Katrin Ströbel: Colonize my mind

That the works of Katrin Ströbel are not simplistically about the refugee crisis that preoccupies us on all sides these days is evident from looking at the multilayered oeuvre of this artist, born in Pforzheim in 1975, who herself shuttles between Stuttgart, Marseilles, and Rabat, and has been underway internationally for many years now. Changing places and perspectives is thus the central theme of her work.
This puts her in a long tradition of traveling artists, beginning with the Impressionists, who explored the colonized world in particular. These journeys to “natural” and seemingly “unspoiled primitive peoples” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected not only the artists’ desire for exoticism and new pictorial images—as in the works of Paul Gauguin, for example—but also the critical analysis of the basic conditions of their own bourgeois existence. They projected onto the foreign that which they no longer possessed but still desired. This perspective is evidence of the conditions of colonial rule that even today influence the self-image of former colonial powers and that of their colonies.
And this is where Katrin Ströbel’s work as an artist begins:
In Die hellere Färbung (The lighter coloring), the focus is on skin color as a symbol of social definition and difference. The notes of a missionary being quoted reveal not only the ruler’s perspective and hence the evaluation of a foreign culture but also show that the natives were studied with scientific interest and only rarely regarded as fellow human beings. At the end of the hierarchy, the woman stands as an object, the “wife” of the chief, who is locked up in order to make her skin color lighter and hence “more distinguished.” She is a prestige object he proudly presents to the white man, just like his house. The artist counters this text with a photograph she took at a street fair in Marseilles of children throwing paint at one another, changing their skin color deliberately.

We encounter another historical quotation in Wohl dem, der nichts ahnt (Happy the man who suspects nothing), an installation in which Ströbel stretched plastic tarps into a sail decorated with gold letters expressing, in the spirit of Wilhelmine fantasies of being a great power, the wish to see the German flag flying over the South Seas. Not coincidentally, the artist placed this nationalist ambition in old German lettering on a material that is found everywhere in African and Arab lands in the form of sacks of flour and rice, and so it functions as a widespread international medium.
The “fear of cannibals” formulated in the same quotation (from 1916, mind you!) touches on Ströbel’s second main theme in this room: fear of the foreign, the other, the unknown. From the powerlessness in the face of the forces and trenches between foreign cultures (as in her two-part video piece Mission Impossible) to deadly fear of foreign infiltration, as presented in Deutschlandreise (Trip through Germany), in which the artist traveled between towns where homes for asylum seekers were burned in the 1990s: Hoyerswerda and Mölln, Solingen and Lichtenhagen. What remains are the images of burned-out buildings and charred façades, which Ströbel reawakens in this wall installation of delicately elaborated watercolors. She refers to the media images that have remained in the memories of many people even as the names and faces of the victims have faded.

The artist addresses with special interest the traces and scars left behind by the loss of one’s homeland. Traces such as the destroyed refugee shelters but also traces she found on the gravestones of Chinese immigrants in Australia. She recorded these inscriptions there by making rubbings on very thin paper—fragile and fleeting, like the identities left behind when adapting to the new English-language culture.
In her series of photographs Wherever I Lay My Head, the artist documents signs of human life, traces of an existence outside of the security of one’s homeland. It is an unremarkable picture: a suitcase, set down, hidden behind a tree. Nothing more and nothing less. And yet it is a programmatic image that sums up the essence of Katrin Ströbel’s themes: the suitcase as a symbol of the presence and existence of people who are on the move. The hiding place behind the tree suggests that it is an involuntary journey—to places where sheer necessity has forced the travelers to live on the street. And yet it is not about recording human misery; rather, the artist focuses her gaze precisely on the corners and niches in which people with the least means have occupied a small amount of private space for themselves by placing their belongings on trees or in suitcase hiding places and spaces to sleep between niches in walls. For Ströbel, they are all evidence of deprivation and at the same time images of an aesthetic energy and radiance all their own.

The artist makes no accusations in her works, but instead forges ahead with particular sensitivity to the places where cultural encounters and international relationships offer flourishing and imaginative symbols. This is clear from her wall installation Import / Export: Here Ströbel chooses simple, colorful plastic bags of the sort used throughout the world to depict a true cosmos of advertising motifs for the African, Chinese, Lebanese, French, and Japanese stores, restaurants, and cafés that can be found on every street corner in Paris. The artist punctuates them with French book titles—national icons, such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, albeit in an Arabic edition. Or a line from a poem by Paul Celan “[Death comes as] a master from Germany.” Here and there between them, there are portrait drawings, images of saints, and product labels that Ströbel has meticulously drawn by hand on the thin plastic skin.
She admires the symbolic qualities of these bags, as is clear as well from her video Le flâneur. A thin, blue, plastic bag is the “flâneur” in this video. We observe it as it follows the corners, paths, and streets through a city, always close to the ground, like someone walking blown by the wind, stopping now and again, only to be moved on by the next breeze, always moving, never lingering anywhere for any length of time. A poetic image and a metaphor that for brief moments unfolds its own legerity inspite of the harshness of life.

