“The cherries, for me, are a memory about Iran. The last cherry I eat. It’s a good memory for me. I can’t forget.”
Nages, an art student originally from Iran, is showing me her contribution to the Migration Mural project: a basket of bright red cherries. Nages left Iran and came to Berlin 15 years ago, and explains to me that these cherries represent one of the only memories she has of her old home.
Nages is one of sixteen art students involved in the Migration Mural Project at Migration Hub. As well as her cherry picture, Nages also came up with the layout and design for the main mural. The Migration Mural Project is a collaborative art project, led by Jie-Liang Lin and her art students from the tenth and eleventh grades of the Privates Europa Gymnasium. As the name suggests, the Migration Mural Project offers the chance for students to share their personal experiences of migration, placed within the context of a collaborative mural; in this way, the migration mural emerges as a collective canvas for migration storytelling.
The mural itself is a colorful web of interlocking images; some images are familiar universal symbols, such as a dove or a globe, whilst others are deeply personal and sometimes troubling. Each student interpreted the concept of ‘migration’ in very individual ways- some of their images focus on the physical act of migration (i.e, the journey itself), whilst others focus on memories preceding the journey, and the overall symbolism of that experience.
I caught up with art teacher and friend of ours, Jie, after the presentation, to discuss her thoughts and impressions from the project, and also to learn a bit more about the spirit of the mural itself.
“I wanted to find a way to combine a normal art class with a direct, community-intervention project. On one hand, it was a way for my students to take art class more seriously, knowing that they would have an audience, and on the other hand, it was a way to give young people a voice in the here and now. Mural painting is antithetical to the pitfalls of social media that the students are susceptible to. It's site-specific, and painting is messy. It requires concentration, time, endurance, patience, teamwork--all those good things. It was really interesting not only to watch the two images evolve over time, but to experience the whole mural production as a social sculpture, wherein different bodies and events are coming in contact with one another."
The mural project itself began four months ago, with each student bringing an object or photograph of particular significance into class, and presenting their personal story of migration to the group. I asked Jie if there was anything she discovered about her students through the process, that allowed them to connect and understand each other better.
“Because the topic of migration has been so sensationalized in the media, there were no big surprises. However, we showed each other intimate, and at times, difficult images, which would normally not happen inside a classroom. The students were very supportive of each other during this phase. It was also great to get the German-born students to dig a little deeper into their family backgrounds. For at least a few of them, I think they realized the phrase."I was born here" is often a euphemism that needs to be examined. In general, I was very happy to discover my students' capacity for empathy.”
After group discussion and experimentation, a final mural design was chosen which incorporated each student’s individual design into a coherent web of images. These images were joined together by a beautiful geometric mesh pattern, designed by Jie.
“I have had a long history of migration, so as the teacher and facilitator of this project, I contributed an abstract mesh-pattern, which the students interpreted as water, land, the axis of the globe etc. I knew that this project was a big challenge for the students, and I thought compositionally this pattern would be helpful to tie a lot of ideas together.”
As well as Nages, I also spoke with 18-year-old Yannick; Yannick is German-Canadian, but has spent his whole life on the move, having lived in many countries growing up, including England and Dubai. Due to this constant state of mobility, Yannick has developed a very fluid attitude towards migration, and consequently, to his own identity. I enjoyed listening to his thoughts on migration, and found it refreshing to hear him say that he doesn’t feel he would call any one place, ‘home’. This fragmentation of place and identity was reflected in Yannick’s mural contribution- a cluster of passport stamps.
Many of the student’s art was challenging, and often sad; Alaa’s Arabic script which refers to his family members still living in Syria; Rand’s dual boat image- one boat with balloons lifting it up, and one boat which is sinking- a depiction of her own experience of the journey from Syria to Germany; Serdest’s dove, a symbol of hope for a peaceful future and a sad reminder of some racist experiences he had as a child; Majdulin’s picture of a destroyed building- a graphic memory of Majulin’s personal life in Syria, and the reason for coming to Germany. The overall impression I received from the mural was a complex mixture of sadness and loss- loss of home, loss of life, loss of family and community, loss of innocence, and loss of identity- but also of love and hope- the cherries remembered by Nages, Rand’s balloons, Yazan’s mickey mouse (a fond memory from childhood), and Serdest’s doves.
This amalgam of emotions was expressed neatly by Clara’s intertwined hands. Clara is a student from the US, and her striking hand design appears in the main mural, and also features prominently in the secondary mural in our adjacent meeting room. When I first saw the hands, I thought the two hands were joining together in friendship- a positive image of inclusion, perhaps? However, on speaking with Clara, she told me that, in fact, the hands were not coming together, but being torn apart- a symbol of the pain of separation that she feels from being so far away from friends and family.
It was nice to learn from Jie about the design process leading up to the actual mural painting itself. In a way, the chance it gave the students to communicate with one another and share their stories generates as much value as the finished product itself.
“The students worked together with a collaborative spirit to turn personal experiences into a larger, universal, story. I really loved that 16 teenage students from all over the world could work together on two images together without ill-feelings of jealousy or possessiveness about intellectual and artistic property, instead simply cooperating with one another. So although my students can rowdy and crazy as teenagers often are, they managed to collaborate quite elegantly and beautifully together.”
For the final question, I asked Jie why she thought art was such an important tool for communication, and how can it ultimately help us to better understand the reality of migration.
“Over the years, I have thought often about what it means to be an artist. I think in our day and age, to be an artist is to be a healer. Is peace not that enigmatic and elusive medium worthy of pursuit, as a painter works with light, and a filmmaker works with time? In Berlin, it's great to see artists who are working outside of the white, male, ego-centric "artstar" model. Instead, many artists whom I am close to see art as a portal to other facets of the social sphere, such as activism. Concerning migration, the practice of art is a deeper engagement with the human condition. The creative process is somehow, akin to nature, and reaches the emotional and spiritual dimensions that news media and academic institutions most often do not. Migration Murals I & II are not communicating different information than most people already know in a literal sense, but in a different mode, on a visceral level of human contact.”
*** We wish to thank Jie and every single student who participated in the Migration Mural Project. Their mural will serve as a physical reminder of the beautiful, complex, and often very painful nature of migration, and of all their individual stories. Thank you for sharing this with us, and everybody at Migration Hub.***