Life Lines at the Johann Jacobs Museum

A conventional exhibition generally consists of a space, a few objects, and texts, perhaps videos and sound. Often there is an overarching theme which speaks to each of the objects, or there are complementary works of art – works conceived and produced by artists in their studios. Visitors to these exhibitions might walk around. Others sit still. Then there are those who submerge themselves, listening and looking attentively to the exhibits. But these are conventional habits, for conventional exhibitions. “Life Lines” at the Johann Jacobs Museum will be somewhat different: a work in progress. We are taking the exhibition’s title quite literally. 

At the center of “Life Lines” is a group of fifteen or so teenagers. Each of them underwent a long journey before arriving in Switzerland. They travelled along uncertain paths, coming from Argentina, Ukraine, Afghanistan, or Syria. For them, attending school in Switzerland was already somewhat of an experiment: one that began with language, as not one of them was ‘born and raised’ in the German (or Swiss-German) tongue. 

These teens eventually ended up in a so-called “integration class”. The class, held in Volketswil near Zurich, is taught in part by Walter Riedweg, a Swiss artist and part of the well-known duo Dias&Riedweg. Whilst Walter is at home in Rio, he comes to Switzerland twice a year to teach children who pose a challenge to conventional school norms. 

And if none of your pupils speak German (or hardly so) you have to become a bit more inventive and make use of whatever skills and intuitions you might have: theatre improvisation, music, the whole range of human expressiveness lends itself to these situations. For such an approach, the rigid setting of schools (concrete architecture and all) is perhaps not the best place to start. Why not leave the building completely and visit, say, a museum? In a museum, you can discover things and talk about them – especially if you have no idea what they are: ceramic tiles in which a surah from the Qu’ran is written in Arabic calligraphy, an opium pipe made from tortoise shell – even a fearsome photograph from the 1930s, depicting a Haitian zombie. 

From time to time, Walter brought his pupils to the Johann Jacobs Museum. The museum, tiny as it is, somehow feels less threatening than other more imposing museums usually do. For Walter’s pupils, we take objects out of their vitrines and pass them around carefully: a Queen Victoria bust made in the 19th century by the Yoruba people, for example. No one can ignore her power. 

And yet, someone does. One boy is seemingly glued to his smart phone. I feel annoyed. I ask him,
“What is going on?”
“I sent a photo of the Queen to a friend in Lebanon.”
There is indeed a boy with a white t-shirt peering out of Wasem’s screen. He sits in what appears to be a tent and starts talking to us – in Arabic. Thanks to Wasem’s translation app, I understand his questions
“Where are you, what are you doing?”
The collective of the “Queen”, technology and a nomadic network has delivered an external visitor to the Johann Jacobs Museum. In the following weeks, this particular experience inspired us to look more closely – initially at famous Arab maps of the Mediterranean, drawn by Muhammed al-Idrisi in the 11th century.

In March, school was over. Covid-19 reigned; anxiety filled the air. The teens were left to their own devices, and thus began calling Walter. Loosely inspired by the Khan Academy, we started our own online platform. Though we did not feel entitled enough to be teachers. While we do know a few things, perhaps it is the teens who know more, and perhaps better said, more relevant things? – At this point, the idea of “Life Lines” came up: let us look together – at the various paths that had brought each of us here. A treasure trove of experiences is scattered along these paths. One Afghan boy, who had arrived in Switzerland as an unaccompanied minor, for example, was originally bound for Sweden. Not unlike Christopher Columbus, he got the destination just slightly wrong. Perhaps a better role model for this type of travelling is Ibn Battuta. He was twenty-one in 1325 when he set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca from Morocco – only to return after twenty-nine years of travelling the globe whilst “[…] dining with sultans, khans and emperors, escaping from pirates, siring children on several continents, crossing deserts, dodging the Black Death, finding employment as a quadi (judge) and courtier […]”. 

Over the course of the summer we collected data on our online platform: music the teens were listening to, as well as the music of their parents; films, memories of villages, towns and camps, of roads taken by day or night, the smell of seasons, dreams still remembered… All these data help to illuminate an individual’s encounter with history. 

“Life Lines”, the exhibition, will be an attempt to give form to the highly complex set of data which has been compiled over several months by this group of school children. Giving form is something art can do – as there is no real narrative. Narrative inevitably means coherence, which is precisely what is lacking in so many life stories in which the lines are torn apart by fate or history, or both. 

As it was said in the beginning, this is not going to be a conventional museum exhibition. It is just another beginning.

This article was written by Director of the Johann Jacobs Museum, Roger M Buergel.