“The worth of a poem increases in winter / Especially in a hard winter. / Especially in a quiet language. / Especially in unpredictable times.”
These lines were written by the Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan.
They were published in his 2020 collection “Antenna”. However, even though the sun is shining outside at the moment, they couldn’t be more relevant today.
Serhiy Zhadan writes from his hometown Kharkiv about the Donbas, about everyday occurrences and life in Ukraine. Since 24 February, his friends have been dying in the brutal war waged by the Russian regime.
Russian tanks, artillery and missiles are targeting innocent people, regardless of whether they are young or old. They are targeting hospitals, schools and – quite deliberately – museums, theatres and churches in his country.
For Putin is waging war not only against Ukraine’s people but also against its identity. He wants to deny an entire country its history, culture and freedom. Therefore our values, and not only our European values but also those that are shared worldwide, are at stake in Ukraine.
Freedom, human dignity and democracy, the right of citizens, regardless of where they are in this world, to determine their own future and the fate of their own country. A free arts community and media which create a critical public space: that’s the essence of this freedom.
However, these values are not only under threat from Russia. That’s the major global challenge facing us. Authoritarian regimes around the globe are limiting the space for civil society.
Free and fair debates, transparent political and social discourse, freedom for art and culture – all of this is increasingly being called into question. As Serhiy Zhadan writes, these are unpredictable times.
Everyone here today knows why it’s particularly important at a time like this not to talk about winter but, instead, about summer and spring, about art and culture, about the power of what can be, even if it is not there right now or if it’s in jeopardy.
That’s precisely what the four award winners being presented the Goethe Medal today stand for. I’m really pleased that we can present this award to you, thus making it clear that art and culture, that freedom, that our values are diverse.
What message would it send if four identical individuals were sitting here today? It would be less and not more. I therefore want to warmly congratulate you all! However, I also want to sincerely congratulate those who selected these wonderful awardees and are honouring them today.
We’ll hear more from you in a minute. However, I would like to outline three examples which show that you’re not only receiving a medal. For you are lending power to your societies and you will leave some of this power here with us in Weimar and thus in Germany.
Tali Nates, you’ve told us the story of Veronica Phillips. Her father was murdered during the Holocaust. She herself survived three concentration camps as a child. After a long odyssey, she emigrated to Johannesburg in South Africa. And not until the final years of her own life did she decide to tell her story.
That’s one of the great challenges facing us around the world. Because once people have reached the end of their lives, they can no longer tell their own story. So who can make sure that their stories are still heard?
It is people like you, who have ensured that Veronica Phillips’ story was not lost. You have made it possible for her story to live on, namely in the Holocaust and Genocide Center, which you head. Veronica Phillips donated a doll to the Center and I believe that this, too, demonstrates what this is about: people! And perhaps also about dolls. For how can a story be passed down better than through an object which, with the exception of their parents, is more important than anything to a child. It’s something which can be pressed close to the heart.
This doll, which is now an exhibit in your Genocide Center, is the doll which Veronica Phillips left behind with her mother in the Budapest ghetto and then got back once her persecution was over. When she saw this doll again many years later in your exhibition, she cried and said, “Now people will remember me. My story will continue to be heard”.
Everyone in this room who has children knows that when you walk through a museum and see such a long list of names and numbers, you perhaps sometimes don’t take it all in. You’re maybe not even concentrating properly.
But when your own child stops and says, “Mummy, that doll looks like mine. What’s it doing in this museum?” the numbers become individuals again and their stories live on.
And that, Tali Nates, is what makes your work so valuable: the fact that you not only exhibit objects but also want to move visitors. You help to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust and of other terrible genocides. You help to ensure that people remember so that “never again” doesn’t become an empty phrase.
The stories you tell can change people.
That’s also true of the work of Mohamed Abla. Mr Abla, you once described how much research, how much observation and conversations with people go into your work when you set about realising an idea.
It can probably be said of many of you working in the cultural sphere that it is this process, this dialogue with society, which makes your images so powerful. When you fish flotsam out of the Nile and transform it into sculptures. Or when you produce portraits of hundreds of people in the streets of Cairo.
You and your art were part of the movement in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. In one of your exhibitions, you simply painted figures without faces. There was no need for any lengthy explanations.
Every visitor knew that you were sending a message to the regime. Your images showed people who had been denied the possibility to express themselves, who were simply not free, who appeared to have no feelings or opinions.
However, things aren’t always as they seem. Of course, they had feelings and opinions – but they were not allowed to express them.
During the Arab Spring, you kept your studio open 24 hours a day to protect artists from persecution.
You once said that if there is no democracy then there is no freedom and therefore also no art. How right you were!
And even though the dreams of Tahrir Square remained unfulfilled, your work makes a difference to millions of Egyptians.
That also applies to the work of the Sandbox Collective: you seek dialogue with society. Nimi Ravindran, Shiva Pathak, your play “Queen Size” has been seen around the world.
It’s a simple set-up: two men lie on a bed and the audience sits in a circle around them. The performance is about the intimacy between men and a fundamental human right: the right to choose whom we love.
The play was a response to Article 377 of the Penal Code, which made homosexuality a criminal offence in India. The fact that this article has now been revoked is a huge success for the rights of homosexuals. And it’s also part of what you’ve achieved.
However, your play makes it clear that simply abolishing laws does not automatically bring acceptance but that acceptance has to be lived.
During your performances, you’ve experienced time and again the process this represents and that’s what makes it so special for me as German Foreign Minister.
