Comrade Birnberg and the arts

by Liane Birnberg

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


Photo: Ivette Löcker

My mother wanted to turn me into the violinist she would have liked to have been herself. At home I had to practice for hours while other children played in the street. My books and notes at music school were always full of doodles, which made my teachers indignant. My childhood was very difficult because there was always a gloomy atmosphere at home. My parents survived the concentration camp, but they never talked about it with my sister and me. We were never allowed to enter the room when other survivors visited them.

In general, I was a very shy girl. That changed when I studied musicology and composition at the Bucharest Conservatory. Along with four fellow students I played in Europe’s first women's pop band: “Venus L”. I sang, composed, arranged, wrote the lyrics. Being in charge of the band gave me a lot of self-confidence. I felt liberated, it was like a revolution!

I played in Europe’s first women's pop band

Because we couldn't afford any instruments, I played tambourine instead of piano at first. The dean warned me: “Dear Comrade Birnberg, don't waste your talents. I trust you will find the right path.” Pop music was still frowned upon in the late 1960s. On top of that, we were invading a male domain. Nevertheless, we managed to become famous. We performed live, on television and on the radio. One television show was cancelled because some of our lyrics were not politically acceptable. I love classical music and I have often been involved with new music. But the time I spent in "Venus L" was my most wonderful time ever.

In 1977 I visited my sister in Cologne, who had left Romania legally a few years before. One day after my arrival there, a severe earthquake struck Bucharest. Many of my friends were among the victims. My father asked me not to return. I was sent to a transit camp near Dortmund. There I received a German passport, which was effectively my new identity. This was possible because my parents came from Czernowitz, meaning their mother tongue was German. I worked as a music teacher in Cologne, learned German at the Goethe Institute and met my future husband there.

Slowly I found my way as an artist

In 1981 he became head of the language department of the Goethe Institute in Lagos, Nigeria, which sparked my great interest in the fine arts began. I met the artist Bruce Onobrakpeya, whom I admired very much. I began to draw and became engrossed in my painting. A year later we moved to Atlanta, USA, where I studied art with Katherine Mitchell. Slowly I found my way as an artist.

Then my son was born. After his birth my rheumatism, which I had been suffering from for quite some time, got worse. My two knees were operated on at the same time. My first year as a mother was terrible, because I could hardly take care of my son. He was four years old when we came to Berlin in 1988. Here I worked as a music teacher in a Jewish private school, at the same time I painted and had many exhibitions at home and abroad. Living here I sometimes I realize that I come from a southern country. I need tenderness, that people hug each other. In every country where I lived, I absorbed what was good for me. I think I am simply a person of the world.

I need tenderness, that people hug each other

During the Corona lockdown I was crazy enough to move to a new studio. For thirty years I had worked in my old studio, but suddenly they tripled the rent. I wrote to the culture senator saying I found it impossible how artists were being treated. At first I didn't want to go to the new studio. I was very afraid of moving, of packing and sorting out. My husband said you cannot live without your art, you have to take it. The corona-virus situation depresses me. Many friends have submerged themselves and do not get in touch. For two months I was paralyzed. At the moment I work on paper. I work abstractly, I never wanted to depict reality, I instead look for my own, it is like a detail that is always abstract. The music which I am so strongly connected to is also abstract. The writer John Berger, with whom I have created several books, always said: “I can't look at your paintings without listening to them.”

As told to Ivette Löcker

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