Dörte Berner: The silent world of Stone

"What words can do justice to such an active life of creating, to such boundless energy to keep creating?"

We live in a world of sensory overload. We’re flooded daily with visuals and soundbites. Most of them are quick snaps made in an instant, shared, glimpsed – and forgotten. Finding notable creativity in this avalanche of imagery can be difficult. Both individuality and creativity tend to be buried in the flood.

In this setting it may come as a surprise to hear of an artist still sculpting stone by hand, slowly, meticulously – and relentlessly for more than six decades. Dörte Berner is a pioneer of Namibian visual art doing just that.

In his song Breathless the Canadian songwriter William Prince sings that it ‘takes so much to be marveled in this day and age [because] every road’s been followed [and] every mistake’s been made’. Yet the singer notes that even so, he’s ‘… never heard a song sung quite like Elvis’.

Clearly, some cultural contributions remain unique, even immortal, in our overcrowded days.

While Dörte Berner may not be amongst the ‘rock stars’ of international sculpture, I’ve never seen a sculpture done quite like Dörte’s. And Dörte is, unarguably, a trailblazer of Namibian sculpture. She broke new ground with her unique vision and energy and technique. She showed us a new way to see ourselves. Being a slender, beautiful woman creating huge pieces that may weigh over half a ton, made her more revolutionary still.

Dörte remains undeterred by today’s digital diversions. She does not have an Instagram account or YouTube channel. Her work creates a permanence that digital can never achieve. Her sculptures stand in public spaces in Windhoek and adorn private collections around the world. Her work has long been part of the Namibian school curriculum. The permanent exhibition at her Home of Sculptures at Farm Peperkorrel southeast of Windhoek now houses the largest single collection of her work.

More than half a century of shaping stone with hammer and chisel requires a single-minded focus. Dörte has been driven to sculpt ever since, as a 14-year-old refugee in Germany, she saw a mason at work and discovered the concept of sculpting stone. Dörte did not follow an existing road, but forged her own path through life and art. Dörte Wunsch was born in Pozna in today’s Poland, from where her family was forced to flee to Germany during World War 2. After completing her studies, Dörte emigrated to Namibia with her husband Volker Berner in 1966. On the edge of the Red Kalahari in the isolation of rural Namibia, she found her personal vision – though always with an eye on the world.

Dörte has produced over 350 works, and has held more than 40 exhibitions across four continents. What words can do justice to such an active life of creating, to such boundless energy to keep creating?

In the stunning documentary My Octopus Teacher, Craig Foster points out that most people can’t understand how someone can go back to explore the same place each and every day for years – but it soon becomes clear that this is where the true rewards are, this is how we become one with a domain. It’s an approach that can apply to many aspects of our existence. It certainly applies to Dörte.

I’ve at times been critical of such single-minded focus. Yet I’ve come to understand and value it. At times I long for that – to experience all the seasons, all the nuances, all hours of the day and all the days of the year in one place, exploring one realm. But I’m a wanderer, a nomad who has never settled in one space. And so I admire Dörte for her dedication and resilience, for spending her life as a denizen of the silent world of stone, exploring it in forever new ways year after year for a lifetime.

In recent years, Dörte has often alluded to her mortality, the need to have her things in order – all the while continuing to work unwaveringly on the next new piece. Another rock music parallel comes to mind: In the music documentary It might get loud, Jimmy Page, the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist (who still plays guitar each day at 76), when contemplating the day he might no longer be able to pick up a guitar said, ‘We’re just trying to keep that day far away and out of sight’.

It’s this dedication to creativity, to staying active and young and innovative and inspired at heart, to living life with intensity and passion each day, that has always been a part of Dörte’s outlook.

Dörte’s book Stein ist Stille – Beyond the Silence looks back on a singular life of sculpture. To call it a career is to categorise it by waypoints of achievement. It is something more. It is a profound, lifelong exploration of the human condition, an expression of our being, again and again from new, more nuanced points of view. The Home of Sculptures is Dörte’s Graceland. Sculpture is, after all, a lot like music – it reaches us on a level that is deeper than words.

Text and photogtaphy by:

Helge Denker