The aim of your project is to show that in our resentments, in our difficulty in living acceptance ourselves, everyone around the world is ultimately the same. What we don’t know is alien to us at first. When you’ve never eaten a dish before or spoken a language before. Or even when wind turbines are erected when you’ve never seen one before. Of course, this is also a generational question. Enabling this diversity is one of the Goethe-Institut’s tasks.
But let me talk a bit more about wind turbines. If you haven’t seen one for the first 70 years of your life, it’s perhaps something that bothers you more than if you were born with a wind turbine already on your doorstep. It then perhaps conjures up a feeling of familiarity when you come home.
You can’t say that everything is right or different. Rather, everyone has their own viewpoint. What matters is that we talk about the impact of this process on each individual.
You described how the mother of a young homosexual man approached you after a performance and said, “Now I finally understand how my son feels.”
This kind of work where you not only show that homophobia is wrong but look at the issue from a different perspective, thus enabling people to understand, to allow themselves to be moved and feel empathy, demonstrates the power of your art.
This power can change societies.
And that applies not only in India but also here in Europe. That’s why it’s so important that this medal fosters exchange.
Foreign policy, cultural relations policy, does not mean that the Goethe-Institut or the German Foreign Minister go somewhere and explain to people how the free world works. I have often found, especially in societies where there is still a lot to do in terms of the rights of women and homosexuals, that you can achieve more by adopting a quiet approach.
And to be honest, our own track record isn’t that great either. You’re doing better with the Goethe Medal, with more women now being presented with this award. It took 151 years before a woman was appointed to head the Federal Foreign Office.
That’s why, when it comes to these transformation issues, it’s so important to me – and this is an aspect of our cultural relations and education policy – to ask: given the challenges we all face – given that democracy is an ongoing process – how can we benefit from one another?
When I go to countries and say that just over 30% of members of the Bundestag are women, I ask myself: what can I learn from other countries, for example African countries, where the percentage is higher?
And it’s the same in all spheres – even if we can demonstrate freely, if we’re not liable to be arrested, if we cannot imagine what it meant to stand in Tahrir Square, what it was like for women there to worry about getting raped or for fathers to fear they wouldn’t be able to get home. This brings home to us time and again how fortunate we are to be able to walk freely through our streets.
Especially here in eastern Germany, some people had to fight hard to achieve this, namely before 1989. However, your work demonstrates that we can learn from each other in so many spheres.
Therefore, it’s not just a medal we’re presenting today but an invitation to an ongoing partnership and exchange. For change cannot be regulated by the state: you’ve seen that in your countries, we’ve seen it in our country and we’ve seen it around the world.
Change always happens where people talk to each other, where we try to understand what we perceive as different and where we’re confronted with our fears and prejudices but also have the space to express them.
Culture can open up dialogue between people who would otherwise not come into contact or who have lost the desire to interact, who have stopped even seeking to engage with one another.
Ms Lentz, you’ve just spoken of culture as a force of renewal. That’s also the motto of today’s award ceremony. The Goethe Medal award winners show precisely that: how we can use culture to renew our societies.
Culture prevents societies from becoming static. The Belarusian artist Sergey Shabohin said that art should create new conditions not new objects.
But renewal isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s hard work. And that’s what makes it so special when it comes about.
But we need this very courage, this strength to renew today in these unpredictable times.
For we’re not only faced with Russia’s war against Ukraine. When we look at climate change, at famines around the world and at the return of imperial wars in other places, we see that we can only achieve this renewal if we work together.
And bolstering this renewal and strength beyond borders lies at the heart of the Goethe-Institut’s work. We’re creating space for free art at a time when this freedom is being increasingly curtailed.
You’re helping to find a language for something which cannot be expressed by laws and paragraphs, nor by international agreements: the desire of people around the world to live in dignity.
This desire unites everyone across the globe. It’s therefore a democratic task for states and their cultural organisations not only to defend the freedom and integrity of art and culture but for democratic societies to create a space in which art can develop freely, in which it is diverse and gives others the strength to create more spaces.
In order to ensure that the Goethe-Institut, as well as our partners, can continue to do just that, cultural relations and education policy will continue to be a key part of Germany’s foreign policy – as a bridge between various worlds and as a place which brings people together.
For foreign policy is not only made in foreign ministries, but in any place where trust between people can grow: in theatres, film sets, studios, memorial sites and universities.
And yes, we will continue to be faced with this challenge in the coming months. After all, we know that a summer doesn’t last for ever. And all around the world, often also in your countries, it is above all the cost of food, and in our country the cost of energy, which concerns us when we think of the coming winter.
It won’t be easy. It’s therefore all the more important that we now stand together around the world. You can rest assured that we in Germany, that we in Europe, will do that, even if we’re very concerned at the present time about gas and electricity prices.
That’s nothing compared to what people in other parts of the world are experiencing. That’s why we want to stand together this winter.
The work of the Goethe Medal award winners shows why this is so important. I’d therefore like to warmly congratulate you once more on this award.
You are receiving this award as four individuals, but you stand for millions of culture professionals worldwide who give our societies the power to experience renewal and hence also the power to stand up for our liberal values.
You’ve demonstrated what’s possible if we have the courage. No matter how hard the winter may appear.
And as, instead of lamenting the state of the world, we want to celebrate everything that is possible in this world if we stand together, I’d like to conclude with another uplifting verse from Serhiy Zhadan from Ukraine:
“The heart of the smallest swallow is stronger than the fog. And the soul of the most hopeless bird deserves our concern. Let the winter come.”
In keeping with this sentiment, let’s be stronger than the fog. Let’s come together so that spring can return soon. And let’s not stand still, but join forces to foster renewal and champion our liberal values.
Thank you very much and my warmest congratulations!