Mike Alewitz in Kufr Qara

Dani Ben Simhon

Go Paint a Mural

Mike Alewitz, American muralist, arrived in August to paint three walls, one in the Azeh refugee camp near Bethlehem, another in the Anatha camp near Jerusalem, and a third in the Arab village of Kufr Qara, located in Israel. (The Kufr Qara mural.) On August 4 he talked to an audience of activists and artists at the Baqa Center in Jaffa. He showed slides of his works – many of them landmarks in the struggle for labor rights. Several exist today in photos alone, for a mural is eminently destructible – and one that carries political punch, like Alewitz's, will be sandblasted at a change of regime (like Mother Earth in Nicaragua) or upon rattling union fat-cats (like the P-9 mural in support of the meatpackers' strike at the Hormel plant in Austin). These works and others were resurrected at the Baqa Center. When Alewitz mentioned his intention to paint at Kufr Qara, a young artist in the audience asked if he might help. Alewitz pondered a moment and said, "It's not necessary for you to help me. If you want to be of help, then go paint a mural. There are plenty of walls out there. It's not difficult. Any artist can do it." He went on to say, "The conditions for change are in place. The time is right. We can prevail. But right here, right now, it's up to you. The movement that is developing depends on you in this room."

Who is Mike Alewitz?

Alewitz began as an activist. Art came later, as part of his effort to build a workers' movement in America and abroad. He shook up many in the audience at the Baqa Center when, quietly and firmly, he named the US as the foremost terrorist nation on earth. He disturbed some among the artists too when he stated, without apology, that the goal of his art is to further social and political ideas. At one point he thanked the workers throughout the world who had forced him to discover visual images to express their struggle. He calls his genre Agitprop, short for "Agitation and Propaganda".

Three local organizations hosted the Alewitz visit. Two work in the Occupied Territories: the Beit Jibrin Cultural Center in the Azeh camp and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. In Israel, the Workers Advice Center (WAC) hosted him for the week of August 3-8. WAC invited him to paint a mural in support of its campaign called "A Job to Win", which seeks to put people back on the job in the construction industry – especially the Arabs, who were once the dominant labor force there.

Alewitz began making murals in the mid-eighties, after working as a sign and billboard painter. Since then he has painted in Nicaragua, Mexico, Chernobyl, Baghdad, and throughout the US – always in concert with the local unions. "The connection between mural painting and the labor movement is strongest," he told Challenge, "at the moment of struggle, when the workers have a definite message to express. Then a painting becomes a significant weapon. For example, at the start of the Russian revolution, or the one in Nicaragua, public art played a central role."

A mural, says Alewitz, can educate workers to solidarity while recalling forgotten parts of the local labor struggle. In the history of the working class, many stories – and inspiring figures – are virtually lost, because the capitalist class has taken care to expunge them. This working-class history, rescued from oblivion, can be a precious asset in the effort to organize. At the Azeh camp near Bethlehem, for example, Alewitz placed a huge loaf of bread in the center of the picture, together with a dozen red roses. He frequently uses this image, recalling the strike of the textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912, when the women raised banners saying: "We want bread and roses!" If they focus only on job conditions ("bread"), unions fail to develop the workers' consciousness ("roses"). Here, together with the unions, art can play a decisive role.

To the historical dimension Alewitz brings the spirit of the new era. "Access to art has been denied to workers. They were taught that it wasn't for them, that they shouldn't visit museums. There are workers who love to paint, but most will be embarrassed to tell you." He adds, "When I come to a place, I can't know the situation as well as the local people. Therefore, I look for subjects and images that are universal, that will be understood by workers everywhere. I paint people purple or green or blue, and sometimes I paint them without a clear gender – hermaphrodites. Agitprop artists need to experiment and develop an imagery to express the multi-hued nature of the workers' movement today – and not to fall back on clichés."

Alewitz remains a strong believer in activism. At the Baqa Center he said, "I have not come because I think I can change something here. I have come so I can take the images back with me and use them in the American working class, to show people how the situation here relates to their own."

For more on Alewitz's work, see Paul Buhle and Mike Alewitz, Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2002.

WAC's Part in the Project

Alewitz and Christine Gauvreau direct the Labor Art and Mural Project (LAMP). In the spring they contacted us at WAC, saying they wanted to paint in Israel and Palestine. We were happy to offer our help – and a wall. The question was which wall? We have many work teams in many villages, but there would only be one mural.

