By Anna Gustafson
Twenty years ago on Nov. 9, East Berliners poured out of their homes to dance on the concrete monolith known as the Berlin Wall that had for 28 years separated them from West Berlin.
As much of the rest of world watched the countless photographs and videos of people running across the border, arms raised to the sky, an American artist witnessed the dissolution of a communist state before her very eyes.
“It was an extraordinary experience to be celebrating with people from all over the world in this historic event of communism collapsing,” said Fitz Maurice, who grew up in Westchester and now lives in New Mexico. “I proceeded to watch the demise of the wall and the incredible reunification of all of Germany. Berlin, the city itself, was reuniting after years and everyone’s heart was pounding.”
Maurice documented life before, during and after the fall of the wall in 30 paintings that are now being shown at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College. The exhibit, “Common Ground,” opened Nov. 2 and will run through Dec. 19.
Free and open to the public, the exhibit is the centerpiece of a series of events promoting tolerance, including an all-star benefit concert headlined by former Yankee turned Latin jazz guitarist Bernie Williams Nov. 17. Billed as a tribute jam to the legacies of Queens jazz titans Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie in the name of promoting tolerance, the concert also included performances by Jimmy Owens, Randy Weston and his African Rhythms, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, 13-year-old bass prodigy Daryl Johns, guitarist Yotam Silberstein, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Steve Johns.
The Fitz Maurice exhibit is curated by Amy Winter, the director of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum.
“This thematically ties into the concept of tolerance,” Winter said. “The artist says she’s interested metaphorically in seeing all walls down throughout the world.”
“Common Ground” was previewed at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the original site of the United Nations, and not far from the 1964 World’s Fair Unisphere. Maurice said she chose Queens College as the next venue for the exhibit because it “is an environment where people with different languages, beliefs, religions and traditions are living in tolerance of each other.”
The college has students from 140 nations who speak more than 60 languages.
The exhibit was first shown in 1990 at the German Parliament in Bonn under the title “Berlin Metamorphosis.” It includes paintings that range from a piece entitled “The ‘Eternal’ Wall,” which Maurice said shows “this looming monster that devoured the lives of about 200 people,” to “Night of the Celebration,” a depiction of a crowd of Germans waving the red, black and yellow flag and blasting music.
“I stood exactly there in the crowded street, the night the world celebrated the reunification,” Maurice wrote in a book published by the Queens College museum that accompanies the exhibit. “Cameras flashed like fireworks, rock ‘n’ roll music blasted through the chilly air and laughter, applause and cheers from the crowds sounded the disbelief of the collapse of communism.”
The paintings were chosen by the German Parliament as the official artistic rendition of the fall of the wall and reunification and lauded by numerous newspapers throughout Germany.
“Perhaps our German artists are too personally involved, and it takes an artist from the outside to come in and see it as clearly as Fitz Maurice has,” wrote Die Welt, Berlin’s largest newspaper.
Maurice’s paintings of life after the fall of the wall certainly show a different Berlin, with street scenes of people relaxing in cafes to musicians playing instruments on the steps of the Gedachtniskirche, a church that remains in the bombed-out state it was reduced to in World War II.
But not all the paintings of life after the end of communism portray the happiest of times, and “Lost Generation” shows three young homeless individuals in Berlin.
The former East Germany has struggled since reunification and unemployment there is double what it is in the west, according to reports by the Associated Press. Approximately 1.7 million people, or 12 percent of the population, have left what was East Germany since the Berlin Wall fell.
For more information about “Common Ground,” call 718-997-4747 or visitqc.cuny.edu/godwin_ternbach.
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.