Using Art to Bring Down Walls

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Hello, Davidson Community!

It’s Sarah Gompper here, writing on a rainy afternoon from my tiny room in Berlin. I designed an independent summer journalism project after feeling a bit bummed that I didn’t go abroad during the year. I ended up receiving a Dean Rusk Grant, and now I’m here studying political street art.

For the past few weeks I’ve been completely engrossed by the culture, politics and complex history that define this city (and drinking a lot of beer). Visiting Holocaust museums and monuments and connecting with my Jewish family history has been particularly meaningful. The fear, regret and sorrow surrounding memories of WWII remains raw here, preserved as a warning to future generations.

I’ve also expanded my understanding of the history of the Berlin Wall, even getting to talk with people about their

street art in Berlin, Germany

Sarah Gompper ’18 documented street art in Berlin, the “graffiti Mecca of the urban art world.”

personal memories growing up near the wall and what they witnessed when it fell. It seems as if Berlin’s history, time and again, revolves around division.

One photo at the Topography of Terror, a free museum in what used to be a Nazi headquarter building, stands out in my mind as particularly disturbing. After Jews were sent to concentration camps, their belongings were auctioned off in German streets. The photo that caught my attention showed smiling people gathered around, absolutely gleeful to be benefiting from the exile of their neighbors.

Photos of children waving to their loved ones over the Berlin Wall, just decades later, were also difficult to look at.

People continue to construct barriers in society today—even in Berlin. All along, however, humanity has used art to overcome differences—especially in Berlin. The way art has repeatedly brought people together in Berlin continues to amaze me as I am surrounded by it every day.

Street art, specifically, has a long history in Berlin. The remains of the Berlin Wall, painted with calls for unity, are now a beautiful (though very busy) tourist destination. The street art I am documenting for my research shares many of the same political themes. The paintings, pasteups and stickers cover buildings, vehicles, signs and parks around the entire city. It is all very egalitarian; it springs up anonymously and speaks to the public.

While much of what I’ve photographed continues to address Nazism, war and the division caused by the Berlin Wall, other pieces push back at the division that threatens Berlin today.

Yesterday I went to an exhibit called “Born in the Purple” at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (“Kunst” means art in German, and Kreuzberg is the area I am staying in this summer). It was an entirely neon exhibit dedicated to Turkish immigration and belonging in Germany; the colors, sounds and visual testimony sucked me in and made me think.

My conclusion? Art matters. Art speaks in a language of its own that people from all over the world can understand and learn from. Of course, everybody who sees a street art piece will react differently—that is part of the beauty of an art form that addresses people indiscriminately. The street artists I have talked with, however, agree: the more people who see their work, the better!

I hope that I can help them out, and encourage diverse reactions from a diverse body. See you soon, Davidson!

Thank you for everything-
Sarah

 

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Sarah Gompper

Sarah Gompper ’18 is majoring in political science and English.

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