The Power of Public Art

During my time at TYO this summer, my work has primarily been inside the classroom, teaching several classes to the women, children, and university students TYO serves. Over the past three weeks though, fellow intern Mary and I have worked on two different community outreach projects in Nablus, creating murals on Faisal Street and at the Red Crescent's Senior Home. This experience has led me to think more about the value of public art and the purpose it serves, especially in cities like Nablus where public art is a rarity. The first day that we worked on our mural on Faisal Street, men and women passing by looked befuddled as to why two American women were scraping vigorously at walls plastered with old posters. Why were these foreigners working here in the sun in the middle of the day during Ramadan? Did they not understand how hot it was? Or how dirty the walls were? But with these questions, began the many conversations between ourselves and the public.

By the second day, we had our little peanut gallery of four boys who lived nearby. At first, they simply sat on their bicycles, commenting on our every move and guessing between each other what we could possibly be creating. As we began painting the walls a bright sky blue, they began to inch closer and closer. Eventually, one of them came up, motioned to the extra paintbrushes and asked if he could help us. With one nod of the head, the boys immediately grabbed the paintbrushes—some taking one for each hand—and got to work helping us. Over the three weeks, these boys became our mini public relations team, explaining to others what we were painting, relaying messages between local business owners and us, and commenting on our progress each day.

While those boys became our “regulars”, there were many others who simply stopped by once or twice while passing by on their way to the market or to their home. Some of these interactions were brief with these people simply commenting on how beautiful it was to have art on Faisal Street or thanking us. With others though, they spent much longer asking questions about why we were doing this, where we were from, and what we were doing in Nablus. For these people, we were not only able to talk about TYO’s mission and programming, but also the fact that we were simply two women giving back to the larger Nabulsi community and hoping to inspire people through public art.

The power of public art lies in its ability to reach a large number of people, and although Mary and I are not able to interact with every Palestinian youth, we can inspire and affect a large number of youth through our mural addressing literacy. As you can see in the photo above, two children are reading under an olive tree—a symbol of Palestinian pride. On the left is a Chinese Proverb, “A book is a garden in the pocket”; on the right it is translated into Arabic. Although I am leaving Nablus this week, I am glad to know that a piece of me will stay behind, encouraging readers, young and old to find beauty in literature and in art.