The German art of death and politics
Making waves is just a part of the process for these artists
Lately, the Center for Political Beauty, a German artist collective, has been causing a turmoil in German media. Who are these people moving dead asylum-seekers from one country to another and conducting public funerals for them? Where do all these make-believe graves on German streets come from? How is it possible that thousands of protesters turn the meadow in front of the national parliament into a symbolic graveyard?
We had the opportunity to interview Yasser Almaamoun (pictured right), an architect working and studying in Berlin. Almaamoun came to Germany about three years ago, shortly after the uprising in Syria began. He spoke to us about their recent campaign called “Die Toten kommen” (Here come the dead) and what art has to do with politics. His comments and the work of the Center for Political Beauty represent one point of view on this issue.
This interview was conducted in German.
Euphrates: Sounds bizarre: you exhume a human corpse, literally dig it out, transport it halfway across Europe and bury it again. How does a mission like this transpire exactly?
Almaamoun: First of all, the funeral itself does not have anything to do with the mission. We heard about so many people dying on their way to Europe or about how badly they are treated upon arrival in Italy. So the artists tried helping the deceased’s families. With a lot of time and effort, we managed to establish contact to said relatives. We made them an offer to finance the corpse’s transport to Berlin. Why? Because Germany is the center of Europe.
Euphrates: Why is that important?
Almaamoun: Oftentimes, refugee families are spread out over several countries. Compared to other countries, Germany is relatively easily accessible, visa-wise. So Berlin is the most sensible place to move the deceased to.
Euphrates: On your website you state that Germany carries a particular responsibility in the current refugee crisis. Why?
Almaamoun: Germany is one of the most protected states in Europe. It is not accessible through the Mediterranean Sea, as, say, France. You cannot flee to Germany directly, yet the right to asylum is constituted in German law. That doesn’t make any sense. If Germany were to separate itself from the EU and claim it does not have anything to do with refugees dying at European borders, somewhere far away in Greece, in Italy, that would be absurd. We all know Germany too finances Frontex [an EU Agency that coordinates and develops European border management], and has an impact on how refugees are treated upon arrival.
Euphrates: How did you convince people to let their dead family member be exhumed and moved to be buried somewhere else?
Almaamoun: I was in charge of communicating with them because I speak Arabic. We would gradually get to know each other, but of course, whenever I told someone of our plan, there was a huge shock. We offered them help and in exchange we could convey a political message.
Euphrates: What kind of help did you offer them?
Almaamoun: To organize the corpses’ transport from Italy, where they are unknown, to Berlin, where they are honored. The two funerals we have already conducted are two different cases. The first one, a Syrian mother of four, had been buried in a mass grave in Italy. It took us about three or four weeks to identify her. The man whose funeral we arranged three days after hers had actually never been buried. He died on April 10th.
Euphrates: So people concede being close to their dead for the sake of them being buried in honor?
Almaamoun: The man’s family trusted me personally. They told me to see after him and send them pictures and videos of his funeral.
Euphrates: Do you think you succeeded in your goal to conduct an honorable funeral?
Almaamoun: From a religious perspective, yes. The family wanted a Muslim funeral and we had an Imam lead the ceremony.
Euphrates: Could the Center for Political Beauty have invested more effort in inviting Muslims from Berlin to attend?
Almaamoun: We did make an effort, but you can’t control how many people actually show up. We posted an invitation to the funerals on Facebook. We stated that it was going to be a Muslim funeral and any Muslims in Berlin were welcome to attend. But there were not that many who did.
Euphrates: There were some Muslims spreading the word, trying to get others to attend as well. Some of those who attended the woman’s funeral on Tuesday later said they felt instrumentalized. They didn’t realize it was going to be a political campaign.
Almaamoun: And how was the funeral political, exactly?
Euphrates: It’s not quite that usual to attend a funeral and have a dozen cameras film and photograph you praying for the dead. Could the Center have been more transparent about its plans?
Almaamoun: Had we been less secretive about the mission, it never would have worked. Politicians would have found a way to stop us. In addition, it is common for the Center’s activities not to be announced until three days before they take place.
Euphrates: At the second funeral Imam Abdullah Hajjir addressed the Center and admonished it to remember this was not an event, not a staged act, but a “true moment”. How true can this moment be when there are so many camera lenses trying to frame it?
Almaamoun: I think the journalists attended as human beings as well. At least in this moment. I, as a member of the Center for Political Beauty, experienced it as a human being. When the Imam asked the journalists to quiet down and not take as many pictures during the burial, they respected his request.
Euphrates: Critics claim your priority lies with self-promotion for your art.
Almaamoun: Our art hasn’t even started yet. This is planned for our Marsch der Entschlossenen (March of the Determined). The funerals are purely humane experiences, they have nothing to do with art.
Euphrates: So what about the black paint in your faces?
Almaamoun: It’s symbolic.
Euphrates: What does it stand for?
Almaamoun: To me, it means that it’s not important what you look like, it’s your actions that matter.
Euphrates: Looks a little like war paint.
Almaamoun: More like suffering. We’re not fighting, we suffer in life and it shows on our faces.
Euphrates: Does the Center prioritize letting refugees speak for themselves? Do you deem it important to work together with the refugee activists here in Berlin?
Almaamoun: I think we simplify their work. We get public attention and refugee organizations profit from it. We don’t have a specific platform for them to speak, because what we do is very different from civil or human rights activism. We do art. If we were to collaborate with civil rights movements we wouldn’t be able to claim that anymore. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do. A human rights organization could never pull off something like the Marsch der Entschlossenen.
Euphrates: Your website states that “art must hurt, art must resist”. Who is your art supposed to hurt?
Almaamoun: The ones that don’t suffer. There are seven billion people in this world. About 6.5 billion of them suffer. The others that are in power, who make that suffering possible, are our target.
Euphrates: And who are these people?
Almaamoun: Politicians first. Then whoever comes next: possibly companies; whoever has an impact on politics.
Euphrates: Some people say the Center is patronizing, because it’s white people speaking for people of color.
Almaamoun: Look at my name! I can’t understand that accusation. It’s simply untrue.
Euphrates: Would the Center also be interested in tackling issues that don’t primarily concern Non-Europeans? Say, domestic violence?
Almaamoun: The Center has about two or three campaigns per year. There are priorities in current world affairs. What’s the hot topic? Mass graves were found in Greece and Italy, people half-heartedly buried by the thousands. We are using this political moment. Our plans are inspired by politics, our implementation is art. People in Europe have to wake up and realize that those people dying aren’t as far away as they think. They’re dying on this planet. This is our home.
Euphrates: Is there something you would like to tell the US?
Almaamoun: What am I supposed to say? Please stop bombing Syria? That would lead nowhere. I can only address the American people: get involved in politics! Don’t let the 1% rule over you.