But unlike the bag moved by the wind, we ourselves are accompanied on our forays through strange cities and streets by the gaze of those we encounter: people with different skin colors, from a foreign culture, and a gaze at us that may perhaps vex us. Seen from a philosophical perspective (Sartre), however, the gaze is what opens our eyes to the existence of humans as social beings, that is, our existence depends on our fellow human beings: our lives are lived in relation to others and require confirmation again and again. But the less of this recognition by the gaze there is, the shakier our own identity becomes. The less we recognize and know the other, the more we remain stuck in a rigid self-image.

These relationships of the gaze are the focus of discussion in Ströbel’s rooms upstairs. Thus the uncertainty about “others” is expressed in a two-part work on paper in which the artist presents us with a newspaper page (from 2006) on which a full-page article on Islam titled “Der unbekannte Feind” (The Unknown Enemy) was published, illustrated by an excerpt from the Koran that was, embarrassingly, printed upside-down. Consequently, under these circumstances it is left open who the “unknown enemy” might be. The absurdity of this attitude is also expressed in a photograph of airplanes flying over high-rises in a repeating pattern. The seemingly unstoppable danger that we associate with this image at least since September 11 thus becomes an infinitely reproducible repeat.

In addition to the results of undifferentiated panic mongering in the media and the consequences of colonial policies we have failed to come to terms with, Ströbel also brings the associated problematic image of women into play in the upstairs rooms.
The colored woman as the incarnation of the “other” is not just a projection screen for male fantasies but also the embodiment of the exotic and the threatening in equal measure. In her work Reversion, Katrin Ströbel turns the tables and confronts us with a mirror image that is superimposed on our own reflection: an image of a native girl standing opposite us as a “white” person. We meet our own gaze and at the same time have to stand up to hers. It is a melancholy gaze we recognize from photographs in which natives are brought out and presented like exotic animals. When we as “whites” encounter the life-size girl on Ströbel’s mirror, this relationship is reversed, and we are forced to expose ourselves to her assessment by her gaze.

From these perspectives, Ströbel also presents her status as artist for discussion, in that, as a white, privileged woman in non-European countries, she adopts a position that is always already laden with colonial and historical connections.
In the multilayered installation Wenn man dienen kann (If one can serve), Ströbel dovetails historical depictions of women artists drawing or painting with excerpts from texts in which the “foreign woman” is again perceived through colonial spectacles. There is no unprejudiced gaze. What these white women were encouraging with their artistic study of exotic lands was a missionary attitude that fundamentally assumes that we are dealing with “savage, unknown regions” that contrast with the civilized world as the “other” and can count themselves fortunate when they benefit from Western culture.

Therein lies the particular power and quality of Ströbel’s works: with their texts and images, they sensitize us to inequalities that are extremely topical but whose causes lie in colonial policies that were contemptuous of other peoples and that have yet to be addressed, or only inadequately so.
Colonize My Mind is the title of our exhibition, and all the works in it expose the rifts that result when the idea of superiority that resulted from the conditions of colonial rule becomes a natural conviction. At that moment when colonization permeates our thinking, when we have internalized the colonialist way of thinking, it has achieved its goal!
The refugee crisis flagrantly exposes the inexorable consequences of these policies. And yet Katrin Ströbel’s pictures and room installations are full of poetry and provide evidence of a sense of the beautiful that lies in the details and that determines human life also or even especially when dreamed ideas are concerned.
The tropics are thus a dream landscape, when Ströbel shows them in all their splendor in the final room on the upper floor. Here she presents an image of a Senegalese vacation spot blown about by fans: Île de Gorée. But even this perfect vacation backdrop has its perils, and it turns out that this idyll with palm trees was the final stop on African soil from which the slaves were shipped to the United States.

For the inner courtyard, Katrin Ströbel developed a series of images and texts that unfolds beneath the arcades like a poetic film: Life as transit zone … in transition … with interpersonal encounters … a kiss, a handshake … always accompanied by the question whether they were signs of a beginning or an end, a greeting or a farewell. And again and again the whereabouts—a place of meeting or of separating? Vanishing point or homeland? Did we arrive here by mistake or by intention? Does it bring happiness or pain or paradise? In the end, after the transit, after the period of transition, however lies not the homeland but exile …

Andrea Jahn

Published in: Katrin Ströbel „Colonize my Mind“ Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2016