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“I am treated as if they have been waiting years for my arrival”

John J. Curley about the first Black woman artist to come to the HFBK Hamburg from the USA in 1958: Mildred Thompson. In addition to her own artistic works reflecting her time in Hamburg, she also participated in the annual Li-La-Le artists' festival with an installation.

In September 1958, an American expatriate and an exported exhibition arrived in Germany. First, the Black American artist Mildred Thompson arrived for study at HFBK Hamburg. Second, the major exhibition The New American Painting, which featured paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others, opened in Berlin (at College of Fine Arts, Berlin) on September 1, 1958. This show, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, suggested the originality, commitment, vitality, and heroism of Abstract Expressionism – without including any artists of color and only one woman, Grace Hartigan.[1] Thompson’s voyage to Hamburg is the dialectical other to The New American Painting. Not only did she flee an American art world that would not validate her individualism or talent, but in Hamburg she also embraced a mode of art making that refuted Abstract Expressionism. As opposed to the perceived existential authenticity of Pollock’s and Rothko’s commitment to painting, Thompson embraced a myriad of different styles and techniques during her initial studies in Hamburg – maintaining, simultaneously, an abstract painting and a figurative print practice. As she later recalled about her time in Hamburg, “we were encouraged to master many techniques in many media.”[2]

Hamburg was home to many exiles in the years after World War II. While some 200,000 central and Eastern European refugees came to the city, there was not a large Black presence there. As far as I could tell from the HFBK Hamburg archives, there were no other Black students at the academy in 1958. (A Black student from South Africa, Abass Jacobs, did enroll the following year.[3]) As such, Thompson became something of a curiosity in Hamburg, with a local newspaper publishing an illustrated article about her soon after her arrival.[4] Thompson was surprised at all this attention. She discussed this in a letter to her undergraduate mentor at Howard University, the art historian and artist James Porter:

“The German people are wonderful, I have never met people so warm, gracious and sincerely concerned. They go all out of their way to make things comfortable and clear for me. I am treated as if they have been waiting years for my arrival.”[5]

She continued her letter by suggesting that receiving all this attention was due to her being Black, especially a Black woman. As some scholars have noted, jazz gained widespread acceptance in West Germany partly to signal a symbolic break with the murderous violence of the Nazi past.[6] Might Thompson’s own experience be another version of this – West Germans going out of their way to be friendly to one of the only Black American women in Hamburg? At the same time, however, the local paper could not help but exoticize and racialize Thompson by emphasizing her interest in the singing of Black spirituals, “with her fascinating voice.” As Zora Neale Hurston famously noted in 1928, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”[7] Thompson’s personal experiences as a Black woman in an overwhelming white city certainly informed the work she made in Hamburg.

Thompson primarily worked with professors Arno and Emil Schumacher (painting), as well as Paul Wunderlich (printmaking). Hamburg printmaking legend Horst Janssen was also an influence, as he often was around using the academy’s presses. While Thompson’s paintings from this period have disappeared, her surviving prints draw on Germanic traditions and other artistic currents whose stories have been overlooked thanks to the period’s transatlantic focus on large abstract paintings. The form and content of Love for Sale – a Thompson etching from 1959 that ostensibly pictures a sex worker – is impossible to conceive without its Hamburg and German context, for example. The subject matter refers to the legalized sex work in the Reeperbahn neighborhood; its dark, surrealist eroticism is straight out of Wunderlich; and its obsessive and detailed mark-making betrays Janssen’s influence.

The print presents a dark fairy tale – with each paid encounter, the face of the client becomes etched (or tattooed) on the woman’s torso.[8] Is this etching also something of a surrogate self-portrait – referring to the selling of art works as an extension of Thompson’s racialized self in the overwhelmingly white city of Hamburg? And perhaps the work can even reference the slave trade, another instance when bodily autonomy was traded for money.

