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“Coexistence” comes to Bern

One artist used symbols to show how religious groups can coexist

Against the background of continuing violence in the Middle East, a travelling Israeli exhibition has arrived in Bern with the hopeful message of harmony, tolerance and respect.

The unique exhibition entitled simply “Coexistence” came to the Swiss capital via Jerusalem, Belfast and Sarajevo.

For the next three weeks, 30 original billboard posters, designed by artists from all over the world, and sponsored by the United Nation’s cultural arm, Unesco, will be on display in front of Bern’s cathedral, before they move on to cities as far apart as Copenhagen, Cape Town, Paris and New York.

The larger than life works of art range from a Benetton-like image of a black hand interlocked with a white hand to a montage of multi-coloured faces in the style of Picasso.

Museum on the Seam

The exhibition is the brainchild of Raphie Etgar, curator of the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem.

Etgar’s ambition was to create an artistic platform from which to show how different people can live side by side in harmony.

The idea for the mobile gallery has its roots in the Middle East conflict, but was in the pipeline long before the recent escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Etgar believes that the exhibition’s message is now more poignant than ever.

“The situation has escalated to a point where we have to stop and ask ourselves questions,” Etgar told swissinfo.

“There is not only one voice coming from Israel or from the Palestinians. There are many voices, but they are overshadowed by the extreme voice, which is heard,” he added.

He believes the exhibition can offer people food for thought on the subject of conflict by focusing on the issue of coexistence.

Swiss-Israeli association

Vreni Müller-Hemmi, a Swiss parliamentarian and head of the Swiss-Israeli Association, invited Etgar to bring his “Coexistence” exhibition to Bern over a year ago.

She told swissinfo that it was important to bring the display to the Swiss capital because the message of peaceful coexistence behind the posters was a reflection of how her association felt about the Middle East conflict.

“We are for freedom,” she told swissinfo. “We are for the existence of a Palestinian state because only this will guarantee security for Israel. We have always said the politicians should go back to the negotiating table.”

International competition

The foundations for the exhibition were first laid two years ago, when Etgar launched a competition to find posters for his travelling display. More than 200 artists from all over the world submitted entries, which were eventually whittled down to just 30 by an international panel of judges.

The chosen artists come from as far afield as Japan, Chechnya and Zimbabwe.

Switzerland also makes an appearance in the exhibition, courtesy of K D Geissbühler’s simple black and white interpretation of coexistence between the sexes.

Etgar and his jury were careful to select a variety of images to reflect how the theme of coexistence can be portrayed in different ways.

While some of the posters on display focus on the idea of harmony between the sexes, others concentrate on the theme of how different religious groups can live side-by-side.

Violent past

The exhibition has already been on display in cities with violent pasts, both at home in Jerusalem and on tour in Belfast and Sarajevo.

Etgar is quick to point out that a country’s history affects the city’s reaction to the poster display.

“In these kind of places people are so involved with the violence, terror and misery, that [this kind of] art feels distant,” he says.

“They tend to regard it rather cynically. But on the other hand places like Bern and Luxembourg, where we’ve just been, received it in a completely different way. [For them] coexistence means something completely different.”

Organisers say the theme of the exhibition is universal and its message open to interpretation.

Hemmi believes the posters offer a political message to neutral Switzerland.

“We are confronted with coexistence problems because we are a multicultural society,” she says. “We live with minorities so we have to work at integration and coexistence.”

Coexistence vs conflict

Beneath one of the posters is a quote from the former West German secretary of state, Ralph Dahrendorf.

It reads: “Wherever there is human life in society, there is conflict. Societies do not differ in that some have conflicts and others not; societies and social units only differ in the violence and intensity of conflicts.”

Conflict may be everywhere, Dahrendorf suggests, but those behind the exhibition believe coexistence can be equally universal.

“Coexistence” can be seen on Bern’s Münsterplatz until May 10.

by Sally Mules

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR