In 1992, graphic artist Silvia Izi began a project called "Student Art Against Violence and Racism," working with students of different ages at all types of schools. Originating in Rhineland-Palatinate, the project has had participation from more than 100 schools throughout Germany. The students present their artworks in public spaces in their hometowns. Selected paintings have been seen in an exhibition throughout Germany.
By late summer 1992, xenophobic violence had reached threatening proportions in Germany. While the beginnings of this vandalism and arson can be traced back to the early 1980's, ever more frequently, the press reported fire bombings of buildings that housed asylum seekers. Television broadcasts of rioting with violent young people yelling Nazi slogans caused anger and fear among viewers. The helplessness of politicians was frightening. Even more horrifying was that the youths were often encouraged by adult spectators to continue their attacks on helpless foreigners in places like Hoyerswerda or in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Such criminal activities peaked with the arson of the refugee shelter in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and the murderous arsons in Mölln in November 1992 and in Solingen in June 1993. Eight Turkish citizens, most of whom were women and children, died in the flames.
Almost immediately I had the idea for schools to use some form of art to do.something against the continued brutal treatment of foreigners, and to take a stand against violence and intolerance. While I am aware that schools cannot abolish social problems of this sort, they can react to problems and express their concern in ways suitable for children. The events that had taken place could not be undone, but such deeds must not be simply tolerated as people go about their daily routines. Although politicians have mouthed words of concern and outrage, their words have not led to any real change.
Beginning of the Project
In September 1992, I sent a letter to twenty school principals, asking them to involve their students in the project "Student Art against Violence and Racism." After about eight weeks, I received 400 pictures from twelve of the schools to which I had written. This artwork was exhibited at the art fair in downtown Ludwigshafen in early December. Delighted by the large response, I extended the project to all secondary schools in Rheinland-Palatinate, and sent appropriate letters to 350 schools there. More than fifty schools sent in excess of 3,000 pictures during the following four months. In June 1993, I exhibited about 1,500 pictures in the City Hall and Library in Ludwigshafen.
In the following years, schools in Mainz, Dessau, Weimar, Erfurt, Mannheim and Kaiserslautern and many others joined the project [see Visuals]. This ever-growing exhibit continues to attract many visitors and serves to promote discussion among visitors as well as the media [see Documents]. The drawings provide the viewer an opportunity for thinking -- and reflection!
Traveling and Growing
What began over four years ago with twelve schools in the Ludwigshafen area, has expanded and grown to a national traveling exhibition. More than 4,000 students, ages eight to eighteen, from more than a hundred schools in six federal states, have participated in the "Student Art against Violence and Racism" campaign. The exhibit "Who if Not Us" has been shown in twenty-six cities. Sites for the exhibit are chosen from public buildings, such as city and state government buildings and city libraries, which constantly attract diverse groups of people. This allows the exhibit to reach broad audiences, demonstrating that the school serves as a "learning place for life." We also accomplished our goal of showing the exhibit at those schools from which students participated in the project, thereby constantly expanding and enriching the exhibit with new materials. This allows for long-term interaction with the subject as well as the ability to constantly update students' responses. It is the main purpose of this project to actively involve as many students as possible.
Effect and Resonance
Local planners report that entire classes visit the exhibitions, that the pictures generate lively discussions and that students occasionally even make sketches of works that particularly impress them. This exhibit even appeals to children of kindergarten age. A teacher from Ludwigshafen called to tell me that a visit to the exhibition with her kindergarten class provoked their own artistic responses, and they subsequently exhibited their own art at the kindergarten. Parents, family, and friends were so delighted with the results that they decided to form a parent group aimed at providing language tutoring for foreign students.
The artwork also made an enormous impression on a student from Verbania, Italy. In a letter to the Mayor of Ludwigshafen, he wrote:
"I am writing to tell you of my intention to focus on prejudice against foreigners in my school. I would like to make Italians aware that Germans are fighting against xenophobia in their country. I visited your city in June of this year and was very impressed by the beautiful artwork on this topic you exhibited outside city hall. I want your work and efforts to be known in Italy."
Students from a fifth-grade class in Darmstadt wrote about their involvement in this project:
"As we cannot personally be present everywhere, our pictures will serve as a durable traveling exhibition of our commitment, and as a mobile demonstration."
Dealing with the subject of violence and racism leads to greater sensitivity. Artistic involvement is a confrontation with the unconscious. The finished pictures can be used as an occasion to discuss how the individual works reflect the subject matter. While art cannot prevent violence, it can encourage and unite those living peacefully with each other. Optimal educational work occurs when a lively discussion develops about the completed drawings and their contents.
"Who, if Not Us?" is a "work in progress," which will continue as long as foreigners in this country are attacked or feel threatened.
In fall 1998, the exhibition will be presented in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
"Who, if Not Us? - Student Art against Violence and Racism," a book about the project, was published by the Hermann Schmidt Verlag in Mainz in 1996. It outlines the project and reproduces the most impressive artwork as selected by a jury, in order to encourage teachers and parents to approach this complex topic in a visual manner. It demonstrates that the power of art has not changed, even in our era of the computer manipulation of visuals. Some Education Ministers of the Bundesländer [Federal States] have recommended this book for classroom use.