The Solidarity of ‘Echoes of the Brother Countries’

At Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, a sprawling group exhibition explores relationships between the German Democratic Republic and socialist states in the Global South

BY Harry Stopes in Exhibition Reviews | 02 APR 24

In recent years, the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) has been the subject of a reappraisal that, while not seeking to redeem the stiflingly authoritarian state, has attempted to present a more nuanced overview of its social and cultural realities. Such is the case with ‘Echoes of the Brother Countries’, which explores relationships between the DDR and socialist states in the Global South; the experiences of students, contract workers and political refugees who came to East Germany from across the globe; and the significance of these connections for present-day Germany.

‘Echoes of the Brother Countries. What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities’, 2024, exhibition view, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Courtesy: the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Photograph: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

Encounters between the DDR and the brother countries were characterized at different moments by solidarity, paternalism, self-interest, admiration, racism and anti-imperialism: this complexity is conveyed throughout the show in a range of media. One mode is a kind of outsider-socialist-realism favoured in a number of films by foreign students who studied at the Film and Television Academy. Riad Ali Saad’s Marhaba Rostock (1970), for instance, compares the roles of capital and labour at the harbours of Rostock and Beirut, while Emile Itolo’s Olingo (1966) recounts the experience of a Congolese student who finds his attempts to study in West Berlin thwarted by casual racism – the western setting offering an implicit contrast with the apparently more brotherly east.

Maimuna Adam, Writing (a future with the remnants of the past), 2023, mixed media book-object, suitcases and screens, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist; Photograph: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

A focus on social realism is also evidenced by a selection of archive materials from the personal collections of contract workers – including candid photographs and bureaucratic documents – displayed on long, low tables in the main foyer. A recurring theme is the injustice suffered by many of these workers, who were hired on fixed-term contracts with inferior terms. This is evoked in works such as Maimuna Adam’s installation Writing (a future with the remnants of the past) (2023), which explores the emotional and material loss suffered by madgermanes – Mozambicans who, upon their abrupt and often forced departure from Germany, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, found that a proportion of their promised wages had been withheld.

César Olhagaray, Solidarität (Solidarity), 1986/2024, mural, mixed media on canvas, reproduction, 3.1 × 9.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024; Photograph: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

Realism, however, is not the only genre of socialist art. Decorative, abstract works such as Gertraude Pohl’s Zeitlose Zeichen in Schwarz. Rot. Gold. (Timeless Signs in Black. Red. Gold., 1991) represent the best of DDR public art. Originally installed in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, these painted and appliqued fabric works in Germany’s colours present a kind of deconstructed, abstract flag for an entity beyond the nation state. Pohl’s works are shown in conversation with César Olhagaray’s murals, including a reproduction of the lost work Solidarität (Solidarity, 1986), originally painted on the wall of an East Berlin youth club. Here, the dialogue between the two artists evokes the brotherhood of the exhibition title, as does the selection of works from Lea Grundig – a German Jewish communist who spent World War II in exile in Palestine – paired with those of her former students from the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, such as the Palestinian artist Abed Abdi.

Khaled Abdulwahed, Background, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © pong film

In a present-day context in which the DDR is typically characterized as provincial and often racist, this exhibition makes a case for investigating what HKW director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung describes in his curatorial essay as ‘the price society pays for the erasure of memory and identities’. This task is taken on directly in Khaled Abdulwahed’s Background (2023). The Syrian-born artist, who fled the civil war in 2015 and now lives in Leipzig, presents a film-collage that reconstructs the fragmented memories of his father, who studied in the DDR during the late 1950s. Over a crackling phoneline from Syria, Abdulwahed’s father – refused asylum to join his son in Germany for the past decade – recalls his student experiences as footage screens of the artist photoshopping his father into archival images of the DDR. By envisioning this undocumented history, Abdulwahed asserts his family’s right to belong in a region that still retains exclusionist undertones.

‘Echoes of the Brother Countries’ is on view at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, until 20 May

Main image: Heinz-Karl Kummer, Solidarität (Solidarity), 1978, oil on wood, 1 × 2.3 m. Courtesy: Museum Utopie und Alltag (Kunstarchiv Beeskow) and Estate Heinz-Karl Kummer; (Kunstarchiv Beeskow) and Estate Heinz-Karl Kummer; Photograph: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

Harry Stopes is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. He is working on a book about the history of prisons.