Cultural scene

A Visual Language of Migration

Copyright: MigrantasCopyright: MigrantasThe Migrantas collective uncovers how migrant women experience everyday life in Germany - using pictograms based on the women’s drawings.

Just a few lines, black on white, depict a woman looking down at the suitcase in front of her. Under the drawing are the words "Warum und wozu?" (Why and what's the use?). Although the figure has no face, her doubts and dejection are tangible. The pictogram was designed by Argentinean artist Marula di Como six years ago, just after she relocated from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Simple graphic elements and pictograms had always been part of her artistic language. Working with Argentinean graphic designer Florencia Young, who moved to Berlin around the same time, di Como developed a series of pictograms that expressed their feeling of alienness and presented their work on large-scale posters in public places in Buenos Aires under the motto Proyecto Ausländer.

The thoughts and emotions of migrants

Copyright: Migrantas Soon the idea arose to display not just their own feelings, but also those of all other migrant women and present them in public using pictograms, which are highly descriptive and universally understandable. Four years ago di Como and Young founded the Migrantas collective and since then have held regular workshops where migrant women draw their thoughts and feelings about their life in Germany, which are then translated into pictograms.

The studio of the collective, which now also includes Argentinean journalist Alejandra López and urban planner Irma Leinauer, is a bright room in Florencia Young’s top-floor flat in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. On the walls are posters of the pictograms; one desk holds several sheets of paper with pencilled drawings, another a large screen, print-outs of draft pictograms and two laptop computers. Alejandra López, Marula di Como and Florencia Young sit at the desks discussing the new designs.

Drawings are the basis

Copyright: Migrantas So far workshops have taken place in Berlin und Hamburg. This year Migrantas held eleven workshops for various Cologne-based associations as part of the Bundesmigrantinnen project. “The women in the clubs know each other,” says Young. “That’s good for the drawings.” The familiar atmosphere, she explains, makes it easier for the women to talk about their emotions and thoughts. Five to fifteen women typically attend the workshops. “This year we had women from 30 different countries,” says López. “They came from all social classes. We had illiterates as well as women with PhDs.”

The workshops begin with a detailed introduction from the initiators to the project and themselves. Then the designers ask the women to draw how they feel about living in Germany. “Many say straight away that they can't draw, that they're not Picasso,” explains López. “We show them that they can.” She takes a blank sheet and draws a circle. “That’s a head,” she says and adds a line that curves upwards at both ends. “And that means I am happy.” It's so simple. After completing their drawings the women explain their picture to the others.

250 drawings lead to 13 pictograms

The drawings are stacked on a large table in the studio, sorted by subject. Some consist of just a few lines, others are much more elaborate. Some stacks are higher than others: they signify the issues that occupy most of the women - education, language problems, intercultural issues, the feeling of being torn between two places. The Cologne workshops this summer produced 250 drawings, which the collective used to produce 13 pictograms - a visual and conceptual interpretation of the participants’ ideas. Some pictograms are an exact representation of the original sketches, while others are a combination of two different drawings. Florencia Young points out the work of an African woman who drew herself and wrote the word "Kölnerin" (Colognian) underneath. “We placed this motif in the foreground of one of the pictograms,” she explains and points out another drawing showing a mosque next to a church. “And we used this idea for the background.”

Copyright: Migrantas

Visibility in the urban space

The overarching aim of Migrantas is to display the pictograms in public places and get people to talk and reflect on them. “There’s so much talk about migration but most people don’t know what migrants really think and how they feel,” says Florencia Young. di Como, López, Leinauer and Young, who all work for Migrantas in their spare time, have selected three of the thirteen pictograms to appear on posters and postcards. It’s a difficult process. “We needed to select issues that speak to the public,” explains Young. In the end they chose the naturalisation test, education, and Heimatgefühl - the feeling of “belonging” - in Germany.

The project ended with an exhibition of all pictograms and all original drawings, accompanied by print-outs of quotes from the migrant women. All women who took part in the workshops were invited to the opening night, where they could meet and talk. “The nicest thing about this is to see them so delighted," says López. "We can see how great it is for them to see their own work in an exhibition.” And very soon they will be able to see the pictograms on large posters at bus stops, advertising pillars and the walls of buildings all over the city.

A travelling exhibition displays the results of the many socio-cultural projects that Migrantas has managed since 2003 in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hamburg and Cologne. Bilingual texts and many illustrations explain the activities, which have involved several hundreds of migrant women. The exhibition consists of six to nine display boards (195 x 70 cm) and can be displayed in public places and at conferences, meetings and symposia on migration and integration.
Katja Hanke
works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

Translation: Karin Walker
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
November 2008

Related links

Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

Learning German for Refugees

Arriving App

The guide for your first weeks in Germany

My way to Germany

Videos and practises for German learners