One could not (and indeed still cannot) live in Hamburg without being aware of vast international shipping networks. Indeed, international shipping has long been the source of the city’s wealth and relative independence; it is the reason for the city’s existence.[9] Hamburg, then, has its own position relative to the slave trade – how could any maritime power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not be engaged, at least indirectly, in that horrific practice? While enslaved Africans did not pass through the port, ships returning from the Caribbean and the American South – full of sugar and tobacco – regularly docked in Hamburg.[10]

Just a few months after Thompson’s arrival she organized a room for the 1959 iteration of the famous annual carnival at the Hamburg academy, known as Li-La-Le, for which she won a prize. In an unpublished memoir, she describes this environment as presenting a vision of hell, with music provided by “a fine little Dixieland band.” Another source mentions that Thompson included silhouetted figures made from Papier-mâché on the walls.[11] Based on these clues, I was able to locate (with the expert help of Julia Mummenhoff, staff member of the archive of the HFBK Hamburg) photographs that match this description: Black musicians playing in a room surrounded by falling silhouetted figures, perhaps riffing on imagery in Last Judgment scenes from European Renaissance works.[12]

While Thompson’s carnival installation might not be a work of art, it nevertheless can be interpreted through issues of race, like Love for Sale. Violence and entertainment have long been interconnected experiences in Black American life and were especially pronounced in the 1950s. For example, the first major rock and roll hits of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino in 1955 provided the soundtrack of an America coming to grips with the horrific lynching of Emmitt Till.[13] In early 1959, Thompson constructed a party room that adapts a similar dialectic. While her silhouetted figures look traumatic – screaming while running or being hung upside-down in ways that recall American racial violence – partygoers dance to Black musicians playing jazz.


John J. Curley is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA. He is the author of A Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and the Art of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2013) and Global Art and the Cold War (Laurence King, 2018).


Notes

[1] See The New American Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art International Program, 1959). The exhibition was on view in Berlin from 01.09.-01.10.1958.

[2] Mildred Thompson, undated biographical statement, Mildred Thompson Papers, Rose Library, Emory University, Box 14, Folder 1.

[3] Thanks to Astrid Mania and Eliane Kölbener for helping me find out more information about Jacobs.

[4] “Ihr Lieblingswunsch: Studium in Hamburg,”, in: Hamburger Abendblatt, November 12, 1958.

[5] Mildred Thompson, letter to Dr. James Porter, September 27, 1958. James Amos Porter Papers, Rose Library, Emory University, Box 44, Folder 38.

[6] Katharina Gerund, “African American Culture in (Postwar) Germany,” in: Transatlantic Cultural Exchange: African American Women's Art and Activism in West Germany, Transcript, 2013, p. 51-100.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me” (1928), in: Encyclopedia of African-American Writing, Third Edition, edited by Bryan Conn and Tara Bynum, Grey House, 2015, p. 948.

[8] Julia Mummenhoff has written about this print in terms of tattooing. See her “Das Unsichtbare sichtbar machen,” Lerchenfeld 45, October 2018, p. 3-6.

[9] For centrality of sea trade to the city’s identity, see Matthew Jeffries, Hamburg: A Cultural History, Interlink, 2011, p. 1-38.

[10] Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Pia Wiegmink, “German Entanglements in Transatlantic Slavery: An Introduction,” in: Atlantic Studies, 14:4, 419-435, esp. pp. 423-24.

[11] Thompson describes the room in an unpublished 1975 memoir, Mildred Thompson Papers, Rose Library, Emory University, Box 14, Folder 5. The mention of silhouettes is from Marie Geneviève Ripeau, Mildred Thompson: une artiste pour notre temps, unpublished manuscript, Dossier 1, 69. Mildred Thompson Archives, Atlanta.

[12] Thompson’s silhouettes anticipate the Black American artist Kara Walker’s use of the form in the 1990s to address the grotesque and horrific violence that underpins romanticized imagery of the American South.

[13] These Black American musicians provided the blueprint for the later success of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The Beatles arrived in Hamburg in August 1960, playing largely covers of Black American music to rowdy crowds in the Reeperbahn.

This article appeared in Lerchenfeld issue #67.

