“If it wasn’t for these paintings, this piece of Wall had probably been knocked down" Kani Alavi
"The East Side Gallery belongs to my history, my personal history. It has become like my child.” Kani Alavi
From his bedroom window, painter Kani Alavi witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall with his own eyes. As he watched people from the East entering the West, something occurred to him: “I was expecting to see happy and excited faces, but as I observed them closely, I also saw sad, insecure and frightened faces.” A few months later, when Kani was asked to commission a painting on the East Side Gallery, it was exactly that sight that inspired him.
Kani Alavi (58) moved from Iran to West-Berlin in 1980. He enrolled at the ‘Hochschule der Künste Berlin’ in the hope to one day become a professional painter. Although Berlin was divided and isolated from the rest of West Germany, Kani experienced a kind of freedom that he didn’t know from his home country. Between the thousands of paintings in his present house and gallery, he explains: “In Iran, because of the tense political and religious situation back then, our freedom was restricted. We would speak of ‘a Wall in our minds’. Here in West Berlin it was right in front of our eyes, but nevertheless, I felt free to go wherever I wanted.”
Kani used to live close to Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known Wall crossing point between the Russian Zone and the American territory during the Cold War. His house was only four meters away from the Wall. “The house I was living in actually had two CIA camera’s attached to it. The cameras were pointed to the East. Right across my house, on the other side of the Wall, were also cameras installed behind the widows. The Stasi, the secret service of the GDR, put these cameras there to spy on the West.” He continues: “The whole situation was just absurd.”
The Stasi also kept an eye on Kani. One time they followed him into his building: “They walked with me up to the third floor where I lived, to check if it was really my house, maybe because they thought I was a spy because of my foreign looks.” He laughs: “But when I opened the door, they only saw paintings and drawings – and so they left again.”
More than a hundred paintings
On the 9th of November 1989 the Wall in Berlin was opened up. About two months later Kani was asked to help start-up a project called the ‘East Side Gallery’. The East Side Gallery (ESG) was an initiative that involved over a hundred artists who were asked to make paintings on a remaining stretch of the Wall in East Berlin. Kani: “For the first time in history it was actually the East side of the Wall that was painted on, something that was not possible before.”
Within six months artists from all over the world made 105 paintings on the East Side Gallery, all about the Cold War period. Kani: “If it wasn’t for these paintings, this piece of Wall had probably been knocked down – just like most parts of the Wall in Berlin.” To Kani that would have been a great loss: “To me, it was important to preserve a part of the Wall, just so we could use it later to later tell people about what happened here.”
The East Side Gallery, about 1.3 kilometer long, used to be a section of the former inner Wall in East Berlin. Here the river Spree defined the political border with West Berlin. The Wall was built in the Friedrichshain district, at the the riverbank. Border guards patrolled the river with boats. “Ten people who tried to cross the border here were killed and five children drowned. People from the West couldn’t help them, they would risk their own lives.”
Over the years the paintings have been badly damaged by though weather conditions, graffiti and vandalism. Kani, who had become the head of the ‘Artists’ Initiative East Side Gallery’ in 1996, suggested the East Side Gallery needed restoration. “It took me almost four years to get all the money together. And, just as important, to bring all the artists back to Berlin too. One hundred of the images on the Wall had to be repainted by the artists. It was a huge logistical project.” But Kani succeeded. In 2009, twenty years after its foundation, the Eat Side Gallery was completely renovated.
A lifelong project
Despite the renovation efforts, the existence of the East Side Gallery is still at stake. In July 2006 a 40-meter section was removed to facilitate access to the river Spree from the O2 World, a big arena. A 23-meter section was removed in March 2013, to create a passage to apartment buildings that are planned on the riverbank. “Since 1996 I’ve tried to raise awareness for the East Side Gallery to save this place. People tend to forget about history quite fast. The East Side Gallery can help us remind.”
Nowadays about 800.000 visitors each year come by the East Side Gallery to take a look at the paintings. Kani’s ‘Es geschah im November,’ translated as ‘it happened in November,’ is one of the paintings. His painting shows a wave of people breaking through the Wall. The faces on the painting are not just happy faces – he also drew sad and scared faces. “People in the East had gone through a lot and were headed to many uncertainties.” He is proud of all the work he has done, and still does, for the East Side Gallery: “It has really become my life. It belongs to my history, my personal history. It is my child.”