Monday, 24 April 2017

We came with no names, but we leave as kings. Pt 2

Princess, by Fatima. Berlin 2017

On the invitation of Kunstasyl arts organisation, Phil visited one of the largest refugee hostels in Berlin. In the second of this two-part blog he speaks with members of Kunstasyl, artists Barbara Caveng and Charlotte Danoy-Kent.

Phil:

I'm in a vast room, the core of an asylum seekers’ centre at Mertensstrasse, in Berlin. In the midst of this colossal space is a small stage and on the stage, a tent is being made by the Kunstasyl arts organisation. It's the beginning of their new project Kings. It's the early stages and the possibilities are as big as this room and the many human beings within it. 

I see the unmistakable flame-red hair of Barbara, the artist who devised Kunstasyl, and walk over to greet her. She has given me advice and introductions at crucial stages in my project in Berlin. At moments when she’s most needed, Barbara seems to appear. Her work with people who've had to flee from war began with the escalating violence in the Middle East, but she’s been making collaborative art projects for a much longer time.

Barbara: "Since 2003, I have worked with individuals making projects that ask a question. Not necessarily about a problem, just a question. Asking a good question, that is the art! I’d been doing a residency in Syria, talking to people, asking questions. When war started in Syria one and a half years later, suddenly people I'd been talking to over there were standing here in Berlin. So I started asking questions again.” 

The result was the remarkable exhibition Da Heim: Glimpses into Fugitive Lives, at the Europaischer Museum in Berlin. One of the most emotionally affecting exhibitions I've ever witnessed, a beautiful gesture of communal making which contradicts the fear, judgement, aggression that often meet the word “refugee”.

“A society is not just something we live inside, but something we can change. That is a big question, right there. I don't know if European society can make a change. If you see the project at Spandau, which created the exhibition, as an experiment with 100 people, then you can say it was successful. But how much energy and skill was focussed in that small space! What would happen if we did the same thing with a million people? Thats what needs to happen. But I don't have answers, just questions. Take my work as an experiment, not a recipe.”

I talk awhile with Charlotte who is helping to develop Kings, the next phase of the project. Kings will be a performance that uses the exhibition as a backdrop. Charlotte is busying on the plans for a group structure based on the pyramid of human needs. As we talk about the piece, people come and go, asking her for guidance, or simply what's going on. She answers them all with good humour and infectious enthusiasm for the work. Her intense focus on the process of making draws people to her, they're intrigued. She explains: the tent structure will become a metaphor for survival - and for what is needed in our lives beyond survival. 

I help for a little while, asking residents for their thoughts on the nature of kingship. One man discusses this with his group of friends, in Arabic. "We have decided," he says at last to me in English. The others nod at him, and he tells me: "Every king is only a poor servant of god." 

As I say good bye, Barbara waves me over. “You know, the exhibition at the museum has been a big success. But we have to build on that. We mustn't just leave it, we need to add life to it, performance. We came with no names but we leave as kings…”


Heaven-Proof House is a poetry project based in Berlin, devised by Philip Davenport from arthur+martha CIC and supported by the British Council and Arts Council England. The project continues the arthur+martha strand of international work with marginalised communities, connecting people across economic, social and physical boundaries. 


Berliner Stadmission run the Mertensstrasse building described here. Many thanks to Kunstasyl, Carlo Schenk, Berliner Stadmission.