Jawnts: Berlin Wall, American muse

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A digital collage by the rapper Chuck D is part of the exhibit.

For almost 30 years, the Berlin Wall stood as the gross embodiment of the Cold War, a bizarre edifice at the heart of a divided city in a divided nation. The 136 lives lost trying to cross are a stark example of the violence behind state power.

Berlin and its scarring rift didn't attract only soldiers, spies, and diplomats but artists and intellectuals as well. The brute ugliness of the wall served as inspiration.

"Berlin is a kind of laboratory for critical thought on democracy and freedom, especially for Americans," says Paul Farber, a postdoctoral writing fellow at Haverford College and the curator of "The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall," an art exhibit that opens this week. "Americans have had an investment in the fate of Berlin at least since WWII. American artists either went to Berlin, or conjured Berlin, to talk about freedom back home, especially around issues of race."

Farber went to Berlin while studying American culture in graduate school at the University of Michigan. He was struck by the sheer number of American expatriates, many of them intellectuals, writers, and artists, who had spent time in Berlin during the Cold War. They often used it as a stimulant to their own projects - many focused on their homeland. Farber crafted these stories into a larger narrative, culminating in a show at the Goethe Institut last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the wall's collapse. Now he is bringing it to Haverford.

"The Wall in Our Heads" displays the work of 23 American artists who have used Berlin as a muse, an argument, or a home. Included is Leonard Freed's iconic image of an African American soldier standing guard at the recently erected Berlin Wall, slightly slumped and looking wholly out of place. (The photographer later reflected: "Between us, impregnable and as deadly as the wall behind him, is another wall . . . dividing us, wherever we meet. I am White and he is Black.")

More recent art includes rapper Chuck D, who featured the demolished structure in his 2010 track "Tear Down That Wall" and in a digital collage called "By the Time I Got to Arizona." Both use the Berlin Wall to question the morality of American immigration policies and the U.S.-Mexico border itself.

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, the exhibit's opening day, Farber will discuss the project with the New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in the Sharpless Auditorium of Haverford's Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center, 370 Lancaster Ave. A reception will follow. All events are free. The exhibit runs through Dec. 13.

Have an event for Jawnts? jake.blumgart5@gmail.com @jblumgart