UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 01 Fall 14 Library
Photo: Emma Terry

The Berlin Wall

On a sunny April afternoon last spring, a large crowd gathered to get a first look at a rare piece of history that has come to simultaneously represent decades of unyielding repression and a remarkable day celebrating the pure elation of freedom.

Actually, make that four pieces.

Four panels of the Berlin Wall, measuring a total of 16 feet in length and 12 feet in height and weighing more than 8,000 pounds, were unveiled on April 11th on the quad adjacent to Alderman Library and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The installation serves as the centerpiece of a year-long celebration of that unforgettable day, November 9, 1989, when the whole world looked on to witness the power of the human spirit to triumph over oppression and to celebrate those unalienable rights which Thomas Jefferson so famously championed and cherished.

The unquenchable thirst for freedom, and the undeniable power of the human spirit
Jody Kielbasa

The story of the wall is as clear as the two sides of stone seen in one of the sections. On one side is graffiti artist Dennis Kaun’s “Kings of Freedom.” It features a dynamic and brightly-colored king representing the joy of newfound freedom alongside a more monochromatic monarch whose crown is covering his eyes, making him blind to the wrongs of the oppression of a regime now forever on the wrong side of history. The same disparity is seen by looking at either side of the wall. Kaun’s colorful work is juxtaposed with the sterile gray stone that stared back at East Germans for decades.

“It seems appropriate that a panel of the toppled Berlin Wall should stand here at Thomas Jefferson’s university for a time,” said University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan. “The Berlin Wall stood as a barrier to freedom for nearly 30 years during the Cold War, and when it finally fell, it did not fall on its own. It was torn down by people who were energized by the principles of individual freedom and universal human rights.”

(Photo: Emma Terry)

The installation is on loan to the University from Robert Hefner and his wife MeiLi, of the Oklahoma City-based organizations the Robert and MeiLi Hefner Foundation and the Hefner Collection, which focuses on contemporary Chinese art. The Hefners’ extensive philanthropic efforts are largely focused on advancing peace across the world through encouraging cross-cultural education and understanding. In 1990, inspired by the power of the scenes the whole world had witnessed and celebrated, Hefner sent a representative to purchase a section of the Berlin Wall.

“Remember,” Hefner told the sun-splashed crowd at the opening event, “it’s the people who tore down the wall. What a great expression of the power of personal freedom and courage. When the Wall came down, it was an enormous geopolitical earthquake that unleashed waves of events around the world, the aftershocks of which we’re still feeling today.”

The University is deeply engaged in the effort to explore and understand that impact through a variety of programs presented throughout the year, including those conceived and presented by the Miller Center for Public Affairs and the U.Va. Center for Politics. In addition, the celebration will include important contributions from the Department of Art, the Department of Drama, the Center for German Studies, the School of Architecture, the Department of Music, American Studies, the Dance Program, and the Corcoran Department of History. The celebration concluded with a week-long commemoration leading up to the November 9 anniversary that featured a variety of events and presentations highlighted by a series of films, discussions and special guests at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival.

“The response to the installation and the related events has been extraordinary,” said Jody Kielbasa, Vice Provost for the Arts at the University and Director of the Virginia Film Festival. “This installation, and the array of programs and presentations that accompanied it, stimulated ongoing and robust conversations around and examination of one of the seminal moments in modern world history. This literal piece of history serves as a powerful reminder to our entire University community of the unquenchable thirst for freedom, and the undeniable power of the human spirit.”

Kings of Freedom
© 2014 The Hefner Collection, LLC
Read the next story

Ruth Caplin Tribute