Our choice fell on the village of Kufr Qara, for we had recognized one of its teams for excellence in 2002-03. The mural project set off a welter of activity in the village. People organized supplies, food and logistics. Toward the end of the first preparatory meeting, after the allotment of tasks, Farid Atamneh, himself an artist, said, "This is all very fine, but who's going to paint it?" On hearing the answer, he exclaimed, "What! Him? To our village? All the way from America?"

Soon after his arrival, I accompanied Alewitz to a building site near Tel Aviv, where workers from Kufr Qara were on the job. In a conversation during the break, Alewitz stressed that George W. Bush does not represent the American people and certainly not its working class. He described the movement opposing the war and the part that labor unions have in the protest.

A week later, after he had finished the mural near Bethlehem, we met at the wall in Kufr Qara. Although on the edge of the village, it occupies 21 square meters at the entrance to a sports stadium serving the whole region. The local council had approved. The workers had cleared the area and erected a scaffold.

They returned from their day of labor and sat with Alewitz. He asked what they wanted the mural to convey. Among the responses was this: "We want a painting that will attract more workers to join us in WAC and help organize."

In his preliminary sketches, Alewitz sought a picture that would answer to the workers' need for a union to defend their rights while, at the same time, breaking the walls between workers that "Mr. Moneybags" erects to exploit them.

As the deadline approached, Alewitz accepted the help of local artists, including two from WAC. The work each day went from sunrise to sunset, 14 hours. The only breaks were for food in the homes of the workers, who took turns hosting the team. On the last day, with the dedication ceremony scheduled for the evening, there wasn't even time to leave for a meal. Muss'ab Atamneh, whose turn had come to provide the food, would not be daunted. The astonished painters watched as serving dishes appeared: dozens of courses spread on carpets among the cans of paint and the brushes.

Workers and Artists Speak

Muss'ab Atamneh was among the most active in organizing the Alewitz visit to Kufr Qara, and he also took part in the painting. He says: "The visit helped deepen the connection between WAC and the village. People were astonished that WAC would bring an American artist to us. Apart from this, the artistic result was a delightful surprise. My team workers tell me they are getting enthusiastic responses from the neighbors. Although the soccer season hasn't yet begun, people drive out to the stadium to look at the mural. Personally, I think it's very important to us, the members of WAC, because it shows that WAC is concerned not only with our working conditions, but also with the lives we live when the work day is done."

Ra'afat Khattab is an art student in Jaffa and a leader of its Baqa Center. He took part in the project from start to finish: "This experience has been most important to me. In my work at the Baqa Center, I take it as a guiding principle that art should contribute to social progress, but that goes against what I'm learning in college. There, and in the Israeli artistic milieu generally, they sanctify individualistic art. In working with Alewitz, I saw what potential there is in the genre of mural painting."

Hillel Roman, a young artist from Tel Aviv, works as a volunteer with children at the Baqa Center. He also took part in the painting. "At the lecture in Jaffa, it was impressive to hear an artist who travels throughout the world engaging with workers and taking part in their struggles. I was also struck by his work, which goes against the stream of establishment art in galleries and museums. I was interested to hear his opposition to the existing order, how he identifies with the oppressed. I asked myself at once, of course, how come I sit at home or show my work in a gallery. He explained very well that in galleries and museums, the level of our opposition as artists is limited to the existing order, because otherwise they simply won't show our work. So I asked myself, What then? Am I a collaborator?

"On the other hand, I think the question is more complex. I still prefer to make a division, to keep what I create as a tool for personal expression, and to contribute to society in other ways, as when I volunteer at the Baqa Center, teaching kids to express themselves through painting… About the notion of 'art for a cause', I think art is the stepchild of two classes: it is crushed between the bourgeoisie, who speculate in it and stick it in museums, and the working class, who flatten it into ideology (even if the latter has merit). Art never reaches the point of identifying with either class, or when it does so, it ceases to be interesting. Alewitz concedes that he is making propaganda, and as such his work has a lot of power."

The Kufr Qara mural was unveiled on August 8 toward evening. Its bold orange sky glows above the solid green of its hills and the blue silhouettes of cities. We see two panels, almost symmetrical, each with a wall, partly broken, stretching from the foreground into the distance. Asymmetry is provided by Mr. Moneybags, who escapes with the loot on a flying carpet. Out of the earth arise great fists, brick-red, clenched in labor's traditional gesture of defiance and solidarity. Banners proclaim the message in Arabic, Hebrew and English: "No Walls Between Workers!"