The German connection

me with my brother, Giles, Svea Gustavs on the far left,
 her cousin Katharina and brother Ture on the right
Sadisdorf, East Germany, 1983
Pinhole Camera Photo by Burghard Junghans

There are many improbabilities in this life, those events that make your head spin in wonder and even awe, until you remember the miraculousness of being here at all, held down feet-first by gravity to this orbiting sphere in a corner of the universe.  One such event in my life was when I traveled from South Carolina to communist East Germany in 1983, (yep - 3 1/2 months before the simulated war game Able Archer between the US and Soviet Union).

War games were far from our minds - my family were there for the celebration of Martin Luther's 500th birthday, my father having been invited as a Protestant Church historian and Luther scholar.  So while he and my mother attended the Luther Congress in Erfurt, my brother and I went with the children and niece and nephew of his East German colleague to a tiny village called Sadisdorf, way up in the Ore Mountains close to the Czechoslovakian border.  Here we stayed for a week with the parents of this colleague's wife, six kids from the age of 9 to 16 or 17, essentially on holiday with the grandparents out in the country.  I had visited East Germany already once and met this family then, in 1979, at their home in Leipzig.  That was of course mind-blowing to my ten-year-old self, getting searched on the train by men with guns and experiencing first hand the sensory standouts of flat coca-cola, no deodorant or dish soap, scratchy toilet paper, cars with no mufflers, sonic booms and every exterior surface black with coal dust.

So I wasn't all newbie and naive this time around, but because I was in the countryside, it was a completely different experience.  True, there was another set of things to get used to: no indoor plumbing - well, there was a faucet in the kitchen that had running water, though I tried once that week to wash my hair and it took several hours as the water flow was so slow.  I got used to pooping in a hole in a bench in a room down the hall because the best toilet is, after all, the closest one.  And there was very little English spoken, since the kids were all schooled in Russian as a second language not English, like in West Germany, and no parents were around to translate.  My German was passable but even so, it took a fair amount of drawing, charading and atlas consultation for me to finally answer that no, there were no hippopotamuses in South Carolina.  Still, in contrast to my visit in 1979, this world felt like a haven, as long as we stayed within the bounds of the forest to pick our raspberries and mushrooms (not veering too close to the Czech border where guards were watching eerily), or stayed in the back yard to play duck duck goose and eat homemade Einback in the afternoon shade.  Three years later I would find myself in another haven of berries and mushrooms, in the Southern Appalachians, and realize in an odd, liminal way, that I had come home.

What does this all have to do with a textile blog?  About a month ago, I received in the mail the books below: the exhibition catalog for this year's Rijswijk Textile Biennial and a gorgeous volume on Jorinde Gustavs sent to me by Svea Gustavs, the girl in the picture above on the left.  Aside from being an artist herself, Svea now has her own publishing company in Amsterdam, designed the Rijswijk catalog for the now well- celebrated biennial, and edited and published the book on Jorinde Gustavs, her mother, who is a renowned German textile and installation artist.

Even though Svea and I stayed in touch over the years, I had no idea that her mother was a textile artist, nor that she was involved in risqué critique of the communist government through her work. Receiving these books takes me back to that time 34 years ago which feels so distant as to be unreal and then swings me right into my own textile-making present, linking the ends into a circle now discernible to me only after the passage of time.