Two weeks ago, while scrolling through various news stories, I came across a story of Spanish artist Gonzalo Borondo and his recently completed mural in Berlin, Germany. Borondo’s piece was commissioned by the Gewobag Housing Association, and is part of a series titled Artpark Tegel. So far, the series consists of five paintings by the street art network Urban Nation, adding additional murals to a city already teeming with thought-provoking and powerful street art.
Borondo’s mural draws from the recent refugee crisis that has hit Europe, and finds deep relevance in Germany, which took in 1 million refugees in 2015 alone. The enormous mural depicts a young refugee girl standing in a puddle of blood, looking off into a distant forest at a naked man pierced with arrows. The suffering in the mural is clearly present in the blood-covered girl and arrow-pierced man, yet Gewobag urges viewers to acknowledge the hope of the mural, found in the fact the arrow-ridden man is standing, persevering against all odds.
Still, the graphic mural has not been well received by some Berlin residents, and a petition to have it removed has spread throughout the city.
In some ways, their anger make sense. For example, some people raise concerns about their children seeing such a gruesome scene, while others claim the mural is insensitive to the fact that people have died by suicide by jumping from the very building the mural is painted on. Others claim it is inappropriate to have such a large and painful reminder of the refugee crisis on display as refugees begin settling in nearby Berlin neighborhoods.
However, less compelling reasons for the petition also exist, the primary one being, it makes people uncomfortable, and reminds them of harsh and painful realities in a huge and unavoidable way.
As someone who has studied art as activism and specifically muralism, I find Borondo’s mural and the criticism it’s acquired a relevant and fascinating case study. Therefore, the remainder of this post will unpack the function of activist art, and analyze ethical use of this particular mural as an activist piece.
In its broadest definition, art as activism is designed to give visibility and audibility to individuals, groups and justice concerns that have otherwise been silenced or ignored. Part of the power of activist art, especially muralism, is that it is highly unavoidable. Murals immediately turn a community space into a public education space that brings to light realities the privileged often need not think about (1). As a result murals and other activist art makes issues like racism, immigration, classism, disenfranchisement and xenophobia highly visible, and empowers the oppressed often at the expense of the privileged viewer’s comfort.
So, turning back to Borondo’s piece, one must ask: Are the reasons for removing the mural justified?
Should we really remove the mural because children see it? Or do we learn to responsibly talk to children about war, violence, the refugee crisis and other social injustices?
Do we remove the mural because victims of depression and suicide have died there? Or do we as a society improve how we talk about mental health and accessible healthcare?
Do we remove the mural because it makes us uncomfortable and forces us to think about issues we would rather remain blind to or silent about? Or do we actively uncover our eyes and allow such suffering to inform how we engage with the world?
My goal is not to answer these questions for the readers of this blog or the residents of Berlin. However, I do want to complexify the issue and call for us to critically think, and be honest about our engagement with art as activism; art like Borondo’s mural that discomforts and raises social questions and concerns.
Still, there is one major concern raised by Berlin residents I believe should be addressed further, and that is the impact this mural has on the refugees settling in Berlin.
Typically, one of the characteristics of muralism is its communal nature. When commissioning a mural, communities generally come together and decide what type of mural they want to create; what they want it to depict about their community and its relation to larger society. Therefore, muralism typically involves a lot of communal dialogue (2).
So my question involving Borondo’s mural is this: How much dialogue was there with the Berlin community, specifically the refugee community who will likely have a different relationship to this mural than non-refugee residents?
I’m sure Gewobag and Urban Nation came together and discussed the subject matter with the Borondo and perhaps a handful of Berlin residents, but how extensive were these talks? Were the people on display in the mural, namely the refugee community, specifically approached?
I have no answer to that question, nor can I find one. I sincerely hope they have been a part of the mural’s conception, but the most I can find are Berlin residents claiming they want the mural taken down for the sake of the refugee community.
So all I can be sure of at this moment is this: if the residents’ concern for refugees is genuine then I hope their activism and hospitality towards the refugee community goes deeper than a statement to a newspaper. But if they are using the refugee community as an excuse to remove an unnerving a mural that reminds them of the realities of oppression and suffering in the world, then their exploitation is oppressive, disrespectful and damaging.
Either way, I believe if the refugee community of Berlin has not yet been approached by the subject matter depicted on the mural, then they should be. Borondo’s mural involves the refugee experience, therefore refugees must be a part of the conversation, in fact they should be LEADING the conversation. The refugee community must have space to be heard, seen and empowered by the art that puts them on display. Anything less is exploitation.
(1 & 2) O’Connell, Maureen H. “Common Beauty and the Common Good: Theological Aesthetics and Justice in Urban America.” Journal Of The Society Of Christian Ethics 31, no. 1 (2011): 123-141.
The news article initially reporting on Borondo’s mural and its criticism can be found at the following link: https://www.rt.com/news/347790-germany-mural-refugee-crisis/
For more information on Gonzalo Borondo, or to see more of his amazing work click on the following link: http://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/the-rise-of-spanish-muralist-gonzalo-borondo/