Leni Sinclair was born in Königsberg, Germany in 1940, under Hitler’s reign of terror. After the war and many hardships, her family was relocated to the small farming village of Vahldorf in Soviet controlled East Germany, where opportunities were limited. When she was twelve years old Leni would listen and dream to forbidden Western music from a prized radio she won by killing the most potato bugs in the village. ”I used to sit up in our attic surrounded by thick dusty volumes of Lenin’s writing and Soviet propaganda and press my ear to the speaker,” said Leni. “I couldn’t get enough of Chuck Berry and Harry Belafonte.” Leni made her escape to the land of rock ‘n roll in 1959 with help from relatives in Detroit. “The Berlin Wall hadn’t been built yet,” said Leni, “so all I had to do was take the subway, get off in the Western sector of Berlin, and turn myself in at the refugee camp, which was the best way to get papers to come to America.”
She took a camera to America in order to stay in touch with her family and send back photos of her new home. Leni’s first job was cleaning houses in the suburbs of Detroit but she always drifted to the University area. “I wanted so badly to be a beatnik and meet others so I walked around with a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl, until I met some beats. We would hang out at the Village club to hear folk music and also the Cup of Socrates coffee house. In 1963, a group of us started the Red Door Gallery, a co-op of avant-garde art.” The Red Door gallery became a model for the Artists’ Workshop Society, another arts collective which formed the following year.
Leni often speaks of herself as a participant observer, a term used in cultural anthropology as someone documenting observations, or doing research while actively working within the population under study. She was a propagandist of ‘Rainbow Nation’ and her photographs are some of the essential records of this mythic time. Leni’s story is a unique journey, from the repression of Nazism and Communism to participating in some of the defining moments of the turbulent ‘60s.
This exhibition is curated by Curator of Contemporary Art Josef Zimmerman.