Everyone can be a role model

Curator Ronja Sommerfeld from the Afrika Medien Zentrum in Berlin has led many discussions for the photo exhibition Flucht nach vorn (Escaping Ahead), which presents migrants and refugees as role models. But what exactly is a role model and does the exhibition concept work? Impressions from the opening event.

von Corinna von Bodisco

Foto: Corinna von Bodisco
The linguist Serge Aka during his speech at the opening of the exhibition “Flucht nach vorn” (Escaping Ahead) in Berlin. Photo: Corinna von Bodisco

As I enter the modest exhibition room, curator Ronja Sommerfeld is chatting enthusiastically in French and encouraging visitors to get themselves something to drink. The mood is warm; I take a fruit juice and look around.

The Afrika Medien Zentrum (AMZ) exhibition is on display at the European Integration Centre (EIZ) in Berlin. It presents migrants and refuges as role models – regarding both their contribution to our society and the obstacles they faced on the road to integration here.

But what is a role model? An ideal? A star? I ask Hervé Tcheumeleu Kameni, managing director of the AMZ and publisher of the LoNam Magazine. “Everyone is a role model for a something specific,” he says, adding that he prefers seeing others as role models rather than himself. His attitude is wholly understandable: a role model comes to the fore and receives attention from individuals or a group. It isn’t always comfortable. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why, unfortunately, none of the people portrayed are present on this January evening. Another reason may of course be that most of them don’t live in Berlin.

The life-sized portrait photos on long paper webs have an almost statuesque effect; they’re close to the wall but take up the space. In their size and presence, you get a sense that the people who have been photographed stand for something. They’re there and they belong to us. Quotes and short biographies of the portrait subjects are printed next to the photos. The words accompanying the portrait of Thomas Mboya Ochieng read: “Being a refugee is a situation that hopefully ends well. It is never a ‘title’ or identifier for an unhappy person.” The information label says the qualified teacher fled from Kenya to Germany in 2009. He works as a volunteer co-ordinator for refugee aid in Eberswalde where he is the contact person for volunteers and new arrivals, mainly in relation to employment opportunities or language acquisition.

After walking around the exhibition room, I talk to Ronja Sommerfeld about the development of the photo exhibition. “It’s about not hiding yourself and instead taking a different look at the topic of escape,” the curator says. “It means that people who have experienced escape or migration have belonged to our society for a long time, are actively engaged and are part of our society.” To reinforce this idea, one photo shows the portrait subjects with well-known people who spent a long period in exile during the Nazi dictatorship. The focus is on the activities of the people photographed – journalism, politics and youth work –, rather than any particular status.

The Flucht nach vorn exhibition, which runs until the end of March, is part of a larger project of the same name that also involves discussions and international cookery evenings. “It’s particularly about mutual exchange, and people with experience of escape and migration are always the protagonists,“ says Sommerfeld. She explains that the aim of the AMZ’s Vorbilder treffen (Meet role models) programme is to enable people to develop contacts in their professional fields. A visit to Berlin Police is planned in March for all those interested in this vocation, for example. The curator says that it is especially young people with migration experience who lack any public role models with whom they can identify.

The fact that it still isn’t self-evident to see the people portrayed as part of our society rather than reducing them to their otherness is unfortunately on show again this evening. In his opening speech Fuß fassen in der neuen Heimat (Settling down in the new home country), the political scientist and linguist Serge Aka encourages new arrivals to interact with locals – for example at events such as this one. “But you don’t mean events like the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, right?” says someone from the audience at this point. It takes a moment until the comment registers, then the same person adds: “Yeah, you’d wish these dedicated people, as they’re presented here, would be role models for everyone. They just have personality traits that others of them don’t have.“ I think about what’s actually happening here. Amid the tension, another guest says: “May I please interrupt you? Your insinuation isn’t only inappropriate for the organisers and listeners here but above all for those you describe as ’other halves’, the people you think can never be role models themselves.“ This brings the brief moment of confusion to an end there’s no discussion. But it makes me think: Did the guest in question visit the exhibition with the sole aim of provocation? In any case, after the speech he gives the curator tips on how to improve the layout of the portraits. I interrupt both of them to ask Sommerfeld a few questions myself. Relieved, she turns in my direction. However, we ought to have continued the discussion with the provocateurs. I’ll do that next time.

On the way home, the main question of the evening is again on my mind: What is a role model? A thought by portrait subject Ruhin Ashuftah may help with the answer: “You need a positive attitude. As someone said to me: you have to approach society, even if it doesn’t approach you […] encounter people in a friendly manner, regardless of how often you hear no, and try again until they understand that you’re part of it too.”

The Flucht nach vorn exhibition will be expanded during the course of the year and an accompanying catalogue is planned. The exhibition is open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm at the European Integration Centre (Harzer Straße 51-52, 12059 Berlin) until the end of March before moving to the Afrika Center Berlin in Schöneberg.