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Row over Berlin exhibition on 'brave' African drug dealers

December 6, 2017

An exhibition in Berlin has drawn both praise and condemnation for presenting the lives and migration routes of the city's African drug dealers. The artist behind it believes the dealers do brave political work.

Exhibit in FHXB Museum in Kreuzberg, Berlin
Image: DW/B. Knight

A small exhibition in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin has become the center of a German media controversy for presenting the backgrounds of 13 African-born drug dealers in the city's parks.

The exhibition, entitled "Other Homelands: Origins and Migration Routes of Berlin Park Drug Sellers"
consists of 12 cardboard silhouette figures, and one steel one, representing some of the drug dealers interviewed for the exhibition, along with photos showing scenes from their countries of origin (mostly in West Africa) and information in the dealers' native languages about their often treacherous journeys to Germany — though without their names. The exhibition also features a "travel portal," which offers advice for visitors on how best to travel to the homelands of the various drug dealers.

Germany's right-wing media and conservative politicians have accused Berlin authorities of "heroizing" drug dealers, while the Green party-led Kreuzberg council, which finances the FHXB museum where the exhibition is being held, defended it as an important contribution to a political debate.

'Only in Berlin'

Germany's leading mass-circulation daily Bild took exception to the use of tax money to fund the exhibition, and headlined its article, "Only in Berlin: Museum celebrates drug dealers," but Green party councilor Clara Herrmann rejected calls from the conservative opposition to shut down the exhibition before it opened at the end of November.

"Here in the district's museum work and beyond we hold art in high esteem, and in my opinion part of that means that art must provoke, irritate and trigger debates," she said. "The exhibition does not deal with the issue of drugs and does not glorify the issue of drugs."

But Timur Husein, leader of the local Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the local assembly, demanded that the exhibition be shut down and suggested it be replaced with an exhibition focusing on the lives of drug addicts. His party colleague Burkard Dregger, commented simply, "These drug dealers belong in prison and not in an exhibition."

German Newspapers
The exhibit attracted much media attentionImage: DW/B. Knight

In a press release, Scott Holmquist, the French-American artist behind the exhibition, said the aim was to counter the public and media perception of African drug dealers as "scapegoats ... for collective hatred," and that, "against the background of these various obstacles, the drug sellers work unflinchingly and bravely in the public space."

'Brave and unflinching'

That last line caused particular consternation among some right-wing commentators, though it was in line with Holmquist's often provocative approach — in 2016, he triggered a similar scandal by proposing a public monument to African drug dealers for providing "a socially valuable service appreciated by many people."

But Holmquist has no regrets about using the word "brave," and rejects the idea that his work is contentious. "They are brave. I don't understand why that's so controversial," he told DW. "If you're doing a job where someone might rob you, when police might come and bust you, that requires a certain amount of bravery and unflinching determination."

He said that he hoped his work might trigger debate about drug laws in Germany. "I think [the dealers'] work is also political," he added. "Major parties in Germany are advocating the legalization of drugs. In a way the dealers are practicing civil disobedience, even if they're not doing it intentionally. They're breaking stupid laws, and in a way they're weakening them, and they're helping to push Germany to a better drug policy."

Police frisking people at Görlitzer Park Berlin
Berlin's attempts to clamp down on drug dealing have largely failedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Holmquist also said that the hysteria in the German media over the exhibition had caught him and the museum completely by surprise. "I absolutely did not expect this reaction," he said. "I love this museum and I didn't want it to have any headaches."

'Magical function'

While migration is certainly a theme of the exhibition, the artist said his real interest was in what he called the "magical function of the drug dealer." "It's one of the only locations where commerce is not quite commerce," he said. "For many people buying drugs is a risky thing, they have to trust a stranger in a transaction — it occurs in a different psychic space. And it requires a kind of solidarity."

The exhibition has also received support from academics. Criminologist Bettina Paul, of Hamburg University, called it "brave" for attempting to break up the "racist stereotype" around drug dealers. "I think the exhibition is important because for decades there's been a unanimous folk-devil image of drug dealers, and especially if you connect it to the issue of migration you bring in all kinds of other social problems that don't really have anything to do with it," she told DW.

Paul also said she liked the fact the exhibition was not about the personal lives of the dealers. "I think it's plausible that you don't want to bring in individual motivations, because the focus is not so much on the activity itself, and that's where you'd end up," she said. "Because you'd search for explanations for why this person is doing it — and that kind of shifts the focus. Can you justify it or not? The approach was simply: these are human beings, not stereotypes."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight