Credit: Carol Guzy/Carol Guzy/The Washington Post
From Berlin to the West Bank -- why we build walls
Jen Sudul Edwards is the chief curator and curator of contemporary art at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. She recently curated "W|ALLS: Defend, Divide, and the Divine" at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
People have always built walls. They are a human story told with metal and stone.
In a moment of fear, determination, pride or defiance, we erect barriers -- first emotional and then, often, physical.
Then, we have to live with them, around them and through them. We watch them crumble, become tools for others, or just another site in our crowded, frenetic landscape.
In November, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I organized an exhibition for the Annenberg Space for Photography in LA entitled "W|ALLS: Defend, Divide, and the Divine."
The idea came from the institution's director, Katie Hollander, who was simultaneously inspired by the Berlin Wall anniversary and fascinated by the evidence that the world, once again, seemed obsessed with walls, but in putting them up instead of breaking them down.
The days surrounding November 9, 1989, marked a defining moment for people of a certain generation.
Of course, the fact that it was televised and documented by so many helped us all feel like we were there, in the center of the action. "Reunification" was not just a political abstraction or editorial description; it was an emotional cacophony of a people being united, as relayed by Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy, who captured people celebrating that day (including the top image). "The Berlin Wall coming down was certainly an astonishing moment of such incredible joy for both sides that had been separated for so long," Guzy said.
At that moment in November 1989, there were 15 border walls around the world. As of May 2018, there were more than 77, according to Elisabeth Vallet, a geography professor at the University of Quebec-Montreal.
The year 2020 marks the 35th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement, which led most of the European countries towards the abolishment of their internal borders. Now, even those walls are being rebuilt -- ideologically, emotionally and physically. Kai Wiedenhöfer, a student in Berlin in 1989, has been documenting -- systematically, panoramically, beautifully -- this burst of wall-building around the world as if trying to understand how this monumental example of a wall's failure could be almost immediately forgotten.
After his decades of work, Wiedenhöfer concludes, "It is a primitive idea of solving problems with a wall. People can't talk or find a solution, they build a wall. But in time, it causes more problems." As political scientist Wendy Brown observes in her book "Walled States, Waning Sovereignty," "We appear to have entered an era of intensive nationalist rebordering secured through both literal and figurative nation-state walling."
Photographers -- commercial, photojournalists, conceptual and amateur -- have been capturing this proliferation of walls rapidly defining the horizon lines of our lives. When looking for images to fill the exhibition, I was able to draw from all of these sources because wherever we travel, it seems, we find walls rising or their rubble remains somewhere in the landscape, confirming that humans have always built walls, no matter the culture or the era. Similarly, humans have always found ways to break barriers.
There is the literal scaling or dismantling, but the artistic interventions can be equally powerful.
There are many examples of graffiti and murals transforming a wall into a canvas or message board, and then, there are the performances and sculptures that utilize even the most utilitarian fence as a poetic device.
A number of these have occurred at the US-Mexico border fence in recent years. "Teeter Totter Wall," by the architecture studio Rael San Fratello, united people on both sides by threading pink seesaws through the fence's slats so residents on either side could share a ride, revealing the interconnectivity of those communities.
The artist Tanya Aguiñiga began AMBOS Project, a multiyear, multidimensional series that contains many layers of engagement with US-Mexico border communities from dialogue to artistic interventions.
In their work "Tensión," Aguiñiga and Jackie Amézquita created a variation on backstrap weaving, a pre-colonial technique that creates tension in the warp threads by using the body of the weaver with a stationary anchor like a bedpost.
Instead of an inanimate object, the two women serve as the loom structure and they pass the shuttle back and forth to weave the textile. This act of passing an object through the fence is prohibited and this, with the act of creating through contact, elegantly mirrors the tethered dependency of the border towns and the fundamental problems introduced to economic stability when contact becomes militarized.
These communities and their countries are united most basically by land and most practically by economics, even if a wall divides them.
But then, we found examples of walls coalescing people into a community, as so beautifully captured in Ami Vitale's photograph of two women meeting at a stepwell in Jaipur, India.
Like all of the photographs in the "W|ALLS" exhibition, it illustrates the multivalent nature of a wall -- from the simple engineering to the superficial aesthetics to the subjective symbolism.
SHAN Wallace found a similar and surprising story when she went to Detroit to photograph the so-named "8-Mile Wall," a rare instance of discriminatory lending policies ("redlining") being manifest in a neighborhood instead of on a bank's map. For the exhibition, Wallace wrote: "The 8-Mile Wall created a tight-knit community that sticks together and celebrates together. Rooted in racism and discrimination, this barrier known as The Detroit Wall, Detroit's Wailing Wall, The Birwood Wall, or Detroit's Berlin Wall, is just a small segment of this neighborhood's ongoing history.
"This resilient 8-Mile neighborhood -- full of Black families, 90-something-year-old elders who vividly remember the glory days, fathers with old school candy-painted cars with 22-inch rims, aunties with long fingernails and finger waves, laughing children -- is committed to embracing the history of the Detroit Wall while creating and reimagining a more equitable and safe community, defined by them on their terms."
This time last year, as we started securing the photographs for "W|ALLS," we in the United States watched, shocked and ashamed, as Donald Trump shut the government down and held the paychecks of federal employees hostage, trying to force Congress to give him money for a wall along the southern border. While the tenor -- high anxiety and derailing divisiveness -- may be the same this holiday season, the US-Mexico border wall feels like a distant memory, replaced by a chorus of cries against abuses of power from and at both sides of the aisle. Clearly, the walls keep going up.
Top image: Photographer Carol Guzy's photograph shows people celebrating on the dismantled Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.