Refugees or Immigrants? Migrant Art at the Ben Uri Gallery

The Ben Uri Gallery have just opened two new exhibitions looking at the contribution of German migrant artists to Britain.

Frankfurther

Credit: Eva Frankfurther Estate

The Ben Uri Gallery may not be on your radar if you’re used to trekking around the likes of the National or the TATE. Naturally, these iconic institutions with their hundreds of masterpieces have their place, but sometimes visiting a smaller, more niche, and often more thought-provoking gallery is worthwhile.

Housed in North London, the Ben Uri Gallery is dedicated to art and migration; a small but perfectly formed gallery with regularly changing exhibitions addressing questions of movement and visual arts. Their latest exhibition, ‘Refugees: The Lives of Others’ looks at the various ways German refugees have contributed to Britain’s 20th century art scene. Of course, these artists did not merely choose to come here for our tea and our incredible weather – the majority of the artists came here because of the Nazi situation in Germany: anti-Semitic laws in 1933 meant many Jewish artists were forbidden to practice, and so they fled abroad in order to continue to do what they loved.

frank 2

Ben Uri’s newest exhibition is particularly relevant today, given our current refugee crisis: I attended the opening night of the gallery’s German-centred feature and it is stunning. The ground floor is dedicated to a young lady called Eva Frankfurther, who escaped to London with her Jewish family in 1939. After studying at St. Martin’s School of Art, Eva found that she wasn’t all that excited about the London art scene, and she moved to Whitechapel to work in Lyon’s sugar factory. The East End in the 50’s was a hub of various migrant communities: these West Indian, Cypriot and Pakistani people were the inspiration for Frankfurther’s artwork, which she completed during the day after her night shifts at the factory.

Often dark in colour, Eva Frankfurther’s sketches and paintings depict people at work or rest, going about their daily lives in the smog of the city and interacting with friends, families and fellow refugees.

Frank auerbach

Frank Auerbach. Credit: Ben Uri Collection

Downstairs in the basement gallery, a whole host of diverse German artists are on display. There are the more well-known names such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, as well as sculptors, sketchers and painters you’ve probably never heard of. It’s not just the varied works that is inspiring though; the artists’ stories are as  important here as the art on show. Many of the artists were interned, so a lot of the paintings are those which were completed in a camp.

Tomalin

Rough and unpolished sculpture by Margarete Klopflesich contrasts with the abstract, graphic style of Elisabeth Tomalin’s ‘Head’; Frank Auerbach’s textural images are even more exciting alongside Hans Scheleger’s lithographic prints for London Transport. What brings all these incredible artists and works together is their shared identity as German refugees in our country, a place of safety away from the horrors of Hitler, and one where they could continue to thrive with their artistic talent.

We did it once, and we can do it again. Let’s hope that Britain supports, embraces and nurtures the art of all the diverse people who are coming to call our home theirs.

 

 

 

A German Author in London: Barbara Honigmann at Senate House

Recently the Institute of Modern Languages Research, based at Senate House Library,  hosted an evening with one of Germany’s best contemporary women’s writers titled ‘A Conversation with Barbara Honigmann’.

Barbara Honigmann, 2014

To define Barbara Honigmann is a difficult task: she is, yes, a woman writer. She is also a German writer, and at the same time a Jewish writer. But rather than see her as a Woman German-Jewish writer, we should simply see her as a writer. Fitting into multiple ‘boxes’ means that to certain interested parties, she has several identities: but giving a voice to Jews, Germans or women, in whatever part she is required to be at the time, can leave her feeling that she has – rather than a rich and multifaceted identity -an utter lack of concrete identity.

Born in east Germany in 1949 to parents who spent many years exiled in London, Barbara Honigmann left the GDR for Strasbourg in 1983, where she still lives. Honigmann is best known for her largely autobiographical fiction, and is currently the writer in residence at Queen Mary University of London.

Senate House Library is a rather imposing looking building smack bang in between Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road. This 1920s-feel white brick structure may look bleak from the outside, but as the University of London library, and home to the School of Advanced Study, this is one knowledge-filled place; the perfect location, then for a discussion with one of Germany’s most prominent authors.

Despite her multiple identities, one March evening in the welcoming space of Senate House, it was Barbara Honigmann the writer who held the steadfast attention of the room. Facilitated by Robert Gillett, Honigmann discussed her life as well as her latest novel, Chronik meine Strasse to a gripped audience.

Interspersed throughout the talk of biography and language, the author read passages from her new book in German, followed by a translation read by Dr. Gillett. Essentially her latest book is, hence the title, the story of Barbara’s street. A novel dedicated to a single road has the potential to sound like a dull and overly simplistic affair, but in what we hear from Chronik meine Strasse, Honigmann’s street exists as a deep and detailed character.

Her street has a past, it has a personality, and it has people that each have their own stories living along it. Barbara’s atmospheric, and at times simplistic, writing creates an image of a street you eagerly want to explore, yet at the same time feel you already know. There are long, meandering sentences (that had to be split for the English version) amongst brisk statements and repeated sequences. Despite these instances of wanderings and explorations, the destination of the text is never far from sight.

We hear about the people she sees from her balcony. and how the street is changing. Neighbours and relationships, as well as the history of the road are discussed in detail: Barbara Honigmann’s street feels like a microcosm of today’s multicultural and varied cities. In fact, her text could have been transposed to right here in London, and the sights, feelings and people may not have been altogether that different.

For such an accomplished writer, Honigmann’s humble personality may have seemed at this event unequal to the lofty standards of her words. Her softness and approachability, however, meant Barbara could have gone beyond meine Strasse, further than meine Stadt and outside mein Land, and the audience would have still been hungry for more.  Barbara Honigmann’s discussion with Robert Gillett did not only instigate applause, but also those rare moments of silent thought; a sign, always, of a successful conversation