Memories of East Germany’s Bygone Era of International Solidarity

Berlin’s art institutions are scrambling lately to respond to protests over Germany’s response to the war between Israel and Palestine. Most notably, activists interrupted a performance by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at Hamburger Bahnhof, which centered on volunteers reading Hannah Arendt’s influential book, The Origin of Totalitarianism (1951), from which I also read an excerpt. The protest raised the question of whether art institutions are providing suitable platforms to draw viewers’ attention to the ways in which dissenting opinions are being silenced, in Germany and beyond. It also revealed Berlin’s central place in the history of conflicting ideologies.

In the tense climate, often with no space for dialogue, Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) presents a richly conversant exhibition, Echoes of the Brother Countries. Delving into East Germany’s Cold War ties to countries such as Mozambique, Cuba, Syria, and Vietnam, it asks what traces of past socioeconomic realities — stories of exclusion, racism and injustice, but also of genuine solidarity and interconnection — are contained in this strand of Germany’s often forgotten yet recent past. 

Of the ambitious exhibition, which occupies HKW’s entire space and comprises artworks, screenings and talks, Echoes of the Brother Countries is particularly evocative in its video art and films. Among its standouts is Brenda Akele Jorde’s documentary feature, The Homes We Carry (2022) which tells the story of Eulidio, a Mozambican who came to Germany as an exchange worker in the 1970s, but, like so many, was forced to leave abruptly when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (he now works in South Africa). His story entwines with that of his German daughter, Sarah. She reunites with her dad only as a teenager, but creates her own ties to Mozambique as a social worker, and a mom to a baby fathered by a Mozambican. The film stresses the interplay of precarity on one hand and lasting emotional and political resonance on the other, taking as its background the protests of Maputo’s former contract workers, whose German wages were embezzled by the Mozambican government.

The fractal endurance of immigrant memories, so keenly expressed in Akele Jorde’s film, run through the entire exhibition. Leipzig-based Syrian artist Khaled Abdulwahed’s video, Background (2023) tracks the few remaining images of his father’s stay in Germany as an engineering student in the 1950s, collaged with observational footage of his own surroundings. Berlin-based Iraqi artist Hiwa K’s five-channel video, QATEES (2009), centers on an Iraqi man who repairs television sets to glean news from opposite sides of conflict, as he lives in hiding during the rule of Arab Socialist Ba’ath party (backed by East Germany). And Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photo triptych, “Karl Marx-Luanda” (2006/ 2023), centers the decaying hulk of a Soviet ship with that name, while Berlin-based Vietnamese artist Sung Tieu’s One Thousand Times (2023) pays homage to the cement exteriors of the East German social housing, in which her family lived.

In addition to the art, HKW’s space itself has been activated as a knowledge-and-experience network, stressing the idea of a museum as an open social forum. On the day I visited, children crowded the discotheque, a feature of many former Soviet-Bloc government spaces, which were often multi-use. The room, featuring poster art from the “brother countries,” among other works, was crowded with visitors perusing two bookshelves of books on East Germany’s Cold-War history and archival copies of community publications, such as Sechaba (1967–90), dedicated to the struggle of South Africa’s workers. HKW’s multi-prong approach revived the spirit of some of Germany’s past art events such as documenta by welcoming cultural production in its broadest sense, and framing history as never foreclosed, but rather resurging in spurts and hauntings.

Echoes of the Brother Countries continues at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10) through May 19. The exhibition was organized by the museum.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top