CEDAR RAPIDS — Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany came down. Now, a miniature replica of that wall has gone up on the lawn of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, complete with graffiti art designed and painted by Cedar Rapids students.
The wall exhibit, titled “Revolution Starts in the Streets,” opens with a public reception Saturday and commemorates the history of the fall of communism in Europe in 1989 and the role public protest art played in that struggle. A companion exhibit, “Revolution 1989,” is on display inside the museum.
To build the replica wall, which is 60 feet long and seven feet tall, museum staff worked with students at Cedar Rapids Metro High School, who tested the durability and strength of different materials in class before helping construct the wall. The structure needed to be strong enough to withstand the elements throughout the summer but still come down relatively easily in the fall. Museum staff plan to have a public ceremony for when the wall comes down on November 9, the 30th anniversary of the actual Berlin Wall’s fall.
Students involved in the project researched the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution and the cultural movements that fueled it.
Along with the Berlin Wall’s fall, 1989 marked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia that led to playwright and dissident Václav Havel’s election as president and the end of four decades of Community Party rule.
“So much of that moment in history was influenced art and artists,” said Sarah Henderson, K-12 Learning Specialist at the museum.
Waterloo artist Paco Rosic worked with students from Iowa BIG to create the first mural on the wall, which features elephants breaking through a barrier. Additional artists coming throughout the summer, as well as members of the public, will be encouraged to add to and paint over portions of the original mural and add their own interpretations of the wall and its symbolism.
“There’s no one meaning. It’s kind of a freedom of expression,” Iowa BIG sophomore Naomi Miller said. “It’s a canvas for people to put whatever they want to feel on the wall.”
The museum has hired college students who will be available for a few hours a day to talk about the history with anyone who wants to add art to the walls, and there will be art supplies available inside the museum.
“This project was all about accessibility. It’s a completely free experience,” Henderson said. “Anyone driving by can come in and spend time with a staff person, making art and learning about the Berlin Wall.”
Street artists Ganzeer from Egypt and Jan Kalab from the Czech Republic, as well as Rose Couch from Los Angeles and Thomas Agran from Iowa City will visit the museum this summer and lead public art workshops.
“Walls carry so much symbolism and always will. I think it’s important to take that symbolism, that’s often used in a negative way, and use it in a positive way,” Henderson said. “This is a space where we want to bring people together. It’s a very unique physical representation of bringing people together.”
Art was integral to protest around the Berlin Wall itself after it was built.
“People risked their lives to paint on the Berlin Wall,” Henderson said. “It may have seemed like a small act at the time, but it was a way of exercising their voice.”
That’s what she hopes students take away from the exhibit — that finding a way to express their opinions and perspective is important and powerful.
“You guys have the same voice, the same autonomy those people did. Young people, especially, are the people who lead revolutions and effect change,” she said.
That can look like anything from voting to writing a poem or leading a protest to making a mural like the ones going up on the exhibit, she said.
Metro sophomore Habib Saba and senior Jack Garland were part of a team of students who worked with local contractor union members to design and construct the wall. They said it is gratifying to know their work will be seen by the community throughout the summer.
“I come down here a lot, and it will be nice to say, ‘Oh, I did that,’” Saba said.
Garland added that he’d enjoyed learning the history of the original Berlin Wall. This feels like a connection with that story.
“It’s a part of history,” he said.
In addition to participating in the wall’s construction and decoration, students will meet with Slovak Ambassador Ivan Korcok before he delivers the keynote address at the opening ceremony. The ambassador and a group of 11 Slovak diplomats from around the United States will join Cedar Rapids Mayor Hart on Friday for a luncheon and a “keys to the city” presentation, followed by an economic forum and bus tour of Cedar Rapids with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. On Saturday, the diplomats will hold their annual meeting at the museum.
If You Go
• What: Exhibit opening: Revolution Starts in the Streets
• When: 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. today. Exhibit open through Nov. 9.
• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
• Details: Slovak Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ivan Korcok will speak about his personal experience under communism and the Berlin Wall and representatives from the Smithsonian will be in attendance in celebration of the museum’s Smithsonian Affiliation. A reception in the Rozek Grand Hall will follow the art unveiling on the south lawn.
• What: Visit from Egyptian street artist Ganzeer: free lecture 7 p.m. June 6; street art workshop 5 to 8 p.m. June 7 and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 8. Registration required for workshop; cost is $50 or $20 for students.
• What: Artist Thomas Agran will facilitate a community “paint-by-number” art project on the wall, during the museum’s Summer Family Free Day, July 27
• What: Visit from Iowa-born, Los Angeles-based artist Rose Couch, August 19 to 23
• What: Visit from Czech street artist Jan Kalab: lecture and book signing Sept. 10; art workshop Sept. 12
• Additional details of all events will be announced at ncsml.org.
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