largest refugee camp in the West Bank and considered to be one of the most densely populated places on earth with 23,000 residents living within one-quarter square kilometer. In 2014, the mayor of Al-Aqaba invited Yeh to paint a small mural near the school’s classrooms. The village itself lies within the Area C designation of the West Bank, where Israel retains nearly exclusive control. It sits squarely within a military firing zone.
Yeh, inspired by the village’s commitment to thrive under challenging circumstances, returned the following year to take on a project with a much larger scale. Now, a large tree of life (one of Yeh’s favorite images) is the first thing one sees upon arriving at Al-Aqaba. Olive branches reach skyward through shades of blue and green and are surrounded by bright flowers, doves, and stars. Between its branches are traditional symbols of Palestinian heritage, the national flag and the kaffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress or scarf. “The pain of oppression is a huge mental wall,” Yeh says, acknowledging the multiple manifestations of walls, “but where we dare to imagine and thrive, there we have a freedom and a joy nobody can control. How do we create joy? Through creating beauty.”
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