AKUT: The authenticity of art

Apr. 2021

Akut, whose real name is Falk Lehmann, is known throughout the world for his street art. As a photographer and graffiti artist, he brings together both disciplines in impressive works of photorealism. He usually focuses on motifs with a socially critical undertone with the aim of sensitising the beholder. We talked to Akut about a very special project carried out for the PAT ART LAB and the PATRIZIA Foundation: the Ziegelhof Mural.

Hello Akut. Tell us about the beginnings of your art. What motivated you to make a profession out of it?

In my early days, my immediate sphere of influence was very restricted. I was a teenager in a small town in Thuringia in East Germany, the former GDR. It was a very sheltered childhood and lovely. I never lacked anything, and I always felt confident that one day, as an adult, I would travel the world. I was the second eldest, living in the same house as my parents and grandparents, so I didn’t get noticed much. I could generally do as I pleased and quite early on that turned out to be painting. The fact that my painting ended up being graffiti was shaped by my social environment. There was an association, Villa K, which still exists today and is actually located in an old villa in my hometown, and even in those days it was the place to go for us teenagers. You got to know a lot of different groups of sprayers, breakdancers, hiphoppers and punks, and somewhere in the middle of all that was me. In those days, the only graffiti artists I knew were those around me or the really big ones. For me, the whole scene was a place of refuge, somewhere I could be alone in my thoughts, as it probably still is for lots of people now. But I had no real desire to do conventional graffiti or art in a broader sense. I just painted what I saw – and that was people. There was no plan that painting would eventually become my profession; it just happened. But I’m glad it did, because I’m really grateful to be able to earn a living doing what I love. At one point I did veer towards another plan and I started studying architecture in Erfurt. But when I was there, I was very quickly encouraged to ‘go and do art’. At the time, I wasn’t that sure where painting would lead me and I wanted to have a plan B and do something down-to-earth like an apprenticeship, so I switched to visual communication at Bauhaus Universität in Weimar. Of course, my parents were more supportive of that. But I was also able to combine my studies with painting as part of my graffiti crew, Ma’Claim.

The creation of the Ziegelhof Murals in fast motion:

What motivated you to specialise in photorealistic graffiti and murals?

Painting figures allowed me to express myself better than classic graffiti styles. That said, I wanted to create figures that are more vivid and I succeeded by making them as real and photorealistic as possible. In those days this was a complete novelty within the graffiti movement, and because I had a hand for it and it was also the best way to achieve the desired effect, I stuck with it. This mix of figures and lettering became a kind of trademark for Ma’Claim. For me, creating motifs on a computer and only painting them together afterwards was a logical process, but nothing like that had been done in the scene before. Even something like that was new. It quickly caused shock waves and resulted in us being invited to jams and festivals in all kinds of places. Looking back, I think we were simply lucky that the things I enjoyed doing and the methods were still so unique, but that’s what opened all the doors for us.

Painting on really big walls came later when I started the street art duo, Herakut, and you could kind of see it as the upper echelon, a good way to get noticed. Scaling a wall like that is always a bit of a challenge, and every time I do it I still have a great deal of respect for what’s happening. But it’s an unbelievably pleasant feeling working day after day on a painting in some weird and wonderful place, with the wind and weather around you, having to paint something like a portrait on a five-storey building. It takes a huge amount of concentration and I just like being focused in this state of flow, with the headphones on and good music. It’s a kind of freedom that I’ve managed to create for myself and I want to keep it. Being able to do something I really enjoy, leaving something behind that moves people – it just feels right to me, especially if you think about the number of people who go about a job they don’t find fulfilling.

 

Why is it so important to you to deal with social issues in your art?

