Absurdity and Tragedy
Art can be a form of self-expression or a reflection of our society, it can also be a tool to heal. The latter was what initiated Namibian painter Silke Berens’ solo exhibition titled ´Brothers in Arms´. Faced with the trauma of war that spanned generations in her family, Silke took to her canvas to explore hard issues that are often ignored in society, the contradictions of war and its resulting affects on the fabric of society, homes and individuals.
“I think it’s important, opening up the dialogue about a topic that’s not really discussed, the topic of warfare and their effects on people. In the Namibian context, I think many Namibian men who are veterans still struggle with opening up about that.” Explains Silke as we walk through her exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia.
“It was really the toughest exhibition I’ve ever put together because it was so emotional. The whole experience was very troubling and difficult and I would work a lot from that sort of state of unrest.”
“I started investigating the exhibition for self-involved reasons, because I use my art to deal with some of my own traumas, my own history and concerns and my personal development. I’ve always used this [Art] to process my life experiences whether it’s the death of my Dad when I was 23, or my experiences with working with abused children. I kind of turn everything into an exhibition eventually. It’s my way of addressing it for myself and maybe coming to terms with it.” Says Silke whose life had become busy with the demands of working and being a Mother, when her brother’s untimely death lead her to returning back to painting as a way to work through her pain and loss. “My brother passed away and that kind of triggered me changing my life. I went back to studying and decided I’m going to start painting again.”
Silke explains that the process was hard for her, “It was really the toughest exhibition I’ve ever put together because it was so emotional. The whole experience was very troubling and difficult and I would work a lot from that sort of state of unrest.”
“Grief doesn’t really go away, you can just transform it through different modes of expression.”
I really look up to Steven Levine, he’s a philosopher and psychotherapist who specialises in expressive arts. He talks about how the goal of therapy is not to take away the suffering but to transform it and that’s what art does. It gives you the chance to transform through expressing. It doesn’t take it away. Grief doesn’t really go away, you can just transform it through different modes of expression. That’s why I’m such a proponent of art and expressive arts. It’s a wonderful tool, especially when it comes to overwhelming feelings. I think trauma sufferers or men who suffer trauma as a result of war, have this fear ‘what will happen if I let this out?’ There’s this fear of it overwhelming you. With art it becomes safe, you can put it on the paper and it’s there for you to look at. When it’s out there on the paper, suddenly it’s not so threatening anymore.”
Her process of coming to terms with the pain and loss that war has created in her family has resulted in an exhibition which is moving, sobering and important. Using a mixture of mediums from paint, photographs and installations of a selection of war-time poetry, Silke asks the viewer to question the absurdity and the tragedy of war.
“I spent a year doing research into literature, I am studying at the moment so I’m academically orientated. One thing I noticed when I did the research, in the narratives that were being told there was this common story.” A common story which Silke explains, people are not talking about. “I think there is still a stigma.” Says Silke.
“Looking back, that was in the late eighties but because of our society and also our family we didn’t talk about these things. But it engendered many problems that just escalated for him in his life, that unaddressed mental illness.”
Talking about the experience of war in her family, Silke asks the questions, “Why does war exist and why do men go to war? Its such an age old phenomena.You can basically trace back from the beginning of the century how this kind of just gets passed down through the generations of my family without being challenged, without being questioned. Like my Dad said to my brother when the enlistment call came, ‘it won’t hurt you to go to the army, go for it.’ Even though he’d lost his father and he knew full well. He was an educated man. That’s the paradox because educated people still think, ‘it makes him a man’.”
My brother was a very sensitive, artistic person and he was anti-violence. He was a paramedic in the war because he decided he wasn’t going to pick up arms. I think he had PTSD. Looking back, that was in the late eighties but because of our society and also our family we didn’t talk about these things. But it engendered many problems that just escalated for him in his life, that unaddressed mental illness. It was not resolved and it became a chain reaction of abusing alcohol and it eventually led to his early death.”
“So there was a deep sense of loss and his mother never got over the loss of her husband either. For the rest of her life she was traumatised by that loss.”
“Wars are waged for various reasons, but I think the general feeling about it, is something you can’t really do anything about. There’s a sense of, ‘well that’s just how it is, just accept your fate’. I’m quite a rebel, so I refuse to accept that story. I question that and because of my family members having been involved in warfare in one way or other, even if they weren’t directly involved. My Dad wasn’t directly in a war but he was still affected because my father never knew his father because he went missing in action in Hungary in 1945. So there was a deep sense of loss and his mother never got over the loss of her husband either. For the rest of her life she was traumatised by that loss.”
“One thing affects the other. My brother is not the not only one that’s been affected, he had PTSD. My dad was depressed so his depression kind of seeped into the way he treated my mother, into the family dynamics.”
Speaking of how the damage of war trickles down through generations, Silke notes “Indirectly there is this chain of events that you can trace. One thing affects the other. My brother is not the not only one that’s been affected, he had PTSD. My dad was depressed so his depression kind of seeped into the way he treated my mother, into the family dynamics.”
“I was eleven years old when my brother was in the war, I was just the silent observer. I think as a woman there is a part of you that can never really understand. I think, it’s not just a socially conditioned drive it’s almost biological. Recent research in how genes get changed and transferred kind of points to that, how the environment changes genes. It’s a field of research called epigenetics. If you grow up in a certain environment your genes get triggered in different ways than if you grew up in a different environment.”
In the opening speech to her exhibition, Silke called the exhibition her “gesture of laying that commemorative wreath.” She explains, “Wars always have their memorial sites, this is my memorial site. This was for me like saying ‘Okay, this is what happened and this is the truth of it and lets talk about it’.”
Brothers in Arms’ by Silke Berens is open in the National Art Galley of Namibia’s Upper Gallery, it will run until 25 August 2017.
At 18h00 on Thursday 10 August 2017, Silke Berens will be hosting a ‘Fishbowl conversation’ around and inside the ‘Brothers in Arms’ exhibition. The artist together with a group of experts in history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and art will be initiating a discussion about mental health, trauma, PTSD, art as therapy, and related topics such as epigenetics. The public is invited to attend and join in the conversation.
Written by Kirsty Watermeyer