Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

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Brazilian Dictatorship and the Bloody Bundles

In the early 1960s, Brazil’s left-leaning president João Goulart made many powerful enemies with his attempts to reduce the exploitative practices of multinational companies, in favour of improving education and labour standards for the Brazilian people. Meanwhile, the US administrations of Kennedy and Johnson were anxious to see Goulart establishing diplomatic relations with Cold War enemies such as China and Cuba, and began to consider his hardliner right-wing opponents the lesser of two evils. On 31 March 1964, with the covert backing of the US government, the Brazilian armed forces led a successful coup d’état. Within two days, a military junta had assumed control of Brazil, heralding more than two decades of brutal repression that was marked by the systemic exile or execution of political opponents and other “undesirables”.

Artur Barrio had moved from Portugal to Brazil in 1955, aged ten years old. In the early years of the dictatorship, the young man trained as an artist at the School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, and watched with concern as civil liberties were eruded. Responding to the rise of paramilitary forces, who prowled the streets, “cleansing” them of homeless adults and children, while student activists, artists and intellectuals started to “disappear”, Barrio created a series of site-specific conceptual artworks in 1969 and 1970, that remain among his best-known projects. Over the course of six months, Barrio made hundreds of “bloody bundles” (trouxas ensangüentadas), which he left in public spaces for people to interact with. The artist conceived of these unwitting individuals as participants in the artwork. Rather than transporting them out of their present reality, as art has often aimed to do, Barrio intended that his objects should open people’s eyes to their current situation, by provoking a sensorial response that would force viewers to confront the atrocities committed by the military regime.

In November 1969, Barrio created the first of his Situation (Situação) works, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Titled Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969, the project evolved over the course of a month, as Barrio placed around the interior of the museum white cloth bags containing concrete and crumpled newspapers to which he eventually added bloodied animal meat. The artist noted the reactions of visitors: some would add their own rubbish or even cash to these oozing piles, while others covered the bags in swear words. At the end of the exhibition, Barrio moved the bundles to the museum’s sculpture garden, where they caught the attention of the local police and were promptly disposed of as garbage.

The following April, Barrio developed this guerrilla-style artistic strategy to produce two ambitious and shockingly visceral “situations” on the streets of Brazil. Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS took place in Rio de Janeiro in the first half of April, when the artist walked around the city, leaving behind 500 plastic bags containing animal blood and bones, nails, saliva, hair, urine, feces, paper, sawdust and food waste. The creation of the work and the reactions of passersby were documented by photographer César Carneiro. On 19 and 20 April 1970, Situação T/T took place in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. This project formed part of a four-day happening entitled From Body to Earth (Do Corpo à Terra), organised by Frederico Morais and comprising subversive actions by a number of artists. Barrio anonymously placed bloody bundles in the municipal park and the dried bed of the Arrudas river, as well as unfurling sixty toilet rolls on the banks of the river that highlighted its use as an open sewer. The bags once again contained decomposing animal meat and bones, as well as clay, foam, clothing, wires and knives. The artist intentionally removed any signs that the objects constituted an artwork, and in the current climate many members of the public mistook them for dismembered human body parts. The police force and fire department once again removed and disposed of the mysterious objects, while Carneiro secretly recorded their perplexed reactions.

Perhaps due to the artist’s awareness of the dangers of his involvement coming to the attention of the authorities, Situação T/T would mark the last of Barrio’s “situations”. As censorship and political repression in Brazil became increasingly inescapable, Barrio left for Europe in 1974, where he has continued to produce anti-establishment installation works constructed from the discarded materials of daily life that create surprising and sensory interactions with the public.

Barrio’s Situation works are discussed alongside pieces by other politically-engaged Brazilian artists working in the 1960s and ’70s in the book Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles by Claudia Calirman (Duke UP, 2012). You can read part of the book online here.

Images: Artur Barrio, Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969. Installation view at Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, 1969. Courtesy Galeria Millan, São Paulo; Artur Barrio creating Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS, Rio de Janeiro, 1970; Artur Barrio creating Situação T/T. Images courtesy arturbarrio-trabalhos.blogspot.com.

