Interview: Nicholas Ganz, aka Keinom, Talks Graffiti, Women, Tibet and Burma

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Nicholas Ganz, alias Keinom, is  a well known German graffiti artist and the author of some worldwide famous books. His first book, Graffiti World, was published in 2004, followed by  Graffiti Woman in 2006. He has also published several books on Burma and Nepal. Cartwheel Art’s European correspondent Rebekah Schranez talked with the artist/author/activist about graffiti, the role of female artists in art and politics, the Keinom Foundation which provides direct aid to the people of Nepal and Burma, and of course, about his journeys and experiences.

Originally you started as a graffiti artist. Don’t you feel, that the popularity of graffiti art has slightly reduced recently, as the means and channels of of communication surfaces have also basically changed, due to the internet.

I am still an artist, working in the streets and doing graffiti. The channels of communication have indeed drastically changed, which actually helped graffiti to get spread all over the planet. The popularity of graffiti has not really changed, but I think, the commercial interest has slightly decreased, because less money can be made out of graffiti. When I talk to ordinary people, I see that the popularity has not changed, some like it, some not….

In your book,  Graffiti World, published in 2004, your gave a comprehensive overview about the graffiti habits of several countries. What kind of new directions can you see in graffiti art now? Where is it now, and what do you think about its future?

Graffiti is an ever-changing culture. It is extremely difficult to create a new direction in a culture, but within graffiti,new styles are permanently appearing.

You especially highlight the female artists. To what extent do you think their art differs from the males’? What are their special characteristics, regarding the colours, the subjects, or the motivation?

There is actually no such difference between male and female art. When you see a piece in the streets you will never consider whether it is done by a male or a female artist. I realized, that the motivation for a female graffiti artist is not far away from that of men, some do it for the fame, some for money, some want to vandalise something, some have a clear message to bring out to the public, and so forth. What highly differs is the way women get respect in this culture. Which is actually not different from the way women are generally treated in the human society. Rumours get spread about the women in graffiti, they have it harder to get recognised or get respected and, so forth.

What is you new book about? About history, spirituality, individual destinies, or conflicts?

In spring of 2015 my new book Street Messages will be published. It presents graffiti and street artists, who exclusively or partly work with text or written messages in public spaces. It will be the first book presenting this unique art-form.

 Two of your volumes are dealing with the history of Burma, introducing the habits, customs, and traditions of the Shan nation. What  influenced you to start dealing with Asia, especially Burma? Were you searching for philosophy, values, or special individual destinies?

My intention to go to Burma was mainly to discover the effects of the military dictatorship on ordinary people and to document the civil war. This country has been neglected in the media. Especially in Germany it is misunderstood and the media follows the government’s state of mind, which is certainly not matching with reality, that for example, I have discovered first hand. So I wanted to go there to document and understand the situation by myself. Graffiti is a political act and I came from a political background to start with graffiti. To go to Burma and to live with refugees in the civil-war zones, and to bring some light into their life seemed somehow a logical step for me. I published a book about the whole country of Burma, and an other one, where I describe a journey through Shan State, describing the life, culture, history and suffering of the Shan people.

To what extend do you think your foundation is able to help the Shan nation?

A foundation, or even my foundation can never help any nations or can never solve a problematic situation in a country. Our help-organisation is supporting the refugees from Burma and Tibet. They have to suffer from the effects, that their government creates. As a help-organisation we can only take care for the suffering, trying to limit the suffering, caused by governments, companies or foreign nations. The political solution will not be solved by humanitarian help. It is also not the aim of a humanitarian help. Even political engagement is not helping either. Not from our Western countries. I have experienced this with political groups being engaged in the Burma and Tibet issue for decades. It has not brought much change to the people there at all. I don’t see a free Tibet or any real changes in Burma so far. The worst problem is, when you try to lobby for these countries in your own country. I experienced that our German government is not following the voices of the ordinary, grass-root people at all. They follow the ideas of their government consultants, which are sometimes very far away from reality, because they don’t work in the field, they work from their office. During the long time, that I have spent in the refugees villages, I have never seen one single government officers, and I know there has never been one coming to them. Governments tend to follow what companies suggest and in most cases money drives political ideas of governments.
For example, no country can allow to take harsh steps against China to respect human rights, because they would loose cheap labour in China.

How instructive and useful do you think the history of such an ethnic group, or the 50-year-long civil war in Burma could be for the European or American people?

When I work on a book, I don’t think or care about its financial effects, popularity that may shine on me, or how much it may interest people. I do my work, because I must do it. People all over the world can learn a lot from each other. Hearing voices and seeing the life of other people from very distant places can inspire you or can change your life. Being in the war-zones of Burma and living among the refugees changed my life indeed. Especially we people in Europe or in the Western countries have lost our social values, and our spiritual soul. As mentioned before, writing about the longest ongoing civil-war in this world, that is not discovered by the media, is also a matter to inform the people here in Europe. The second issue why to write such a book is truth. Some journalists spent just one week there, where I spent months to make my research, and the outcome is a false description of reality. I have spend months among these people and lived with them, made uncountable interviews, talked to these people and tried to bring their voice to light and not my own vision on them. This is the difference indeed.

Your next issue is dealing with the Tibetans in Nepal. Do you think Tibet is still existing, or it is just part of China?

Tibet is still existing – it is, sure. It did not disappear from the Himalayas as far as I know. It is actually being exhausted by the Chinese government that realises the economical potential of this country with its natural resources. When I was in Nepal among the Tibetan refugees, I found a Tibet there too, which was still surviving among their communities, because they are not allowed to live their own culture in their homeland any more.

What do you think it means for Tibet that the Dalai Lama resigned his reincarnation?

I don’t know what it really means for the country of Tibet. However, I am worried when there is no Dalai Lama any more, that the support for the Tibet issue may get less, but we hope not, and the Tibetans will get their homeland one day.

In your book on Burma, there are some interviews with their local representative. Are you planning to make an interview with the Dalai Lama as well?

Making interviews with the Dalai Lama is extremely difficult, because of his health and his lack of time. Actually, I am preparing a book about the Tibet issue, but I am not planning to interview H.H. the Dalai Lama, because it is not necessary for me and for the book. I am mostly dealing with ordinary people and the Tibetan refugees.


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