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Know yourself

September 19, 2011

At Berlin's Jewish Museum, 30 artists are presenting new works to show Germany as they see it today. Featuring many who have adopted Germany as their home, the 'Heimatkunde' exhibition is a lesson in local history.

Art installation by Maria Thereza Alves
'Wake' greets visitors to HeimatkundeImage: Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Ernst Fesseler

First there are the buckets of plants, cultivated by Maria Thereza Alves.

The artist, who was born in Brazil, grew up in New York and now lives partly in Berlin, collected soil from around the capital - on the wayside, waste land and at building sites.

She planted the seeds that she found in the soil and they became a beautiful garden at the entrance of the Jewish Museum's "Heimatkunde" exhibition. It is as if the displaced plants are as comfortable here as the many people who come to Berlin from around the world.

An altered Germany

Germany has changed - certainly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of West and East Germany in 1990, and now with the fact that 20 percent of the people living in Germany are immigrants.

About four million Muslims live in Germany - most are from Turkey, but many come from other countries as well. And then there are all the other people who come from a non-German background.

Some have become German citizens, others have not. Cilly Kugelmann, the deputy director of the Jewish Museum says "[Germany] can no longer be described as an 'ethnically homogenous' society."

So the Jewish Museum decided to look at the new Germany through art - to discover how "ethnic" and naturalized citizens, new arrivals, Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-religious people live in Germany - how they see themselves and how immigration changes migrants and locals.

To be on one's own

Photograph by Maziar Moradi
This photograph by Maziar Moradi is a standout pieceImage: Maziar Moradi

In his series of photographs "Ich werde deutsch" (I become German), the Iranian-born artist Maziar Moradi focuses on the lives of people who have either migrated to Germany or have their roots in another culture - such as a woman in a hotel room, a doctor at an operating table, a black woman sitting among pale-skinned dolls.

Moradi presents his protagonists as the heroes in their own stories. He met them on the streets of Hamburg - men and women who have experienced humiliation and have had to fight to survive. They are people who have ended up in Germany, who have changed the country and who have changed with the country.

Another artist, the Sarajevo-born Azra Aksamija, presents a wonderfully accessible work called "Dirndlmoschee."

The dirndl - a traditional dress worn in the south of Germany - features an apron that is transformed into a prayer mat. It suggests you always carry your religion with you, no matter how successfully you adopt a new culture. But life in that new culture can also mean your religion will gradually change itself.

Looking back to look forward

The 30 artists represented in "Heimatkunde" all live or have lived in Germany, but their work comes from different perspectives and arrives in all imaginable shapes and forms.

They tell family stories, ask questions about the effects of Nazism and genocide of 1930s Germany, and develop strange utopias - like the idea from Medinat Weimar to create a new Jewish state in the German federal state of Thuringia.

Still shot from an installation by Julian Rosefeldt
Julian Rosefeldt transports visitors into the forest of their mindsImage: Julian Rosefeldt

Other artists also show a sense of humor and irony to deal with typical German traits, like myths, fairy tales and forests.

Julian Rosefeldt uses parallel mounted films and pictures to transport visitors to a forest and on a weird trip that dissects dubious German virtues such as order, pedantry, and diligence.

Rosefeldt says he is exposing myths. But he also says his is not a work that aims to "deliver a concrete statement, but one that describes various worlds and pieces them together in a new and absurd collage".

But at the same time it makes you wonder whether the narrow-mindedness - which some say is common in Germany - has anything to do with the density of German forests. It is this ease and lightness that makes the exhibition so interesting.

But, if there was any more need for evidence that the artists had overcome Germany's famous brand of seriousness, the Jewish Museum's deputy director Cilly Kugelmann wore a bold scarf with the German national colors - black, red and gold - at a media preview of the exhibition.

Germany has definitely changed - not least since the 2006 Soccer World Cup - and it is now quite okay to wear "the German brand" openly, on your sleeve - on a scarf or even a rain ponch - in the Jewish Museum.

Author: Silke Bartlick / za
Editor: Marlis Schaum / cjf

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