Escaping the Embers


We did have a TV-Set when I was a child. I remember the news about wars and bombings in Northern Ireland and the Near East. I am not aware of the exact moment but at some point I must have tried to imagine what it must be like to be a child growing up in a war zone. I don’t seriously think you can imagine it without having been forced to go through the experience. It is about losing loved ones, running for dear life, losing all you ever had, your toys, your home. And it is all about living in an atmosphere of hatred and devastatingly real threat. But it is also about being bereaved of your future. There will be no schools or no time to attend lessons because everybody is occupied with hiding, finding food, staying alive. There will be no paper to write your homework on, there will not even be homework. There will be no books to study from, because they have been burnt down together with the libraries.


When we, as a family, went for a swim, it was familiar that there was a crater as wide as a flat hand in my father’s back. It was a large deep scar where the bullet had struck and almost killed him in WW2 when he was barely 20 years of age. It was his largest scar, but not the only one he had. He would not answer questions and I felt I’d better not ask. He lost one half of his lung and almost all of his joyance. He would say he had unlearned to laugh. This, also, is something war does to people.


It is difficult to resist passing on the hatred if you have been affected by it in the depth of your heart. It is much easier to give way to vengeance. It will need much effort to not succumb to revenge. In this effort knowledge will be of great help. To know about foreign people and their countries. To know about ways of living different to your own. Knoweldge about other times in history, other cultures, other religions. Knowledge can calm down fear and will support understanding. Studying will make friends in that we can see that there is not just the one way, but that there are many ways of living a good and happy life. These are pretty old findings. People of all cultures have realised what the essentials of a good humane live are millenia ago. First they passed them on to the next generation by telling them, in myths and fairy tales. Later they wrote them down on parchment, and still later they printed books to have them spread to still more people. All the books tell of the longings and sufferings, of how to overcome misery, and how to succeed in living a peaceful life. It is the means by which this can be achieved where the argument starts. The deliberate demolition of books, libraries, schools, bookshops, publishing houses, archives is unpardonable. Precious knowledge will be lost past recovery. People are depredated of the possibility to study and become educated. People won’t be able to form an opinion if they are denied free access to information. If they are at the mercy of censored messages they will have their minds manipulated and are prone to be turned into instruments of war and hatred.

To deliberately keep people ignorant is a serious criminal act and will perpetuate war.


Escaping the Embers: My print for the „Absence & Presence“ project

Prior to printing I painted the sheets individually in the colours of flames and ashes, with paint prepared from soil pigments. Into the zone of the ashes I printed the astronomical coordinates of 33 libraries that have been burnt down over the centuries, from Alexandria in 391BC to Tripoli in 2014, marking places where wisdom and cultural heritage have been destroyed deliberately. Rising from the embers of the burnt down libraries of the world two pairs of scribbled pages, like a butterfly’s wings, take flight in a flurry of ashes. Handwritten on those pages are the fundamental ideas of mankind, the essentials of wisdom, believes and knowledge, the writings‘ characters resembling the alphabets or scripts used in the world: Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Asian …


The butterfly carries these ideas as if they were its precious eggs. In butterflies the eggs will become caterpillars, which develop into cocoons and further into new butterflies. With written ideas it is similar: they are laid into their readers‘ minds to hatch into thoughts, grow, cocoon and eventually hatch as new beautiful knowledge – be it as poems or novels, scientific work or philosophical wisdom – and new books.

In the end nothing will be lost. Arson cannot win. And with the flap of its wings this very special butterfly will change the course of things in this world eventually. Over and over again if need be.

My print is a print of hope.

Butterflies are fragile and vulnerable, but with their swaying flight they escape risks just by following their nature. A butterfly seems to be absent at times, but some of its live’s stages might be present without us being aware of it. Also, the butterfly motive refers to the butterfly effect as known in chaos theory: Small differences, like the beat of a butterfly’s wing, may result in an overall big difference in the course of things.


Absence & Presence: A Printmaking Response to the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street“:

With this project one complete set of prints of all participating artists will be donated to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad. Three copies will be part of touring exhibitions worldwide. The fifth copy will, together with work from the project at the Herron Art Library (Indiana, US), be digitised to become part of their permanent collection.

Last year I was invited to be part of „Absence and Presence: A Printmaking Response to the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street“. My deadline to hand in my prints was 11 October 2014. The day before Malala Yousafzai was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize. Two years ago, aged only 15, the Pakistan teenager was shot and almost killed for promoting and fighting for the right of education for all children, boys and girls, wherever they live.


If you wish to know more or to become involved, e.g. with readings, talks or activities connetced to the „al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here!“ projects, you might want to check any of these:

Facebook Group

The coalition’s website

The online gallery at UWE in Bristol (UK)

The German-English website of the al-Mutanabbi projects

Photos of al-Mutanabbi Street

The coalition published an anthology to which 125 writers and poets have contributed. You can purchase it.


There is a catalogue of the exhibition of the Inventory project at the Center of Book Arts in New York 2013. You can purchase it.


Find more on the Inventory project on this Blog at May 2013 „John Rylands Library Manchester“