To be in Germany right now

Musa Okwonga

To be in Germany right now is to be in a society caught between surges of progress and regression. I arrived in Berlin in 2014, shortly before the country welcomed about a million Syrians, fleeing conflict in their homeland, through its borders. That act of compassion – spectacular given the surrounding context, as politicians throughout Europe and within Germany argued for harsher penalties against anyone seeking a better life abroad – soon led to a backlash. The end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 saw a cloudburst of white nationalism across the continent and beyond. The fallout came in various forms, including Britain’s departure from the European Union, the United States’ election of President Donald Trump, and the ascension to the German Parliament of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland Party, or AfD.

These outcomes had severe personal ramifications. In a six-month period in mid-to-late 2017, I and several other black people in my social circle experienced racial abuse and violence of startling new heights. One friend was forced to move from her home, owing to the very vocal neo-Nazi sympathies of her immediate neighbour. One was beaten in the street by his taxi driver as passers-by looked on. One was pushed from her bike into the road by an elderly white woman. One friend’s son suffered a fractured skull after being attacked by four far-right youths. We had frequent conversations about whether this country was still safe for us, and in one tragic case the conclusion was No.

Then things changed. That regression gave way to progress. Though Chancellor Merkel can be criticised for many things, one thing for which she can be given credit to, is her recent refusal – unlike so many others in her party – to stigmatise people of foreign heritage. That refusal was accompanied by three huge street protests organised in opposition to the far right, two in Berlin and one in Chemnitz, and the steady rise or revival of the Green Party as a viable political force. In 2018, news broke that a group of far-right German soldiers were planning a violent overthrow of their government, and a year later Walter Lübcke, a pro-refugee politician, was executed by a neo-Nazi extremist in his own garden. Of course, 2020 saw not only the explosion of a global pandemic, but also the explosion of global protest as the Black Lives Matter movement went truly international. Now, with Joe Biden’s narrow defeat of Trump in the November election, we are in a time where it is unclear whether the next surge will take us forwards or backwards.

Over these six years, I think I have seen the emergence of a new art. I say this because each artist I have come to know well in this city and in this country has seemingly drawn creative fuel from the intensity of this moment, and their work has developed an astonishing power in response to the challenges that we face. When I arrived in Berlin, the art was more poetic, more tentative. There were long, impassioned and rhythmic pieces about police brutality, there were compassionate pleas for understanding of the refugees’ plight. Six years later, the artistic landscape has changed. Like their fellow protesters in the streets, artists have tired of asking for humanity from those who are proudly and continually inhumane. They have understood that there is nothing dignified in pleading for dignity. This new art does not ask for permission in its search for liberation.

The old art, the art of six years ago, was perhaps gentler, but in that moment, that was not a bad thing. That old art presumed that people who voted for proto-fascist parties were misguided, that they had largely been deceived by wily populists, and so it was largely framed in terms of reaching out, trying to paint a picture of the collective good. But the unashamed and renewed support for Trump removed most of those attempts at conciliation. As a result of that, I started seeing a different kind of art. It is more raw, more intense, more resilient, more brutal, more unforced, and more real. I have seen art more bitter and more hopeful than before, and in all cases the art that I have seen is better, because it is unrestrained. I have seen fewer poems, perhaps because oppression does not give us time to form rhyme.

If I would have to give a name to the new art, I would call it: “the art of radical vulnerability”. What I mean by radical vulnerability is that we are unafraid to show you where our scars are. We are utterly comfortable displaying our wounds. We are unashamed to bleed in public and we do not do so for you, we bleed before you because we will heal wherever we like, be that in private or before your eyes. Because we have carried the pain of racism for too long, and it is no longer ours to carry, so we will leave it all here at your feet, and move beyond it.

The new art retains the high craft of the old but explodes with a stunning urgency from mouth, page and canvas alike. One of its most powerful manifestations was seen in an essay composed by the Berlin-based novelist and television producer Jennifer Neal at the height of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. “I want us”, she wrote for The Cut, “to imagine a life where we speak about race on our terms, in a way that feels empowering instead of exhausting. I want us to imagine ourselves as happy old women surrounded by grandchildren we can’t keep up with — trying to keep the leaves out of their mouths. And I want us to put ourselves first, while everyone else is just beginning to catch up.”

The new art makes everyone else play catchup. The new art lives in the future, it rejects the burden of educating those who simply will not listen, and it does the revolutionary thing of shedding its pain and soaring forth. Sometimes it laments, sometimes it celebrates, but it always moves onwards. The new art is being made by writers such as Neal who, before they press their pens against the page, dip them first into their own souls and then into a pool of flame. The new art does not pursue unity with those who enjoy the daily humiliation of society’s most marginalised people, with those who tap-dance to the distant and clattering hooves of fascism. Where necessary, the new art identifies division between those who can be persuaded to care about a kinder world and those who cannot. The new art is being produced here in Berlin, Germany and beyond, by people such as Neal, Mayowa Lynette, Babiche Papaya, Azadê Thunda, Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Poliana Baumgarten, Candice Nembhard, Shannon Lewis, Elena Barschazki, Alice Hasters, Soja Subhagar, Jumoke Adeyanju and so many more. They are living and making the new art, the art of radical vulnerability, and I want to live and make the new art for as long as I live. The more that I consider how much the far-right craves closed hearts, closed minds and closed borders, the more I believe that the surge for progress depends upon it.