WESTERPARK GOES FROM WORST TO ‘WURST’
By Sunny Bleckinger
It’s 5 p.m. and Tilmann Meyer-Faje is exactly on time, as always, carrying another small box of goods from his homeland. He unlocks the door to his little shop, sets out a couple crates of German beers, and places flags into the holders by the window. The flags are white with red letters that read, Wir haben Radikal Reduziert and Wir haben Sonder Angebot. It’s the only all-German shop in town and, despite its full stock and fast-growing popularity, it began as an art installation for Artwalk Amsterdam (which also means it’s only there temporarily, until 18 December).
About a decade ago, the Westerpark neighbourhood was named one of the 10 worst places to live in the Netherlands because of drug problems, theft, etcetera. The government decided to invest resources into places like Westerpark to improve the living conditions. Cultural institutions were given grants and buildings were renovated to attract working class families. As a result, many attics were converted into living spaces, and ground floors were used for storage, leaving empty shop windows and bare walls.
‘This wasn’t a very nice street,’ explains Artwalk founder Holger Nickisch. ‘So we suggested putting art into [the empty shop windows], and the city’s housing people accepted the idea.’ Now, four years later, over 400 international artists have participated, and the project is expected to become a permanent part of the neighbourhood scene.
The current Artwalk exhibition, Nah & Gut, got its name from a supermarket chain in Germany. Faje’s idea for a shop came after he realised that most immigrants in Amsterdam have their own communities and stores, but because Germans tend to integrate easily into Dutch culture, they are not as visible.
His shop, neatly squeezed into a display window, can only hold about two customers at a time and is filled with old-fashioned, familiar German goodies. ‘I remember these from my childhood,’ explains Faje, as he eagerly reaches for a colourful packet of Brause-Pulver, a powder used to make a lemon drink. ‘It’s really amazing, the flavor hasn’t changed at all.’ Then he happily unwraps one of the little sweets next to it, a Brause-Brocken, and pops it into his mouth.
‘Some people ask why everything’s so old-fashioned,’ he explains while chewing, ‘but that’s the point. When you’ve lived outside of your country for so long, the strongest memories you have of home are not the way it is now, but how it was when you left.’
Just then, a man pokes his head into the window. ‘Do you have any German cheese?’
‘Sorry, not yet. We do have Bockwürstchen.’
‘O, klinkt goed!’ And then the man yells back outside, ‘Barbara, wil je nog iets?’
While Barbara thinks it over, Birte Neumann, a German woman from the neighbourhood, cycles by, catches sight of the familiar shop items, and pulls on her brakes. She buys a whole bag-load of stuff and Faje gives her a free Brause-Brocken. She walks away, glossy-eyed and smiling. ‘That really cured my homesickness.’
The fun, inviting atmosphere of Faje’s little shop attracts plenty of patrons, but for Faje, it has a serious purpose too. ‘Cultures often have very subtle differences,’ he explains, ‘and these little differences can lead to irritations and misconceptions. If we can increase awareness of these differences, people will be more accepting and understanding.’
In November, with funds from the Goethe Institute, Faje and co-contributor Nils van Beek will be screening contemporary German films on the street. The motto is ‘Die Fetten Jahre sind Vorbei’ (The fat/rich years are over).
‘Although [Germany] seems to be one of the richest countries on earth, there is a kind of common fear about a bad future which threatens to destroy our welfare,’ explains Faje. ‘We found a group of typically German movies, where the attempt to escape from hopeless existence (like living in a sad East-German neighbourhood) is a disturbing factor in a peaceful life.’
Along with the films, the Goethe Institute will present a lecture analysing the situations in the films. This interactivity with the community, along with Faje’s shop, makes Nah & Gut a perfect fit for Artwalk.
‘It’s important for us to bring art to people that are not already part of the art scene,’ explains Artwalk’s Nickisch. ‘Showing contemporary art in a gallery feels like preaching to the converted. The artists we’ve worked with have realised the uniqueness of presenting their ideas on the streets. And it really seems to reach people.’