A Celebration of Transnational Voices

Bi’bak, Berlin | Bitter Things: Narratives and Memories of Transnational Families

Since moving to the Berlin suburb of Wedding, one of the most noticeable things about the neighbourhood is its cosmopolitan identity, particularly the Turkish influence. My local supermarkets and coffee shops are Turkish and listening to voices on the streets, Turkish is spoken as much as German. Going for a run one morning I stumbled across Bi’bik, an interdisciplinary, community art project. I picked up a brochure for their latest exhibition and kept jogging. I am so glad that I did.

Bitter Things: Narratives and Memories of Transnational Families sheds light on the history of transnational families in Berlin. Perfectly timed, it helped me make a deeper sense of the city’s layered identity. A heartfelt project, the exhibition shares the intimate stories of people who left their home nations to build new lives in Berlin, particularly mothers and their children. Entering the exhibition, a timeline runs around the perimeter of the room, chronicling the history of immigration policies in Germany. There is a focus on the diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey, a productive relationship that saw many Turkish workers move to Berlin during the sixties and seventies. It also talks about migrants from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The timeline is factual. It refers exclusively to legislation and diplomatic agreement. It is the second dimension of the exhibition that provides a more tender insight into how immigration affected and continues to affects migrant families.

At a series of small wooden booth, you are invited to pick up a telephone and listen to the voice of a Berliner talking about (and sometimes to) the family and friends they left behind. On one phone, a mother talking to her young son in Turkey. Having moved to Berlin for work, she could not afford to bring him with her, but nor could she provide for him if she had stayed. The pangs of love and longing in her voice are heartbreaking. This is such a clever device that humanises the realities of migration. Not all the voice are so melancholic. On one phone, a family sings the praises of Skype and how it enables them to speak face-to-face despite miles of separation. 

Next to each phone is a single object, a memento that connects migrants to their loved ones. A cassette tape, an icon of the Madonna, a photograph. Whilst the timeline provides an aerial view of migration, these objects and the voices on the phone personalise the experience of migration for transnational families.

Bitter Things was hosted in a small downstairs room within an apartment block. You needed to ring a doorbell to be let into the exhibition. This small, domestic space really complemented the themes of the exhibition: it felt like you were being welcomed closer within the intimate family sphere. The simplicity of the format coupled with the exhibition’s focussed subject matter is a testament to how small galleries can create thoughtful, compelling content. Bitter Things is powerful storytelling, which makes the political personal.

More info about Bi’bak:

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