Project pictures the plight of immigrants

Berlin-based artist collective “Migrantas” has been exploring the effects of immigration since 2004. For their latest project, they invited multilingual children to think about what the different cultures in their lives mean to them. Jessica Ware reports.

Project pictures the plight of immigrants
Photo: Kollektiv migrantas/Photograph: Lutz Matschke

After a week of reflection, children aged nine to 11, together with the women behind Migrantas, took photographs of their daily school life and made a cartoon-like video.

An exhibition of their efforts opened last Wednesday at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The video will be displayed on screens in the city’s U-Bahn metro trains through November 9.

The Migrantas collective formed seven years ago, when artist Marula Di Como and graphic designer Florencia Young joined forces with sociologist Estela Schindel to create a place where primarily women could step back and explore what being an immigrant means to them.

The three women hailing from Argentina were joined later by German urban planner Irma Leinauer and another Argentinian, journalist Alejandra López. However, the language of the Migrantas project is neither German nor Spanish – it’s the pictogram.

The group’s latest project, “Europa-Kind + Europa-Schule: Bilder der Vielfalt,” veered away from their usual demographic of women’s integration groups or language classes, and entered the classrooms of three state-run bilingual schools in Berlin.

As the ultimate outcome of their workshops, the pictograms are developed from sketches done by women or children. The focus rests less on the aesthetic, but more on the message that they intend to convey.

Certain themes seem to run through the 70 pictograms that have already been exhibited in cities around the world. Loneliness, confusion, being overwhelmed are some of the negative ones, but pictograms depicting the learning of new skills, making new friends and feeling accepted also feature heavily.

Di Como already had experience in using pictograms and approached graphic designer Young to help make them into images suited for eye-catching public display. They created the final pictograms together.

They have so far appeared on billboards, public transport, bags and postcards, in an effort to speak to the millions of immigrant women living in Germany.

“We are not a feminist group, but have just found that in some groups of women, having no males present makes it easier to talk about certain topics,” Young told The Local.

“When running the workshops we’ve seen recurring themes of children, families and the future, which I think are female issues,” added Di Como.

They produce simple and poignant cartoon-like images, which are open to interpretation by everyone, independent of language. And so far, the group has worked with people from 72 different nationalities, each with a different background, social standing, and story to tell.

“The Migrantas philosophy is that we don’t have something to say, but something to show,” Young explained. “We expose the results of a project and everybody interprets it differently. There’s no pre-planned statement to our pieces.”

The group’s latest project received €17,800 from the Berlin Culture Fund to work with children at the Turkish-German Aziz-Nesin-Grundschule in Kreuzberg, Spanish-German Joan-Miró Grundschule in Charlottenberg and the Italian-German Finow-Grundschule Schöneberg.

“We started the week by introducing ourselves and our backgrounds, then encouraging the children to do the same,” said Young. “What was especially interesting was that even the teachers didn’t seem to know much about their pupils’ heritages.”

Nine-year-old Anna, a pupil at the Joan-Miró Grundschule said she hadn’t thought before about whether she was German or Spanish.

“I found it really cool to make videos and take pictures,” she told The Local. “I don’t think about the fact I am German and Spanish, for me it’s normal. I’m just both.”

Her acceptance of other cultures and the normality of being bilingual shined through in the pictogram-style video, a refreshingly innocent tribute to having mixed-heritage.

This positivity is something that Migrantas are keen to convey. “We don’t just deal with integration problems, we want to show migration in all its diversity, so both the negative and positive aspects,” said urban planner Leinauer.

However, when asked whether a specific pictogram had spoken most to the Migrantas women, Young explained that the collective’s logo – a woman standing, head hung, with a suitcase reading, “Why? And what for?” struck a chord.

“It doesn’t matter if we are educated or not, have citizenship, or where we are on the financial spectrum. We are all still immigrants,” she said, adding that “the idea of not belonging is the umbrella under which we all stand, that’s why Migrantas started.”

However, Migrantas are using the concept of not belonging as a step into the exploration of mobility, migration and trans-culturalism, and in turn helping them to become the norm in Germany.

“I think it’s a positive thing, having more than one culture is something that is added to us and our children when you look at it positively,” Leinauer said. “As an immigrant, you have more than one reality. You can switch between the two as you please.”

Jessica Ware

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10 unmissable events in Germany this October

From dazzling light shows to quirky food festivals, October is a jam-packed month in Germany. Here are some of the events you won't want to miss.

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

Oktoberfest, Munich Teresienwiese, September 17th – October 3rd

As possibly the world’s most famous beer festival, Oktoberfest needs no introduction – and for those who didn’t make it to Bavaria in September, there are still a few days left to catch it at the start of the month.

If you make it on the last bank holiday Monday, you can catch an especially rowdy party atmosphere as professional rifle shooters mark the end of the fest. But any other day at the Wiesn is an experience to remember, with live music and singing in all the tents, delicious Bavarian beer and a gigantic funfair for the most adventurous visitors.

And for those who can’t make it down to Bavaria at short notice, the Hofbräuhaus beer halls around the country celebrate their own mini-Oktoberfests with dancing, singing, live music and of course a crisp litre or two of Hofbräu. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

German Unity Day Celebrations, Erfurt Old Town, October 1st – 3rd 

Marking the day when West and East Germany were formally reunited back in 1990 – a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Tag der Einheit (Unity Day) is a truly special bank holiday in Germany. 

Each year, a different German city takes it in turn to host the annual Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) in honour of Germany’s national day. This year, the Thuringian capital of Erfurt will be putting on an action-packed programme of political and cultural events all weekend. To start with, Germany’s five constitutional bodies – the Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal President, Federal Government and Federal Constitutional Court – will be represented with large information stands on the theme of “Experiencing Politics”. And for those less keen to take a deep dive into the workings of government, each of the 16 states will have the best of their culture and cuisine on display. 

There’ll also be live concerts, performances and a light installation representing German reunification over the weekend, making a visit to scenic Erfurt well worth it. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart, September 23rd – October 9th 

If you want to experience big folk festival but want to steer clear of the tourist crowd in Munich, look no further than Oktoberfest’s Swabian sister, the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. 

First launched in 1818, the festival has become a mainstay of the autumn calendar in Baden-Württemberg, and it’s an event that is fiercely proud of its Swabian roots. If you go, you can sample some of the best local beers and wines around, as well as other traditional Swabian delicacies. You can also go on rollercoasters and other fairground rides, hear trumpeting Oompah bands and get dizzy on the world’s largest mobile Ferris wheel. 

Weimar Onion Market, October 7th – 9th

Nobody can say that Germans don’t make the most of their seasonal produce – and Weimar’s historic Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) is no exception.

The Zwiebelmarkt tradition dates back as early as the 15th century, when traders would come to the bustling town of Weimar to sell their wares. Over the years, the onion market days became a major social event where locals would also gather to eat, drink and barter. These days, you’ll still find all things onion-related at the onion market, from arts and crafts to culinary treats. But there’s also a funfair, live music, beer tents and family friendly activities to boot.

Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival, August 26th – December 4th

If you’re a fan of all things autumnal, look no further than Ludwigsburg Palace, which becomes home to the world’s largest pumpkin exhibition each year from late August to early December. 

It may sound novel, but a walk around the grounds of the palace will show you that in Ludwigsburg, the pumpkin artists certainly don’t do things by halves. Not only can you see incredible sculptures made from around 450,000 pumpkins in total, but you’ll also see a jaw-dropping 600 different varieties of pumpkin there as well. And if you work up an appetite while soaking up the exhibition, you can also sample some delicious pumpkin-based dishes, from soup to Maultaschen.

Pumpkin exhibition Ludwigsburg

Balu and Mowgli from the Jungle Book at the Ludwigsburg pumpkin exhibition. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Filmfest Hamburg, 29th September – October 8

Though it tends to get overshadowed by the show-stopper Berlinale, film buffs who can’t wait until February will enjoy a trip to its Hanseatic sibling: Filmfest Hamburg.

Running throughout the first week of October, the Filmfest brings together the best of contemporary cinema from around the world at a range of venues around the city. This year, the festival is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, so there’s bound to be a truly special atmosphere at the event. 

You can find the full programme in English here.

Berlin Festival of Lights, October 7th – 16th

Each year in the middle of August, the familiar sights of the German capital are bathed in colourful light and transformed each evening into weird and wonderful artistic creations.

This year, the theme of the world famous light festival is “Visions of the Future” as artists explore the question: What will our future look like?

The fruits of their labours can be seen around the city each evening from 7-11pm, after it gets dark. Organisers says there will be a big focus on sculptures this year – as well as the usual large installations – as they seek to reduce their electricity use by 75 percent. 

Berlin cathedral at Festival of Lights 2018

Berlin cathedral lit up in colourful lights at the 2018 Festival of Lights. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Frankfurt Book Fair, October 19th – 23rd 

The world’s largest book fair is returning to Frankfurt this October with the theme of “translation”, exploring the idea of translating ideas into new languages, mediums and contexts.

Alongside the sprawling trade fair and conference, there will also be a packed schedule of literary events where people can hear reading and talks by popular authors. You can find out all about the exhibitors at the book fair this year and what’s on at the conference in English on the Frankfurt Book Fair website

Deutsches Weinlesefest, September 23rd – October 10th 

The picturesque wine-growing regions of western Germany hold wine festivals throughout the year, but the Wine Harvest Festival – or Weinlesefest – is by far one of the biggest.

Fittingly enough, the festival is held in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, a pretty little town located along the famous Wine Route. For the few weeks of the festival, this sleepy little town hosts an enormous wine parade and around 100,000 wine-loving visitors. Head there on the 7th to see the crowning of this year’s Palatinate Wine Queen and sample some Rhineland wines out of a dubbeglas, a big glass that holds a whopping 50cl of wine. As always, drink responsibly! 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Halloween at Frankenstein’s Castle, October 21st – November 6th 

If the name of Frankenstein’s Castle sounds familiar to you, it should do: apparently, Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein, could well have been inspired by the castle when she visited the nearby town of Gernsheim in 1814. 

These days, however, the castle is known for something slightly different: in 1978, American airmen set up an annual Halloween festival at the castle, and the spooky tradition has continued to this day.

Halloween at Frankenstein Castle

A blood-curdling character at Frankenstein Castle’s Halloween Festival in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

If you want to enjoy what’s been described as one of the most spectacular Halloween experiences in the world, it’s well worth booking tickets to go up to the castle in late October. In the weeks around Halloween, the 1000-year-old castle is transformed in a phantasmagoria of monsters and evil beings lurking in the shadows.

Every year, the organisers of the festivals pull yet another technical trick out of their sleeve to ensure that visitors are more spooked than ever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can handle the adrenaline, it’s bound to be an action-packed night. 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?