Examination of the submitted portfolios

How to apply: study at HFBK Hamburg

From February 1 to March 6, 2023, 4 p.m., you can apply to study at HFBK Hamburg. Please find all important info here.

Visitors of the annual exhibition 2024; photo: Lukes Engelhardt

Annual Exhibition 2024 at the HFBK Hamburg

From February 9 -11, 2024 (daily 2-8 pm) the students of HFBK Hamburg present their artistic productions from the past year. In addition, the exhibition »Think & Feel! Speak & Act!« curated by Nadine Droste, as well as the presentation of exchange students from Goldsmiths, University of London, can be seen at ICAT.

photo: Tim Albrecht

(Ex)Changes of / in Art

There's a lot going on at the HFBK Hamburg at the end of the year: exhibitions at ICAT, the ASA students' Open Studios in Karolinenstraße, performances in the Extended Library and lectures in the Aula Wartenau.

Extended Libraries

Knowledge is now accessible from anywhere, at any time. In such a scenario, what role(s) can libraries still play? How can they support not only as knowledge archives but also as facilitators of artistic knowledge production? As an example, we present library projects by students and alumni, as well as our new knowledge space: the Extended Library.

Semester Opening 2023/24

We welcome the many new students to the HFBK Hamburg for the academic year 2023/24. A warm welcome also goes to the new professors, whom we would like to introduce to you here.

And Still I Rise

For over 20 years, US artist Rajkamal Kahlon has been interested in the connections between aesthetics and power, which are organized across historical and geographical boundaries, primarily through violence. With this solo exhibition, the HFBK Hamburg presents the versatile work of the professor of painting and drawing to the Hamburg art public for the first time.

photo: Lukes Engelhardt

photo: Lukes Engelhardt

No Tracking. No Paywall.

Just Premium Content! The (missing) summer offers the ideal opportunity to catch up on what has been missed. In our media library, faculty, students and alumni share knowledge and discussions with us - both emotional moments and controversial discourses. Through podcasts and videos, they contribute to current debates and address important topics that are currently in focus.

Let's talk about language

There are currently around 350 international students studying at the HFBK Hamburg, who speak 55 different languages - at least these are the official languages of their countries of origin. A quarter of the teaching staff have an international background. And the trend is rising. But how do we deal productively with the multilingualism of university members in everyday life? What ways of communication can be found? The current Lerchenfeld issue looks at creative solutions for dealing with multilingualism and lets numerous former international students have their say.

photo: Miriam Schmidt / HFBK

Graduate Show 2023: Unfinished Business

From July 13 to 16, 2023, 165 Bachelor's and Master's graduates of the class of 2022/23 will present their final projects from all areas of study. Under the title Final Cut, all graduation films will be shown on a big screen in the auditorium of the HFBK Hamburg.

photo: Ronja Lotz

photo: Ronja Lotz

Everything for Everyone

In May and June, the HFBK Hamburg offers a varied program with exhibitions, lectures, artist talks and performances. Lots of good reasons to shake off spring tiredness and jump into the programme...

A disguised man with sunglasses holds a star-shaped sign for the camera. It says "Suckle". The picture is taken in black and white.

photo: Honey-Suckle Company

Let`s work together

Collectives are booming in the art world. And they have been for several decades. For the start of the summer semester 2023, the new issue of the Lerchenfeld Magazine is dedicated to the topic of collective practice in art, presents selected collectives, and also explores the dangers and problems of collective working.

Jahresausstellung 2023, Arbeit von Toni Mosebach / Nora Strömer; photo: Lukes Engelhardt

Annual Exhibition 2023 at HFBK Hamburg

From February 10-12, students from all departments will present their artistic works at Lerchenfeld 2, Wartenau 15 and AtelierHaus, Lerchenfeld 2a. At ICAT, Tobias Peper, Artistic Director of the Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, curates an exhibition with HFBK master students. Also 10 exchange students from Goldsmiths, University of London will show their work there.