St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

Painting for Women’s Rights on the Streets of Afghanistan

On International Women’s Day 2017, Espionart takes a look at the work of a female artist who is challenging stereotypes about women in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies.

In the Afghan capital of Kabul, the spray-painted image of a shadowy figure, wrapped in a blue burqa, is an unexpected shock of bright colour in the unrelenting grey urban landscape. This image is the work of Shamsia Hassani, who is credited not only as Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, but also the country’s first 3D street artist, regardless of gender. As well as challenging stereotypes about Afghan women by pursuing her practice as a street artist, Hassani has become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights by putting female characters at the centre of her work.

hassani 3Shamsia Hassani was born to Afghan parents in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 1988. Unable to acquire Iranian citizenship, Hassani was prevented from pursuing an artistic education, and so returned to her native country in 2005 to study first a BFA and then an MFA at Kabul University. She is now one of the youngest faculty members in the university’s Fine Art Department, and a major figure in Kabul’s emerging contemporary art scene.

Hassani first tried her hand at graffiti in 2010, when she attended a workshop in Kabul run by a British street artist. Since then, she has focused on depicting Afghan women, to campaign for their greater representation in the country. While her female characters often appear melancholy and in precarious situations, Hassani shows women as determined and resilient, reflecting her own hopeful outlook: “I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman. A woman who is full of energy, who wants to start again. You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now. … We can make positive changes with art. We can open people’s minds with art.”

The series Secret, featuring a female figure wearing a blue burqa, confronts the Western preconception that the headscarf is the source of female oppression. Hassani dismisses this as a distraction from the real problems facing women, such as lack of access to education. Above all, the artist aims to show that the veil covering the woman’s body is much less debilitating than the veil of silence that prevents her from having a voice. For this reason, Hassani often depicts her female characters with musical instruments, as a proxy for their muted speech, providing an outlet for their expression.

In the series Birds of No Nation, Hassani’s female characters are perched high on rooftops, peering down on a distance city; while in Once Upon a Time, the women are alone in a fractured landscape, cast out from the urban centre. In these works, Hassani reflects on Afghanistan’s turbulent history, since a coup d’état in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 provoked rising extremism and almost 40 years of war. The artist’s own itinerant upbringing, raised with limited rights in a neighbouring country, mirrors that of many of her compatriots, whose experiences of mass migration and refugeeism are epitomised in the iconic image of the Afghan Girl. But as Hassani explained to Art Radar, “I want to colour over the bad memories of war on the walls and if I colour over these bad memories, then I erase [war] from people’s minds. I want to make Afghanistan famous because of its art, not its war.”

Despite her humanitarian objectives, Hassani’s work has received mixed reactions in the Afghan capital. In an interview with The Independent, Hassani revealed that she is often harassed while painting on the streets of Kabul. Due to concerns about her personal safety – from attacks by angry onlookers, as well as the risks posed by hidden landmines and sporadic bombings – Hassani has to work quickly and usually finishes her pieces within 15 minutes. In response to these dangers, which prevent her from creating new street art for months at a time, Hassani created Dream Graffiti, manually or digitally painting on photographs from the safety of her studio, to imagine her ideal artistic intervention into the Kabul cityscape.

Shamsia Hassani’s international profile has grown rapidly in recent years and her work has been included in exhibitions around the world. In 2016, Hassani was artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she was able to meet local street artists and learn more about the American arts education system to inform her teaching in Afghanistan. Back in Kabul, she is training a new generation of graffiti artists and has co-founded the Berang Art Organization, to promote contemporary art and culture in Afghanistan through workshops, talks, and exhibitions. Shamsia Hassani is single-handedly proving that, even in the most unforgiving of places, art has the power to give hope and inspire change.

You can follow Shamsia Hassani on Facebook and see more of her work and videos of her creative process on the Hammer Museum website.

