Wiedikon Train Station

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

How do the murals at the train station in Wiedikon convey racism and colonialism, and what effect does this have on us today?

Written by Duo Ryser+Schonfeldt; read by Michèle Breu & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

There are two murals in the entrance hall of the Wiedikon train station. They were painted in 1927 by graphic artist Otto Baumberger, as advertising for the Jelmoli department store.

One of the murals depicts three well-dressed, white women looking at fabric with a white salesperson consulting them. There is also a white child reading a book, and another playing with a wooden train set. The mural on the opposite side shows three “people of color” offering colonial goods such as tea, tropical fruit, and a carpet. They represent different regions that supplied Switzerland with colonial goods in the 1920s. Unlike the figures on the first mural, these three figures are shown frontally, facing the viewer directly to offer their goods. 

The juxtaposition of the two murals reveals the construction of the so-called “other”: The white figures are associated with books and railroads, symbolizing the alleged advances of “Western” civilization, i.e. wealth, knowledge, technology and leisure. The “people of color” stand on the sidelines. They are reduced to their clichéd roles as “carpet traders” or “fruit vendors”. Moreover, the “people of color” have little room for maneuver: They are depicted as passive participants of society, merely waiting for their goods to be bought by their active, white counterparts. 

The murals illustrate, against the backdrop of the violent imperial world order, how a racist distinction was made between a supposedly progressive “us” and a supposedly exotic “other”. This is called “othering”, a process that has inscribed itself in the thinking and actions of Swiss society to this day. How deep this goes is highlighted by the fact that the murals were lavishly restored in 1997 and were placed under preservation order together with the entire train station. 

The murals have been part of the entrance hall of the train station for over ninety years - and thus also of the Wiedikon neighborhood, a neighborhood that has been increasingly inhabited by Italian and Spanish migrant workers since the 1950s, and that is today characterized by cultural diversity. 

What effect does this racist depiction of “people of color” in the train station of Wiedikon have today, and what message do the stereotypical images convey to daily commuters? Should such racist (advertising) images be removed from public spaces, or should they remain as reminders of Switzerland’s colonial entanglements? Who defines what our cultural heritage consists of? And whose cultural heritage is excluded from this definition?

Duo Ryser+Schonfeldt is run by Vera Ryser (born 1982 in Basel) and Sally Schonfeldt (born 1983 in Adelaide, Australia). The duo has been working on research-based exhibition practice since 2015, specifically on long-term projects at the intersection of research, art and knowledge transfer. They home in on reflection and artistic representation of historiography, focusing on historical processes in postcolonial theory and feminist discourse.