Symposium: Controversy over documenta fifteen

With this symposium on documenta fifteen on the 1st and 2nd of February, the HFBK Hamburg aims to analyze the background and context, foster dialogue between different viewpoints, and enable a debate that explicitly addresses anti-Semitism in the field of art. The symposium offers space for divergent positions and aims to open up perspectives for the present and future of exhibition making.

ASA Open Studios winter semester 2021/22; photo: Marie-Theres Böhmker

ASA Open Studios winter semester 2021/22; photo: Marie-Theres Böhmker

The best is saved until last

At the end of the year, once again there will be numerous exhibitions and events with an HFBK context. We have compiled some of them here. You will also find a short preview of two lectures of the professionalization program in January.

Non-Knowledge, Laughter and the Moving Image, Grafik: Leon Lothschütz

Non-Knowledge, Laughter and the Moving Image, Grafik: Leon Lothschütz

Festival and Symposium: Non-Knowledge, Laughter and the Moving Image

As the final part of the artistic research project, the festival and symposium invite you to screenings, performances, talks, and discussions that explore the potential of the moving images and the (human and non-human) body to overturn our habitual course and change the dominant order of things.

View of the packed auditorium at the start of the semester; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

View of the packed auditorium at the start of the semester; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

Wishing you a happy welcome

We are pleased to welcome many new faces to the HFBK Hamburg for the winter semester 2022/23. We have compiled some background information on our new professors and visiting professors here.

Solo exhibition by Konstantin Grcic

From September 29 to October 23, 2022, Konstantin Grcic (Professor of Industrial Design) will be showing a room-sized installation at ICAT - Institute for Contemporary Art & Transfer at the HFBK Hamburg consisting of objects designed by him and existing, newly assembled objects. At the same time, the space he designed for workshops, seminars and office workstations in the AtelierHaus will be put into operation.

Amna Elhassan, Tea Lady, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Amna Elhassan, Tea Lady, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Art and war

"Every artist is a human being". This statement by Martin Kippenberger, which is as true as it is existentialist (in an ironic rephrasing of the well-known Beuys quote), gets to the heart of the matter in many ways. On the one hand, it reminds us not to look away, to be (artistically) active and to raise our voices. At the same time, it is an exhortation to help those who are in need. And that is a lot of people at the moment, among them many artists. That is why it is important for art institutions to discuss not only art, but also politics.

Merlin Reichert, Die Alltäglichkeit des Untergangs, Installation in der Galerie der HFBK; photo: Tim Albrecht

Graduate Show 2022: We’ve Only Just Begun

From July 8 to 10, 2022, more than 160 Bachelor’s and Master’s graduates of the class of 2021/22 will present their final projects from all majors. Under the title Final Cut, all graduation films will be shown on a big screen in the auditorium of the HFBK Hamburg. At the same time, the exhibition of the Sudanese guest lecturer Amna Elhassan can be seen in the HFBK gallery in the Atelierhaus.

Grafik: Nele Willert, Dennise Salinas

Grafik: Nele Willert, Dennise Salinas

June is full of art and theory

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Renée Green. ED/HF, 2017. Film still. Courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, Bortolami Gallery, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Renée Green. ED/HF, 2017. Film still. Courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, Bortolami Gallery, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Finkenwerder Art Prize 2022

The Finkenwerder Art Prize, initiated in 1999 by the Kulturkreis Finkenwerder e.V., has undergone a realignment: As a new partner, the HFBK Hamburg is expanding the prize to include the aspect of promoting young artists and, starting in 2022, will host the exhibition of the award winners in the HFBK Gallery. This year's Finkenwerder Art Prize will be awarded to the US artist Renée Green. HFBK graduate Frieda Toranzo Jaeger receives the Finkenwerder Art Prize for recent graduates.