Images: Top – Shamsia Hassani photographed for Elle magazine in 2014. © MaxPPP. All images courtesy Shamsia Hassani.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Ridiculing the Regime: The Orange Alternative in Poland

As communist governments across Eastern Europe floundered in the 1980s, strange creatures began to be seen behind the Iron Curtain. Mischievous little gnomes with cheeky smiles and pointy hats first appeared in the southern Polish city of Wrocław, and then began to pop up on the walls of cities across the country. But despite their comical appearance, these gnomes had a serious purpose – using surrealism as a weapon to bring an end to the country’s repressive regime.

The dwarves were the mascot of the Orange Alternative, an artist-activist student movement founded in 1980 at the University of Wrocław. In that year, art historian Waldemar Fydrych, who went by the nom de guerre ‘Major’, wrote the Socialist Surrealism Manifesto, in which he argued that the system of government in Poland had become so surreal that it had transformed into a work of art. Fydrych led the creation of the Orange Alternative magazine, from which the resulting movement took its name. These events coincided with the first months of Solidarity (Solidarność), a political opposition movement that would grow in power throughout the 1980s and finally force through democratic reform at the end of the decade.

The Orange Alternative advocated using ridicule as a form of resistance, modelling its absurdist, avant-garde character on the Surrealist art movement in 1920s’ France. From 1982, participants in this artistic opposition painted over government slogans on the streets of Poland and left the graffitied image of the dwarf in its place. The movement gained pace as young people saw it as an appealingly exuberant substitute for the pomposity and seriousness of Solidarity. As Orange Alternative symbols appeared on city walls from Kraków to Gdańsk, the Polish militia attempted to end the rise of the gnomes by detaining graffiti artists, but still the irreverent images multiplied to over a thousand.

From the mid-1980s, the Orange Alternative developed into a series of over sixty ‘happenings’, artist-led actions and performances that took place in Polish cities, including Warsaw, Łódź and Lublin. These surreal activities included handing out free toilet paper, sanitary towels and pretzels to passersby, to satirise the state’s control over the distribution of consumer products and highlight their scarcity. The artists and their supporters often wore bright orange hats, and subverted the rhetoric of both the government and Solidarity to create nonsensical slogans, such as ‘There is no freedom without dwarves’ and ‘Every militiaman is a piece of art’. This brightly-coloured peaceful protest began to be reported by the Polish and international press, leading the humouristic happenings to become increasingly popular. Thousands of pedestrians started joining in with the actions, while the militia arrested hundreds of participants at a time.

However, the events presented a dilemma to the authorities, as by arresting protesters they risked making the regime itself look ridiculous. As Fydrych noted, “Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?'” The state’s anti-Orange operations led to absurd scenes, such as the militia hauling away over 70 people dressed as Santa Claus. Members of the Orange Alternative also anticipated the authorities’ aggressive response and incorporated this into their plans for the happenings, such as running through the streets in T-shirts bearing the words ‘galloping inflation’, and then upon arrest, loudly congratulating the state on finally putting an end to the galloping inflation. The Orange Alternative movement reached its climax on 1 June 1988, when over 10,000 people wearing orange hats marched through the streets of Wrocław in the ‘Revolution of Dwarves’, while similar protests took place in Warsaw and Lublin. The following year the movement disbanded, as the communist Polish United Workers Party finally loosened its grip on power and allowed semi-free elections for the first time since 1928.

In the essay ‘Performing Revolution: The Orange Alternative‘, Julius Gavroche explains the movement’s importance as a model for peaceful protest around the world:

“They introduced what could be called performative politics, often using carnivalesque techniques, theatrical foolishness and taking back the spectacle into their own hands. The members of the Orange Alternative were not just artists with political objectives, they were also shrewd manipulators.”

Since 2005, the Orange Alternative has been given a permanent memorial in its birthtown of Wrocław, as an assortment of bronze gnomes have been placed on the streets of the city’s Old Town by local artist Tomasz Moczek, proving a popular draw for tourists.

Images: Orange Alternative graffiti, n.d. Courtesy Julius Gavroche/Autonomies; Down with Hot Weather–Down with Batons (Precz z upałami–Precz z pałami), Wrocław, July 1988; Revolution of Dwarves (Rewolucja Krasnoludków), Wrocław, 1 June 1988. Courtesy Grzegorz Borkowski/OBIEG; Dwarf sculpture in Wrocław.

Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.