With Ma’Claim I achieved fame far beyond the borders of my homelands, in a really short time, without even planning for it to go that way. I was still relatively young and the tremendously positive feedback from within the scene motivated me and my companions to just keep going. At some point we were no longer just painting for the sake of it, we used the awareness to address issues that were critical for us. So for example at that time, it was the Arab Spring, and this is an issue that’s had consequences, ones we’re still confronted with today. Later, as a member of Herakut, I succeeded in pulling a different and even broader international audience on board and I soon realised how much the subject matter of my work can touch and really reach out to people. Although it wasn’t intentional, as the years went by an influential platform sprang up which, over time, I’ve also used consciously – and I want to continue using it. Art isn’t usually about selling things. It’s the expression of individuals, dealing with their own issues and those around them. I’m aware of this and now that I’m a father, more than any time before I have this feeling that I have to apply my artistic abilities in places where others don’t make a breakthrough – and I do this to strive for positive change. I mean honestly, I can’t really relate to all that decorative and formal ‘lovely’ art, because I think art should be capable of doing more than just look good. There are so many bad things happening in this world that sometimes you don’t know where to start. But we have to tackle all these difficult things, step by step, with everyone helping and working together. I’m absolutely convinced that everyone has the individual ability to contribute something and make a difference. And when I say that, I don’t mean just point out where the issues are or tell people off for doing things wrong, but doing something – actually becoming active. So when I use my work to point the finger at a social issue, I like to forge a link to an opportunity to do something. As the years have gone by, I’ve become part of a strong network of stakeholders from a huge variety of different areas. I’m an artist. So it’s only natural for me to use my art and my actions to be an advocate for certain issues that are important to me, such as the refugee crisis, climate change or racism. Only recently a dear friend and colleague of mine told me that my Ma’Claim book had inspired him to start painting. I’m still totally honoured to think that I’d had that effect on him, and it illustrates how art can influence people’s entire lives.

What can art do to raise awareness for issues when so many people try to look the other way?

There are enough topics of social importance or of a political nature that don’t get through to people, mainly because TV and radio stations always do things the same way they always have done, and there’s a general numbness about them. So for instance a poster campaign will always be perceived as conveying a message for the company behind it, regardless of what it’s trying to communicate. The message is immediately tinged by the relationship the viewer has with the brand. Worst case scenario, this can result in a good message not coming across properly because the image of the company or brand behind it doesn’t match. It’s not credible, so it doesn’t work. Art is capable of conveying topics differently. People react differently when art is used to level criticism – or provide pointers, or simply broach an issue – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in your face or conveyed more subtly. This is because as I mentioned earlier, usually art’s not trying to sell anything. Art is ascribed a degree of authenticity that isn’t always available to other formats. And I think that’s the key point, but it doesn’t go without saying, even for artists. Of course I also know a number of people who deliberately use social issues to achieve success – living in complete contrast to their artistic output and the way they express themselves publicly. Of course we all need money. But I think if you behave authentically the whole time, in all areas of life, which is easier than ever these days with social media around, you’re more likely to encounter people who want to keep their eyes and ears open, so when you do go out and do something, it’ll be genuine awareness you create.

Why is education such an important aspect of your work?

My worry is that education only ever becomes an issue when you’re forced to think about the discrepancies. People who have received an education but still haven’t weighed up whether it generally went well or not don’t really need to think about it. Germany has a good education system, at least in theory, because every child is allowed and even required to go to school. The intention is that everyone should learn the basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Theoretically, every child also has the opportunity to complete secondary education and study in a whole host of areas. All the options are out there. So all in all, there’s not much to fault about this theoretical plan, and in our society education is something that goes without saying. The reality is completely different, however, and this became particularly obvious during the coronavirus pandemic. Aspects such as people’s social, cultural and financial backgrounds have a significant influence on education, even in a developed society. In Germany, it only seems to work for every individual, on an equal footing, if it’s face-to-face teaching. It almost feels like the education system has only just discovered digital technology. I’ve now witnessed more than a year of homeschooling myself, with two children at primary school, and if my wife hadn’t made sure our children actually got schooling this year, they really would have foregone an entire year of education. But let’s look at it from a different angle now. In 2014 and 2015 I visited refugee camps and crisis areas in Jordan, Gaza and Bethlehem, and spent several weeks with the children and young people who live there. Working as Herakut, we ran workshops with AptArt, the NGO, and offered a glimpse of hope and joy to children after inconceivably traumatic experiences. We also spruced up their new homes, which are mostly portacabins, painted murals and simply let them be children again. What I experienced had a major influence on me and it’s had a lasting impact. Education is something that these children will be denied for many years to come, and it’s difficult to conceive how they’ll earn a living one day if what we take for granted in Germany isn’t even available to them. That made me think a lot. Education is a prerequisite for being part of society and, on a fundamental level, a prerequisite of self-determination. Independence, the unravelling of talent and seizing opportunities only work if you master the basics. And that’s why I want to stand for ensuring that in addition to basic necessities such as water, food, hygiene and medical care, children around the world also have access to education – because it’s crucial for their future.