Amanda F. Koch-Nielsen, Motherslugger; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

Amanda F. Koch-Nielsen, Motherslugger; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

Nachhaltigkeit im Kontext von Kunst und Kunsthochschule

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New studio in the row of houses at Lerchenfeld

New studio in the row of houses at Lerchenfeld, in the background the building of Fritz Schumacher; photo: Tim Albrecht

Raum für die Kunst

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Martha Szymkowiak / Emilia Bongilaj, Installation “Mmh”; photo: Tim Albrecht

Martha Szymkowiak / Emilia Bongilaj, Installation “Mmh”; photo: Tim Albrecht

Annual Exhibition 2022 at the HFBK

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Annette Wehrmann, photography from the series Blumensprengungen, 1991-95; photo: Ort des Gegen e.V., VG-Bild Kunst Bonn

Annette Wehrmann, photography from the series Blumensprengungen, 1991-95; photo: Ort des Gegen e.V., VG-Bild Kunst Bonn

Conference: Counter-Monuments and Para-Monuments.

The international conference at HFBK Hamburg on December 2-4, 2021 – jointly conceived by Nora Sternfeld and Michaela Melián –, is dedicated to the history of artistic counter-monuments and forms of protest, discusses aesthetics of memory and historical manifestations in public space, and asks about para-monuments for the present.

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld

Diversity

Who speaks? Who paints which motif? Who is shown, who is not? Questions of identity politics play an important role in art and thus also at the HFBK Hamburg. In the current issue, the university's own Lerchenfeld magazine highlights university structures as well as student initiatives that deal with diversity and identity.

photo: Klaus Frahm

photo: Klaus Frahm

Summer Break

The HFBK Hamburg is in the lecture-free period, many students and teachers are on summer vacation, art institutions have summer break. This is a good opportunity to read and see a variety of things:

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

Live und in Farbe: die ASA Open Studios im Juni 2021

Since 2010, the HFBK has organised the international exchange programme Art School Alliance. It enables HFBK students to spend a semester abroad at renowned partner universities and, vice versa, invites international art students to the HFBK. At the end of their stay in Hamburg, the students exhibit their work in the Open Studios in Karolinenstraße, which are now open again to the art-interested public.

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Unlearning: Wartenau Assemblies

The art education professors Nora Sternfeld and Anja Steidinger initiated the format "Wartenau Assemblies". It oscillates between art, education, research and activism. Complementing this open space for action, there is now a dedicated website that accompanies the discourses, conversations and events.

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

School of No Consequences

Everyone is talking about consequences: The consequences of climate change, the Corona pandemic or digitalization. Friedrich von Borries (professor of design theory), on the other hand, is dedicated to consequence-free design. In “School of No Consequences. Exercises for a New Life” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, he links collection objects with a "self-learning room" set up especially for the exhibition in such a way that a new perspective on "sustainability" emerges and supposedly universally valid ideas of a "proper life" are questioned.

Annual Exhibition 2021 at the HFBK

Annual exhibition a bit different: From February 12- 14, 2021 students at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, together with their professors, had developed a variety of presentations on different communication channels. The formats ranged from streamed live performances to video programs, radio broadcasts, a telephone hotline, online conferences, and a web store for editions. In addition, isolated interventions could be discovered in the outdoor space of the HFBK and in the city.

Katja Pilipenko

Katja Pilipenko

Semestereröffnung und Hiscox-Preisverleihung 2020

On the evening of November 4, the HFBK celebrated the opening of the academic year 2020/21 as well as the awarding of the Hiscox Art Prize in a livestream - offline with enough distance and yet together online.

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Teaching Art Online at the HFBK

How the university brings together its artistic interdisciplinary study structure with digital formats and their possibilities.

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

HFBK Graduate Survey

Studying art - and what comes next? The clichéd images stand their ground: Those who have studied art either become taxi drivers, work in a bar or marry rich. But only very few people could really live from art – especially in times of global crises. The HFBK Hamburg wanted to know more about this and commissioned the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg to conduct a broad-based survey of its graduates from the last 15 years.

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

How political is Social Design?

Social Design, as its own claim is often formulated, wants to address social grievances and ideally change them. Therefore, it sees itself as critical of society – and at the same time optimizes the existing. So what is the political dimension of Social Design – is it a motor for change or does it contribute to stabilizing and normalizing existing injustices?