Show me where you come from

The artist Dieter Mammel spent a year painting with displaced children and youths. The result: unique contemporary documents telling stories of war and flight, but also of hope and dreams. We visited his atelier in Berlin.

von Theresa Schmidt

Dieter Mammel with Shahab at an installation for refugees in Onkel-Tom-Straße. May 2016. Photo: Private

Dieter Mammel’s industrial loft smells of rooibos tea and paint. Bare walls are covered with a whole host of ink and oil works; there are frames and canvasses leant against the furniture. Mammel extends a warm welcome and pours the tea. He then opens a catalogue. The words Zeig mir, woher Du kommst (Show me where you come from) are on the cover. He starts by saying that the past year has changed him and points to a drawing. Strong blue-crayon lines on a large sheet of paper; there’s a black island with people in the middle. But the island is actually no island.


text_g_mAbdullah, 10

“I was terrified we’d drown. People were crying and my fear grew. I saw death coming. I was scared in case a wave capsized us. We reached Greece after two hours. The Greeks took care of us and gave us something to eat. We stayed there then continued on to Macedonia.”

August 2015. Dieter Mammel is travelling through Greece on his way to his gallery in Turkey when, on Kos, he comes face-to-face with the human tragedy of our time. “There were tourists right next to these stranded people,” he remembers. He starts to help people on the spot, people in overcrowded inflatable dinghies, crying and shouting – happy to have made it or in desperation at the loss of friends or loved ones. It immediately becomes clear to him: “If these people somehow make it to Germany then I’d definitely like to help them.”

A month later, Mammel has put his plan into practice, helping out in a Berlin emergency accommodation facility, but at the same time the artist is bothered by lack of speech between himself and the refugees he hadn’t realised before. How do you overcome foreignness and find a common language? His own family history finally gives him an idea: he would show a communication channel using pictures, just as he’d done himself in his family works cycle. During World War II, the painter’s grandparents and parents had fled the Balkans, coming to Germany via Austria. Mammel was born in Reutlingen in 1965. These family works tell stories and preserve memories. And they’re works that allow for discussion beyond language barriers. In order to generate trust, the artist brings his own pictures to the accommodation facility and uses them to ‘tell’ his story. In a short space of time, he encourages some 40 children aged between five und 15 to paint their own stories: Zeig mir, woher Du kommst.
text_5_g_m-10Osama, 12

“That’s the school I went to every day. It has now been destroyed by bombs. That’s our house. From here, I saw demonstrations and how people were killed. How cars exploded and how aeroplanes shot at neighbourhoods.”

He works twice a week with children from the Heckeshorn and Onkel-Tom-Sporthalle accommodation facilities. The large-format crayon, felt-tip and watercolour drawings they produce speak volumes. Mammel remembers each and every story as he leafs through the catalogue in his atelier: the pictures show happy memories, flowers, trees and Spiderman costumes, as well as tanks, destroyed houses and aircraft dropping bombs. One drawing, Hug a Terrorist, depicts a deep-seated longing for reconciliation in a very moving way with civilians embracing IS fighters dressed in black. Other drawings take a symbolic look at the political dimensions: a Syrian in tears, for example, or a sandglass in which the Syrian flag in the upper section turns bit-by-bit into the Opposition flag underneath. The children worked on their own or in groups and other pictures tell stories about escape and arriving in Germany, about having new friends and the feeling of safety.

Mammel always tries to involve parents in their children’s creative work and each picture gives him an increased feeling that key contemporary evidence is emerging that should be available to a wide audience. He is strengthened in this resolve by the gratitude that families show towards him. It finally happens in the middle of December 2015 when the exhibition Zeig mir, woher du kommst is shown in Berlin’s Haus am Waldsee, a centre for international contemporary art, and then at the Berliner Dom. The exhibition is supported by a film entitled Erzähl mir, woher Du kommst (Tell me where you come from), which was produced with Matthias Grübel and allows the young artists to talk about their pictures. The film amounts to moving documentary evidence and gives the children a voice. Some of them simply describe what they have drawn; others share their deep-seated sadness and their dreams. The exhibition was also shown at Frankfurt’s Museum of World Cultures up to the middle of October this year.


text_4_g_m-5Shahab, 11

“I come from Afghanistan. I came to Germany to escape the war. (…) We should hug each other and make up instead of waging war and arguing, make peace, from everywhere, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Germany. Become reconciled instead of becoming terrorists, whether Muslim or from another religion, and we should do it now! They’re killing so many people, where is it meant to lead? They’re not achieving anything with it. When will the time come when we all start talking to each other and make up, instead of fighting and arguing? Why don’t we help each other? We should all be good people.”

It’s now one-and-a-half years since Dieter Mammel’s first encounter with refugees on Kos and the artist is still in close contact with the families he met in the accommodation facilities. He is currently looking for a permanent home for the works in a museum but is regularly confronted with what he describes as “upsetting” questions about why he does it and what it brings him. “Many people can’t break out of their egocentric space,” he says regretfully, “but that’s an experience I hope everyone has.” When people ask him what you have to bring with you to work with “them”, his stance is clear: “Go, be open, communicate with these people, get to know them, break down your own fears. There’s nothing more to it than that.” He then closes the catalogue and finishes his tea.

Translation: Nickolas Woods