The finished work:

What originally spawned your idea for the Ziegelhof mural?

The fundamental idea behind the Ziegelhof is extremely important – I’d almost say it’s a pilot project. I have to admit I’ve not dealt with topics like inclusion or animal-assisted therapy before. But I come from a rural background, so I know the healing effect nature and animals can have on people. I found this made it all the more exciting engaging in all the conversations and hearing the reports of how the Ziegelhof was set up and the work that goes on there. For me it was like lots of topics when you only start dealing with them because you have to, for some reason or other – it’s only then that it becomes real. That doesn’t actually change the fact that the issue is there – or in this case, the facility and the people being helped or living there. They’re part of our society, but it’s almost like they’re invisible to people who are not involved. I’ve not yet been confronted with the obstacles, difficulties and challenges of people with various kinds of disabilities, but this project has allowed me to learn a great deal about this topic, and I hope I’ll be able to visit the Ziegelhof in person once risk-free travel becomes possible again. It was important to me to capture the incredibly positive impact the Ziegelhof has on children in my mural. For them, this is a place where they can simply be who they are and be part of things and receive encouragement according to their abilities. This is a place where they get support from fellow human beings and animals, where they become self-confident and gain trust and strength, where they can look to the future with a sense of joy. I also wanted to directly integrate the many individual people who gain the prospect of a brighter future here. So I realised relatively quickly that I wanted to use a variety of individual elements from different materials and turn them into a collage to reflect different levels. What was special about the collage is that the children and the creative things they’ve worked on should be included in the mural. So the sun and the flowers on wood are basically big copies of children’s drawings. The two smaller children’s figures on cardboard are based on photos of children at the Ziegelhof. Even the horse one of the boys is lying on was originally a child’s drawing. The alpaca and the guinea pig also actually live on the farm. All of the elements that form the mural are part of the Ziegelhof, which is also stylised in the background in my mural, so they weren’t just invented for the sake of it. This is because this place does exist, as do these people in our society – who really need this place. When all parts come together, they’re a positive reflection of a supportive and functioning togetherness.

In what ways does your mural convey the vision of the PAT ART LAB in terms of ‘sustainable advancement of global education infrastructure’?

If you see education as learning the skills that are taught at school, then it doesn’t really apply to my mural. Nor is it about education infrastructure in the sense of promoting conventional educational establishments, which other projects at the PAT ART LAB and the foundation are certainly more likely to stand for. Instead, I see education as synonymous with personal development, which happens in other areas, and should be defined by skills or qualities that emerge beyond educational establishments. As personal qualities, curiosity, self-confidence, trust and assurance are innate in children – or they develop at a very early age, primarily shaped by their immediate environment. So in those terms, the family – regardless of its composition – or children’s closest contacts are also their first experience when it comes to education. This provides us with a starting point. It’s where maximum support and comfort is needed, regardless of social, cultural or financial factors. In this respect, the Ziegelhof is a pioneer, one that promotes education infrastructure in the long term – infrastructure that offers inclusion to the otherwise less noticed members of our society and provides them with the necessary support.

AKUT

 

Akut, aka Falk Lehmann, studied visual communication and graphic design at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. Since 2004 he has been working as a street artist and photographer with Hera, alias Jasmin Siddiqui, with whom he formed the internationally acclaimed duo Herakut. The art scene considers Akut an expert in surface textures and photorealistic effects, and his works deal with topics of social relevance. He uses a variety of techniques, materials, tools and methods for his works. 

PATRIZIA Child Therapy Augsburg – the Ziegelhof

The Ziegelhof therapy centre was established in 2015 and currently looks after up to 300 children and adolescents every year, offering special care or therapeutic treatment, sometimes with children’s families. In addition to counselling, occupational therapy and art therapy, the focus at the centre lies in working with animals. The PATRIZIA Foundation has built a multi-purpose building for this special form of therapy with animals. Our partner organisation, the Bunter Kreis foundation, uses the activity building to offer animal-assisted therapy at all times of the year.

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