Syrian Entity for arts and culture News:

Art Education within the Context of Germany's “Welcome Culture”

Miriam Schickler

Cultural worker and project manager of the *foundationClass at weißensee academy of art berlin


As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.


After the proclamation of the so called “refugee crisis” during the summer of 2015 and German chancellor Angela Merkel's promise “Wir schaffen das!” [“We can do this!”] an unprecedented number of “previously non-engaged parts of society“ was mobilised “to provide temporary 'help'” to the newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees (Fleischmann and Steinhilper 2017:18). This notion is often encapsulated “by the blurry buzzword 'Welcome Culture'” (ibid.). As opposed to activists who had been engaged in the field of refugee and migrant solidarity prior to the “crisis” and the concomitant rise in media attention and who embed their commitment „in a wider context of structural criticisms of neoliberal, post-colonial, or capitalist structures“ (ibid.:19), many of the new volunteers rejected to formulate „a clear political position and ascribe[d] rather vague humanistic qualities to their actions“ (ibid.). This can also be said about many of the artists and cultural workers who volunteered, or found employment in one of the many new art projects and programmes for exiled artists and art students that were funded by state institutions, companies and foundations. Interestingly these initiatives commonly exclusively target artists from the Middle East and publish their calls and provide translation only in Arabic and Farsi, which is reproducing hierarchies within the demographic of people seeking asylum in Germany and further cementing a common differentiation between “good” or “deserving” refugees (read: those fleeing from war or political persecution) versus “bad” or “non-deserving” (read: so called “economic refugees”) refugees.

The *foundationClass, initiated at weißensee academy of art berlin in 2016, also emerged from this context and tries to support people with forced migration experience to successfully apply at German art or design academies. While a majority of the participants of the *foundationClass does stem from the Middle East (especially Syria and Iran), the programme actively seeks to involve prospective art students from other parts of the world. As opposed to many other programmes the team working in the *foundationClass almost exclusively consists of artists and scholars who themselves experienced (forced) migration and/or who have been active in political solidarity efforts before the proclamation of the so called refugee crisis. The *foundationClass furthermore refuses to describe itself as a measure for integration[1], or to excessively use the terms refugee or asylum seeker to describe the participants or the content of the work. Unfortunately this cannot be said about many of the other initiatives; plenty of the titles of workshops, but also exhibitions feature the word “refugee” in one way or another and the participating artists are often lumped together under the category of “refugee artists”. An increasing number of exiled artists and art students are however reluctant to participate in projects where being a refugee or asylum seeker is the key criterion for involvement. The reasons for this refusal are manifold: just like other categories describing members of marginalised communities, “the term ‘refugee’ smoothes over difference within the group it designates at the same time as reifying the boundary that defines its otherness and the notions that constitute that boundary” (Rotas 2004:52). The category also implicitly entails the expectation that the “refugee artist” should exclusively deal with notions of displacement, exile and war, “[f]or if she or he does represent anything else, say, for example, flowers (unless they are graveyard flowers, or exotic flowers, or ‘my lost little sister’s favourite flowers’), she/he becomes simply ‘an artist’, and that designate is reserved for practitioners from the dominant host culture alone” (ibid.:53). Students of the *foundationClass, many of who had participated in a number of other programmes before, often complain about both being addressed as “refugee artists”, as well as about this exact expectation. Talking about a film workshop one student stated that even when they attempted to work on a different theme the facilitators managed to flip it around in such a way that the work eventually dealt with the student's violent experiences in Syria. For the dominant culture the art students' experience of displacement, war and exile thus “become what they are, their unique selling point, their only selling point.” (ibid., emphasis in original).

This lack of awareness of power hierarchies and structural mechanisms of exclusion is not only a feature of alternative artistic trainings aimed at refugees and asylum seekers, it is, unfortunately, also extremely common to art academies (for a thorough analysis see Institute for Art Education, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste 2016). During the interviews that are part of the entrance exams to German art academies for instance, some applicants coming from the *foundationClass were not asked about their artistic practices and interests, but about how they fled to Germany. In addition to being reduced to one's legal status, or the experience of displacement and exile, educators in art academies commonly stick to Eurocentric understandings of aesthetics and art histories. An applicant who applies as a transfer student from the University of Damascus, for example, is therefore commonly expected to have no knowledge of contemporary art and to display a “traditional”, if not folkloristic approach to fine art.     

In conclusion we can state that art educators in general are not aware of the political implications of their work and do not consider the knowledge “that comes from experiences of marginalisation”, which in turn would necessitate “the participation of those affected” not just as participants, but “as initiators and promoters of the projects based on a fundamental and critical understanding of social power structures that are responsible for the marginalisation” (Micossé-Aikins and Sharifi 2016:79). 



Czollek, Max (2018) Desintegriert euch! München: Carl Hanser Verlag

Fleischmann, Larissa and Elias Steinhilper (2017) “The Myth of Apolitical Volunteering for Refugees: German Welcome Culture and a New Dispositif of Helping“ in Social Inclusion 5(3), pp.17-27

Institute for Art Education, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (2016): Art.School.Differences.
Reseraching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art Education. Schlussbericht.

Micossé-Aikins, Sandrine and Bahareh Sharifi (2016) „The Colonialism of the Welcome Culture - Forced Migration, Migration and the white Marks of Cultural Education.“ in: Ziese, Maren & Gritschke, Caroline (Hg.), Geflüchtete und Kulturelle Bildung – Formate und Konzepte für ein neues Praxisfeld, S. 75–86.

Rotas, Alex (2004) “Is 'Refugee Art' Possible?” in Third Text, 18(1), pp. 51-60  

[1]The notion of “integration” is usually based on a fundamental difference between “us” and “them”, as well as on the presumption of the existence of an essentially German culture, German values etc. The process of integration is furthermore unilinear and expects “them” to integrate into “our” society (see for instance Czollek 2018). The *foundationClass rejects any of those presumptions and therefore does not use the term.    

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