HERAKUT is considered one of the most important street art duos in all of Europe for good reason. Jasmin Siddiqui (HERA) and Falk Lehmann (AKUT) of Germany create masterfully rich and poignant images with deep layers of meaning and purpose. With photo-realistic detail, their storytelling style often incorporates ancient symbolism to address modern issues. Since joining forces in 2004, HERA and AKUT painted murals throughout the world often in places of conflict, while their gallery pieces cut across multiple platforms appearing on canvas, film, sculptures, paper and other mediums. Many pieces add additional nuance with written text, while others reflect their graffiti roots with the use of spray paint. From music festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella to special events like the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebration, the art of HERAKUT has traveled the globe.
Epitomizing their drive to infuse works with deeper meaning, HERAKUT describes recent paintings as a look at “problematic social issues” both on a personal and global scale. “For as long as we can see the problems in front of us, we stand at a good enough distance to still fix it,” they said in a statement. HERA spoke with PRØHBTD about their art and activism.
You describe your art as “storytelling,” yet you only have one frame in which to convey a beginning, middle and end. What is the key to telling a full story in a single image?
Three steps. Number one: You need a cute or beautiful creature to attract people’ attention. Number two: You let this creature wear a costume or mask that people recognize as symbols for its stand in society, e.g., ancient animal characteristics, Bible, pop culture or art history references. We choose our symbols according to our audience, as every child on earth will interpret a deer fawn as the meek and innocent, but only a certain group of people will identify Jeff Koons balloon sculptures as an empty inside, a shiny but hollow existence. Number three: You add a layer of text, content-wise crucial for creating a balance between a cute, fairy-tale like world to ours. In these texts, we like to twist people´s perceptions a bit and raise questions. There are people who say our texts are philosophical, but they would not have an impact without the emotions created by image first. It´s sometimes as if we capture your attention with beauty, make you relate to a feeling and then feed you a thought that is awkward and not easy to digest.
Do It! is a very powerful piece, and the message is clear. Was there a particular experience or event that prompted you to address the effect bad decisions can have in influencing children? (Editor's note: Do It! is the first image in the slider below.)
All kids are sponges, but some absorb more than others. Maybe those who are not challenged enough by real life, can take in more of the junk pop culture has to offer. Like myself. When I was four or five years old, my kindergarten teacher called in my parents for a serious talk about my drawings of princesses, who all of the sudden had body-builder physics and used their muscle-packed arms to wave around swords. I watched He-Man back then, which explains my princesses´ transformations pretty well. Watching Poltergeist, Terminator and then Aliens only a few years later did influence the child-me quite strongly, too. As did everything else that I connected with the adult world, a place full of threats, battles and bad people.
I very early developed the idea that there are the ruthless and the fragile, like me all other children and most of women, too, and that this second group would always lose. Pretty fucked up, right? I figured that I had to change into something tough if I wanted to survive. Very early I knew about rapists and child molesters who never got punished, Neo-Nazis who would even live in the same project building, older sadistic asshole kids who would make you watch splatter movies, etc. So many intimidating things, and I could not be unveiled as a scared little girl, so I started smoking when I was 12 and did all sorts of things to shake off that childhood fragility.
Now imagine a little absorbing girl like I was in front of the TV screen today. What messages subconsciously sink into her understanding of the world, where the biggest female players in entertainment cannot keep their clothes on and get endless attention for plain narcissist behavior. Adults, all adults and especially the ones creating kids media, are not only responsible for their own lives, but for all those kids they affect as well. We cannot rely on parents to guard their children´s minds. That is impossible. The little sponges take in everything. Therefore I want those especially who address a young audience and make money off those kids’ piggy banks, like Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, etc., to understand their responsibility. They teach those kids about the world. They teach them how to be in order to be cool and loved, feel safe and make money. They create a code of behavior. So ladies, stop creating an army of porn stars!
Animal heads are a recurring image in your artwork. What do the heads symbolize or convey?
It is the concept of anthropomorphism, and all ancient people used it long before mythology, fables and fairy tales. All cultures have used their fauna to express human psychology by attributing different human traits and characteristics to animals. We love this method because it instantly tells you what role this person is playing in society. The kid wearing the lion costume obviously has a different status than the deer fawn. Everyone gets that. We use anthropomorphism like stage costumes really. The funniest parallel between our work and real life are the Peruvian Takanakuy festival costumes, when individuals fight each other to settle conflicts and display manhood. (Editor’s note: A Peruvian Takanakuy festival costume appears in the last image in the slider above.)
On World Refugee Day in 2014, you worked with Syrian children and taught them about art in Jordanian refugee camps. What role can art play in helping a child through a trauma like the refugees experienced?
Since Spring 2014, we have worked with displaced people from different crisis areas of the world. Akut painted eight murals with kids in Gaza, and we have painted inside refugee camps in Germany. But the start of all this was the incredible time we spent in February 2014 in the North of Jordan helping the non-profit organization aptART do mural workshops with children inside the biggest refugee camp and in communities outside the camp structure. In those cities, the Syrian children have little positive contacts to local Jordanian or Palestinian kids. aptART changed that by inviting all kids in the neighborhood to paint walls together. And to actually enjoy creating something with each other´s help was the important lesson for children and their parents because usually there is resentment towards the truly overwhelming numbers of Syrians in the North of Jordan—especially because the war in Syria is nowhere near an end, even after its fifth year now. Art cannot obviously solve political problems, but at least art workshops can remind people of their own capability of creating a new world with their own hands and imagination. Even mixing blue and yellow paint and watching it become green was so satisfying for the kids to watch. Transformation is possible. Art proves that. Our job with aptART basically was to remind people of this “magic.”
You have painted murals in exotic parts of the world like Jordan, Nepal, Johannesburg, São Paulo and the Philippines. All of your artwork seems to have a message, but was there a country in which you made a special effort to have a very strong, very specific message in the art?
Working in the Arab world was more complicated in terms of forming our messages with our HERAKUT techniques because of some people’s Quran interpretations and gender issues. We saw paintings at elementary schools where the faces of the girls were crossed out. So, we decided to only paint little boys. And we knew that dogs are clearly not man’s best friend as they are considered “haram,” which means impure and filthy basically. Figurative art in general can be problematic. It is called aniconism, where there actually are Islamic proscriptions against images of beings. The creation of beings should be left to Allah, which is why Islamic art usually sticks to geometric patterns and typography. But we knew that beforehand because my father is Muslim. When I would give paintings of flowers and butterflies to my aunts in Pakistan when I was a kid, they would all end up in some drawers and never be up on the refrigerator as I was daring to copy God´s creation. Bummer. The way I see it: If God did not want me to copy his creations, he would not have given me this artistic talent.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.