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16.9.2023 – 4.2.2024

Black and white photo: Louis Armstrong stands on a stage playing the trumpet. Other musicians are only vaguely indicated in front of the black background.

I’ve Seen the Wall is an exhibition about the legendary concert tour Louis Armstrong made through the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1965, and also about the power of music, beyond walls and politics—a power that Louis Armstrong believed in his entire life.

It was to a West German journalist’s question of whether Armstrong had seen the Wall that the musician answered succinctly with a serious expression: “I’ve seen the Wall. . . . I don’t worry about the Wall, I worry about the audience. . . . I can’t say what I wanna say, but if you’ll accept it, I’ll say it: Forget about all that other bullshit!”¹

In the midst of the Cold War, the African American jazz musician performed in East Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, and Schwerin. The tour was very tightly scheduled with seventeen concerts in only nine days. With a capacity of no less than 2,000 to 3,000 seats, the venues were very quickly sold out—approximately 45,000 people experienced Louis Armstrong and his All Stars live in the GDR.

This historical moment is the starting point for an art exhibition that explores the ambivalence of Armstrong’s official invitation by the Künstler-Agentur der DDR (Artists’ Agency of the GDR) against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the United States and the Iron Curtain in Europe.

Central questions raised by the exhibition are: What does it mean to tour the world and visit oppressive systems and dictatorships in the name of freedom? What does it mean to repeatedly experience recognition and racism on the road and then to return home to be yet again confronted with racism?

Armstrong’s appearance in the GDR was a sign of freedom, even if only for the duration of the performance— a sobering observation that has been true for centuries in regard to Black music. Experiencing the love and admiration of the public on the stage contradicts the difficulties that the musicians were, and continue to be, confronted with backstage. Can love and hate, worldwide success and oppression, recognition and racism coexist?

I’ve Seen the Wall assembles paintings, photographs, archival materials, and installations by Terry Adkins, Louis Armstrong, Pina Bausch, Romare Bearden, Peter Brötzmann, Darol Olu Kae, Norman Lewis, Glenn Ligon, Jason Moran, Gordon Parks, Dan Perjovschi, Adrian Piper, Evelyn Richter, Lorna Simpson, Willi Sitte, Wadada Leo Smith, Rosemarie Trockel, Andy Warhol, and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt.

Material will also be exhibited from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, as well as from the holdings of the Sammlung Berliner Verlag / Archiv and the Agentur DDR Fotoerbe, including photographs by Kurt Böttger, Manfred Dressel, Christa Hochneder, Volkhard Kühl, Tassilo Leher, Peter Leske, Helmut Raddatz, and Horst E. Schulze.

Parallel to the exhibition, three icons, renowned worldwide—Andy Warhol, the Mona Lisa, and Louis Armstrong—meet together in INTERPLAY NO. 4. In DAS MINSK’s cabinet, Andy Warhol’s Mona Lisa Four Times (1978) from the Hasso Plattner Collection is juxtaposed with an original trumpet from the holdings of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. A famous quotation from Louis Armstrong connects them: “A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.”²

The exhibition I’ve Seen the Wall was curated by Paola Malavassi and Jason Moran. Moran brings the perspective of an artist and musician, Malavassi that of an art historian and music enthusiast. Moran sees the events from the stage and backstage because he knows what it means to tour around the world. Malavassi, on the other hand, looks out from the museum and the audience in the concert hall. Together, they decided to develop an exhibition that brings the audience backstage in order to take a closer look at the complexities of the production and reception of music, politics, and racism.

The curators have transferred the curtain from the old Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin, which they only know from black-and-white photographs, from imagination to reality, and have installed it in front of the exhibition spaces as an invitation to go backstage together and look and listen more closely.

Text: Paola Malavassi

The exhibition was curated by Paola Malavassi and Jason Moran.

“I’ve seen the Wall. . . . I don’t worry about the Wall, I worry about the audience. . . . I can’t say what I wanna say, but if you’ll accept it, I’ll say it: Forget about all that other bullshit!”

Louis Armstrong

Image gallery

Louis Armstrong Image Gallery

The accompanying podcast for the exhibition.


Artworks in the exhibition


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