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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Artist defends pro-Palestine mural from claims it ‘stokes division’

An art collective has defended a mural it painted on a house in Ilford that pays tribute to Palestinian journalists amid calls for its removal.

Three artists from Creative Debuts painted the mural in protest at the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which has seen more than 34,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis killed.

It depicts four reporters and photographers standing before a pile of rubble in Gaza – based on a photograph taken by journalist Hind Khoudary – with the words “Heroes of Palestine” written above their heads.

Further down Natal Road, the words “All eyes on Gaza” have also been painted over a Palestinian flag.

Critics of the mural and others like it have argued they could worsen tensions in London’s multi-ethnic communities.

Creative Debuts’ founder Calum Hall told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the mural is there to commemorate journalists showing “incredible resilience and bravery” in the face of “unspeakable horror”.

He said the group was “not trying to antagonise” anyone, adding: “It’s a pretty neutral and uncontroversial way of showing solidarity and raising awareness. It’s unfathomable to take issue with a painting of a doctor or a journalist.

Stressing that the mural was not glorifying Hamas or armed fighters,  he said: “We’ve been called antisemitic and pro-Hamas, but it’s nonsense.”

Israel has barred international journalists from entering Gaza since the outbreak of the war on 7 October, a move which Calum says has hampered accurate reporting from the besieged territory.

He explained: “We need more information and, surely, we all want the killing to stop, for the hostages to be returned, and for peace in the Middle East.”

UK Lawyers for Israel instead argue that the mural “promotes divisiveness”, and have asked Redbridge Council to wash it off.

In a statement issued to the LDRS, the group’s director Caroline Turner said: “Councils are legally required to have regard to the need to foster good relations between different religious and ethnic communities.

“The murals do not foster good relations between different communities and have proved divisive in the locations where they have been painted.  Many have already been defaced.”

Similar murals in Shoreditch and Hackney, depicting journalists and medics, have been sprayed over with Stars of David and messages condemning Hamas, the militant group who govern the Gaza Strip.

She added: “Councils have powers to remove these murals and should do so as a priority where the murals promote one side of the current war, in view of their impact on community cohesion.”

Alia Shaikh, who owns and lives in the home the mural was painted on, said she personally commissioned the piece because she otherwise “felt powerless” about the ongoing atrocities.

She told the LDRS: “I think it’s important for young children to have good role models.

“They’re heroes. Without them, we’d have no idea what’s happening.”

Having been paid a visit by Redbridge Council, she said she was resolute the mural would stay, adding that she has been widely supported by her fellow residents.

She said: “We’ve not broken any laws. We shouldn’t be bullied into doing something and stand up for what we believe.”

Calum, who set up Creative Debuts in 2014 and has targeted former US President Donald Trump in the past, said offending anyone was “100% not the intention” of the mural.

He said: “We need to have a look at what’s going on and the wider context around it.

“The enemy is not a doctor, it is not a journalist – they are human beings in impossible situations, trying to survive and help people.

“It would be totally different if we were painting Hamas battalions on the side of a wall.”

UK Lawyers for Israel however argue that its placement contravenes section 224 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which prohibits unregulated adverts.

The group’s director said the mural was “in effect an advertisement, advertising the Palestinian cause” and that it breached the Act “since it had been displayed without the consent of the local authority”.

Calum said this was “nonsense,” arguing: “It’s an artwork; it’s quite obviously not an advert.

He added that there would be a “chilling effect on street art and visual campaigning” if Redbridge Council upheld the charge that the mural constituted an advert.

A spokesperson for Redbridge Council said it was reviewing the situation but declined to comment further.

The authority has been harshly criticised by Sam Tarry, the MP for Ilford South. In a letter to Redbridge Council, the MP said that asking for the mural to be removed would constitute “an authoritarian act of harassment that would normally only be expected in a dictatorship”.

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