Artist Hito Steyerl demands that state-run German art institutions stop showing her work as part of the country’s “external cultural diplomacy” until the country changes its policy toward the Turkish invasion of Kurdish areas in northeast Syria. Steyerl made her demand in a performance piece on Saturday, October 26, at the Maxim-Gorki Theater in Berlin.
“Until the German state changes its position, I am demanding that federal state institutions stop showing my work held in their collections as part of its external cultural diplomacy,” Steyerl said during the performance. “I am sick of my work being deployed to detract [attention] from the German state’s tacit agreement with displacement, ethnic cleansing, and warfare, and to lend it an aura of tolerance and inclusivity.”
Steyerl’s performed her 12-minute theatrical presentation with actor and theater producer Anina Jendreyko; Kurdish filmmaker and musician Heja Netirk; and political scientist Bilgin Ayata. The four women acted the roles of refugees, German politicians, and themselves, in a piece titled “Women for Rojava.” The performance — spoken in German, Kurdish, and English — alternated between poetic monologues, poignant and often sardonic dialogues, and harrowing testimonies from Rojava, the Kurdish region in northeast Syria. It ended with an emotional song performed by Netirk. The event was held at the opening evening of the fourth Berlin Autumn Salon at the Maxim-Gorki Theater and was live-streamed on YouTube.
The performance lampooned German politicians and criticized the country’s treatment of refugees. The four women also criticized a multi-billion-dollar agreement signed between the European Union and Turkey in 2017. Under the agreement, Turkey was promised €6 billion (~$6.7 billion) in financial aid, to be used by the Turkish government to finance projects for Syrian refugees, as long the country helps control the flow of these refugees to Europe.
“If you weren’t afraid that people like me come here, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan wouldn’t feel so relaxed throwing people in prison,” says Netirk, a Kurdish refugee playing herself in the presentation to Steyerl, who plays Florian, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany. “He wouldn’t feel so safe and cozy invading other countries and displacing or killing even more people […] you do not dare to criticize him, because you’re scared of people like me.”
Last week, more than 280 leading scholars, writers, and artists signed a petition to boycott Turkish government-sponsored academic and cultural institutions in response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria. Signatories include scholars Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky; art critics Boris Groys and David Levi Strauss; musician Brian Eno; and Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, among others.
“The Turkish state’s invasion of northeastern Syria has brought a dangerous state of war to the only relatively stable region in the country, threatening the lives of thousands with indiscriminate shelling, mass displacement and continuous bombardment,” the petition reads. “The Turkish attack threatens to do enormous, perhaps irreversible, damage to international standards of law, human rights and human freedom. It also threatens to destroy a unique experiment in feminist social transformation.”
Steyerl has been a long-time supporter of the Rojava revolution. Earlier in October, she staged an action of solidarity with Rojava, together with other activists, at Tito’s cave on the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea. In 2017, she published an interview she conducted with fighters from the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPG) in collaboration with Rojava Film Commune.
“There is an urban legend that states that Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” Steyerl says at one point in the presentation on Saturday. “That this was invented by a foreign journalist doesn’t make it less true, but with the recent invasion of northern Syria by Turkish proxy mercenary forces, people all over have started thinking: if this is the case, then actually I would like to be a mountain.”