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What teenage refugees taught me about art

Kate Hairsine, KarlsruheJuly 27, 2015

As a teen, Kate Hairsine hated school trips to art museums and talks on fusty paintings that bored her. But her eyes were opened when she saw young asylum-seekers cherish the kind of art that put her to sleep.

Self-portrait by Anselm Feuerbach plus hand holding smartphone at the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle, Copyright: DW/K.Hairsine
Image: Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

The group of young asylum-seekers sit attentively on folding chairs in front of a self-portrait painted by the 19th-century German artist Anselm Feuerbach. The oil painting hangs in a dimly-lit corner of a cavernous room dedicated to the artist and shows a middle-aged man sitting in a brown suit against a brown background.

It's exactly the kind of painting I would normally walk straight past without a second glance.

But today, I'm listening to a talk about the painting being given by art educator Petra Erler from the Karlsruhe State Art Gallery. And amazingly, the group of 14 young men discussing the self-portrait don't seem bored at all.

One points to Feuerbach's prodigious mustache, saying it makes the painter look like he is from India. "All men in India have mustaches or you're not a man," he says to laughter from the others, who come from as far afield as Pakistan, Gambia, Ethiopia, and Syria.

Some have fled conflicts, others poverty and internal displacement; all of them arrived in Germany alone.

"Does Feuerbach look like a nice person?" Erler wants to know. There's more good-natured laughter as someone muddles up their German, saying Feuerbach looks "clean" (sauber) when they really want to say he looks "mean" (sauer).

Youths are thirsty for knowledge

Some of the asylum seekers, who are aged between 17 and 22, have been coming to art education classes at the Karlsruhe State Gallery every Tuesday since January - others are new to the class.

"Why can you only see half of his face?" asks one of the Syrians, gesturing to Feuerbach's face painted in profile.

It's a good question and one I wouldn't have thought to ask - not now, and definitely not as a teenager. And it's these kinds of questions that make me ashamed of my own lack of curiosity about the self-portrait in front of me.

The enthusiasm of the asylum seekers also make me realize how much I take cultural institutions such as art galleries and museums for granted. I haven't bothered visiting the State Gallery before, although I've been living in Karlsruhe for eight years and the gallery stages renowned exhibitions.

For many in the group, such as 17-year-old Mamadou from Senegal, visiting a gallery like this is special.

"It's the first time I have ever visited a museum," Mamadou says in the rhythmic French of West Africa. "And I found it captivating because it is Germany's history. Every country has its history, just like Senegal has its history. And it's amazing to see this history."

They get their hands dirty

The asylum-seekers don't just look at art, they also make art in the gallery's art room. In previous sessions, they have painted in the colorful style of the French Fauve movement, been inspired by the abstract squiggles of Spanish painter Jean Miro, or tried their hands at the patterned linear style of German artist Gerhard Hoehme.

Today, the group are taking selfies with a mobile phone - hence looking at Feuerbach's painting of himself beforehand. Erler ushers them outside to the courtyard, where asylum-seekers take turns striking a pose - some in profile, some head-on.

The snaps with sex pouts or quirky smiles usually shared on Facebook are remarkably absent. Instead, the young men pose solemnly with the dignified bearing of the self-portrait they have just discussed.

Does art need to save the world?

Art projects with refugees abound - and many have ambitious goals, from healing traumatized wounds to giving youth their childhoods back.

However, this project's aims are more modest. According to the teacher who instigated the project, Susanne Hanbrok, it's about giving young asylum-seekers enrolled in German language classes at the Durlach vocational school a chance to escape the drudgery of the classroom, practice their German, and accomplish small milestones such as buying a tram ticket and navigating the tram network to get to the art gallery.

Hanbrok says the students definitely talk more, and on a wider range of topics, during their art lessons than in German class and that the regular visits to the art gallery will continue after Germany's long summer school break.

It might be great for their German, but I'm inspired by the student's enthusiasm for their art lessons, even though they talk of their dream of becoming mechanics or electricians or carpenters in the same breath.

'I never painted in my country'

"I love art," says Bereket from Ethiopia in a mixture of English and German. "It is my first chance to paint because in the past, my life was not so good."

"Now, here in Germany, I am so happy because I have learned about different important painters and I have been able to paint big paintings too… and express [myself] about life, culture and religion."

Twenty-two-year-old Alsanna from Gambia also says he "loves" the art lesson and discussing different painting and trying out different drawings, while his friend Foday, who is also from Gambia, adds that he is "proud of learning to draw because I never painted in my country."

Perhaps it's time I learn from them and shrug off my negative attitude to art institutions and starting looking at art, and making it myself, with new eyes.

An exhibition of the student's work done during their art lessons is currently hanging in the Durlach vocation school (Gewerbeschule Durlach) until July 31, 2015. The selfies taken by the young asylum seekers will also be part of a forthcoming exhibition accompanying the major show "I am Here. From Rembrandt to the Selfie" at the Karlsruhe State Art Gallery from October 31, 2015 to January 30, 2016.