Dresden’s Academy of Fine Arts, the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (HfBK), was a centre of art pedagogy in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). While socialist realism remained the paradigm endorsed by the state, from the 1970s onwards, the administration of the academy insisted on protecting artistic sovereignty and supported the student’s autonomous explorations. The academy’s history of experimentation is also a history of migration and exchange. This selection of artworks by students and teachers from the HfBK archive, produced during their time at the academy, offers a glimpse into the web of encounter and the biographies of many that traversed the academy until 1989.

Abed Abdi boasts a large body of work comprised of graphics, drawings, and paintings. Arriving to the GDR from Haifa in 1964 by way of the Communist Youth Alliance, Abdi studied graphic arts and mural-making at the HfBK between 1964 and 1971. Images of loss, refuge, and resistance—informed by his own experience of forced displacement during the Nakba of 1948—appear throughout his early student works and thread through his later paintings and sculptures.

During his time at the HfBK, Abdi undertook special training, working closely under the guidance of visual artist Lea Grundig. Together with her husband Hans, who had passed away before Abdi’s arrival, the German-Jewish Grundig taught generations of artists at the HfBK until her death in 1977. Grundig had returned to Europe in 1948 after fleeing as an exile from Nazi Germany to Palestine in 1940. In the two drawings featured in this collection, Grundig, a long-time communist, critiques neoliberalism and its accelerated industries as she depicts the violence of militarism, automation, and pharmaceutical industrialization.

1972 saw the graduation of Sami Hakki who studied mural-making at the HfBK following his studies at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Following his time in Dresden, Hakki returned to Baghdad where he continued to work as an artist and joined as a teacher the then newly-established Department for Graphic Arts at the Institute. His studies can be read as part of a longer term relation between the Iraqi art scene and the East German cultural milieu—in 1965, the first major exhibition of Iraqi graphic arts (including woodprints, lithographs, and others) travelled from Baghdad to the National Gallery in East Berlin, marking one of the first Iraqi collective exhibitions to be held abroad. Hakki and Abdi both inscribed their time in Dresden with two plaster murals that remain at the HfBK until today as in-situ markers of their studies in the GDR but also of the programme for mural-making which ended in 1990.

Martha Ketsela’s Das Glück der Erde—a publication of aphorisms and woodcut prints—was the result of an internship she completed at the HfBK in 1980. The internship was planned after an earlier trip by the artist from Addis Ababa to East Berlin in 1978—the year marking the establishment of a cultural agreement between Ethiopia and the GDR. On the last sheet of Ketsela’s publication, she credits Hernando León, the HfBK teacher who advised her training.

León himself came to Dresden from Chile as a student from 1958 to 1961 and returned to the GDR in 1974 taking on a role as an HfBK teacher. During this time, he expanded his practice to set-design, sculpture, and film and was involved in various political actions, especially during and after 1989. He remains in Dresden today.

These traces of migrant student life at the HfBK point to the broader cultural agreements and exchanges between the GDR and its allies while also uncovering the voices of those who practised, lived, and exchanged through the languages of the visual and the aesthetic.

Works in the exhibition (From Left to Right): Sami Hakki, untitled (year unknown), reproduction of a lithograph, 50.1 cm × 37.1 cm; Abed Abdi, Abschied [Farewell] (1978), reproduction of a lithograph, 49.9 cm × 60.6 cm; Abed Abdi, untitled (year unknown), reproduction of a lithograph, 61.1 cm × 50.1 cm; Abed Abdi, untitled (year unknown), reproduction of a lithograph, 61 cm × 50 cm; Abed Abdi, untitled (1967), reproduction of a lithograph, 37.5 cm × 38.9 cm; Abed Abdi, untitled (1966), reproduction of a lithograph), 52.2 cm × 37.0 cm; Abed Abdi, untitled (year unknown), reproduction of a lithograph 50.0 cm × 37.6 cm Lea Grundig, Fragen und Mahnungen [Questions and reminders] (1965), reproduction of an etching (1965), 50.0 cm × 32.0 cm; Lea Grundig, BRD Aufrüstung in B= u. C=Waffen [BRD rearmament in B= and C=weapons] (1971), reproduction of an etching , 50.5 cm × 65.0 cm; Hernando León, untitled (1977), reproduction of a screen print, 54.8 cm × 68.4 cm; Martha Ketsela, Das Glück der Erde. Aphorismen und Holzschnitte von Martha Ketsela [The happiness of the earth. Aphorisms and woodcuts by Martha Ketsela] (1980), reproductions of woodcuts from the cover and eight sheets of a book printed in the graphic workshops of the HfBK Dresden, each 53.4 cm × 30.9 cm. All courtesy of Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden