Thursday 22 February 2018

Face Forward ...

Face Forward ... 

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, (EMST) Athens.

Face Forward... is an ambitious and  thought-provoking, interactive art project focused on the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homelands and are rebuilding their life in Greece.  The project was proposed by EMST and supported by the UK Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Twenty refugees took part in the programme. As part of the project, the participants were introduced to artworks from the Museum's collection as incentives for discussion. Some were art lovers, some were being introduced to modern art for the first time. Through this process, a series of personal narratives emerged, all very different, but with a common need to communicate. The outcome of  many months of interaction and communication, as well as the refugees'  contact with works of art from the EMST collection, is this exhibition of photographic portraits and personal narratives.

The organisers wanted to move beyond the image of refugees' lives projected in the media as one of hardship, cruelty and despair. Instead, we are invited to see each refugee as an individual, full of  hopes for their future.  The aim is to cultivate solidarity, acceptance and social cohesion. Furthermore, the notion put forward by Alma Wittlin in 1970 that 'museums are not islands in space, but have to be considered in the context of life outside their walls', was at the centre of this project.

There were a number of school groups visiting the exhibition when we were there. I listened in on this particular group for a while: having looked at the exhibition, each member had to 'introduce' one of the refugees featured in the photographs and catalogue, detailing their life in their home country, their voyage to Greece, and their hopes and aspirations.

This is an ambitious project and one that I found fascinating and extremely touching. I also found the idea of using art as triggers for discussion an excellent one.

The art works:

Janine Anton, Slumber, 1994, (maple loom, wool yarn, bed, nightgown, blanket, artist's REM reading on computer paper, REM decoder)

Kostis Velonis, Swedish Flying Carpet, 2001, (wood, fringe)

Bill Viola, The Raft, 2004, (video, sound installation)

Alexandros Georgiou, Athens, Parthenon, 2007-08, (mixed media on photograph)

Yael Kanarek, Heart in Heart, 2004, (sheer organza ribbon, two metal meat hooks, aircraft cable)

Vlassis Caniaris, Hopscotch, 1974, (6 human figures, 9 suitcases, 1 cage, tar paper base and hopscotch chalk drawing)

Kimsooja, Bottari, 2005-17, (6 bottari made from traditional Korean bed covers and used clothes from Athens and Kassel)

Bia Davou, Sails, 1981-82, (fabric, ink)

Do-Ho Suh, Staircase II, 2004, (translucent nylon)

Costas Tsoclis, Portraits, 1986, (5 video projections in colour on 5 paintings with acrylic on cloth)

Mona Hatoum, Fix It, 2004, (factory fixtures and furnishings, light bulbs, programmable lighting equipment, electric cable, amplifier, mixer, 2 speakers)

The people:

As one would expect, the majority of the people who took part in the project are from Syria and most are men. I have tried to use a sample that is representative of those involved.

Ali, (40 years old), Syria

When I was informed about the Museum's programme, I was not sure I wanted to participate. I had never been to a museum and had never visited an exhibition. But something made me go to the first meeting and then to take the decision to take part...

Of the projects we saw in the Museum I was moved the most by Hopscotch by Vlassis Caniaris. I think that the work expresses all refugees. Personally, it reminded me of how I felt as soon as I arrived in Turkey. I did not know anyone, or the language and I did not know what to do, where to start and how to go on. My suitcase was the only object I could lie down on, rest and think for a while.

I identified with the man sitting on his suitcase, who looks as if he was tortured by the decision he had to take, by the dilemma of whether he should stay in his homeland or leave. I experienced this dilemma too. Deciding to leave was not easy for me. I had my doubts. I had to leave my wife and two daughters behind. This doubt still exists deep inside. Even now, I sometimes think I shouldn't have left them. But if my one hand was burdened by the concern for my wife and children, preventing me from leaving, the other hand was pulled by the need not to take part in such a war. I dislike violence. I do not want to hold a weapon. I do not want to harm anyone. I do not like blood. I want to live a peaceful and safe life with my family.

What worries me the most is that two years have passed since I left Syria and I haven't yet managed to do anything for my family, to be able to bring my wife and daughters here...

The last month and a half I've been living in a building, in a room of my own. I'm very happy that it has a balcony where I can sit and relax... You see, back in Syria I used to take my coffee on the terrace... On my balcony in Athens I have the opportunity to continue this favourite habit I have from home...

Maya, (26 years old), Tunisia

... I avoided going out in Tunisia because it was too dangerous.... I identified with the harpooned fish in Costas Tsoclis' artwork. For me, the people around the fish were like the members of my family, who ignored me. I was right there, but they couldn't see that I was suffering, that I wasn't comfortable with who I was and that I wanted to be something else. I wanted to live as a woman. That's why it was dangerous for me to walk down the street in my country. I had to hide who I was. I could only be myself when I worked on the stage. I have a mark on my body, just like the harpooned fish does, a scar from the time I was attacked on the street. But, in the end, the mental trauma it left was even bigger. It may not show, but I feel it inside me all the time. Maybe Tsoclis' work is talking about mental trauma. ..

In Alexandros Georgiou's work I could see cigarette butts, empty packets of medicine, and other garbage lying about. It could be a place that was destroyed in some war. At first I could not understand what this black and white environment had to do with the Parthenon, which is tinted gold. I thought maybe the work was talking about life itself, how anything can be destroyed unless it's very strong. And symbols which have lasted throughout the ages are very strong; they're the culture and values we've inherited from the past. When we come into contact with these values, we become stronger. That's why he made the Parthenon gold; to show that it's something of value...

Mahdi, (student), Iran

... One of the works we saw at the Museum which made a big impression on me was the Swedish Flying Carpet by Kostas Velonis. Its waves reminded me of a seagull, flying to leave a country where it's cold to go to one where it is warm. Just like I wanted to leave my country. That's what I kept saying - I want to leave - because I didn't like the situation there. I wasn't safe. And in the end, I managed to get away...

We played hopscotch in Iran too. In this artwork [Vlassi Caniaris] each square shows something a refugee has to go through when he gets to a foreign country. He waits for his papers and goes from office to office, to different agencies, and waits until the whole process is finished and he can stay there legally. There are a lot of people coming to Greece from a lot of different countries. ...

I liked Costas Tsoclis' work with the fish a lot. The fish has lost its freedom. I wouldn't like to be in its place, no way. If each painting of this artist shows a different country, then mine is the one with the harpoon in it. And because I didn't want to see all the awful things that were happening there, I wanted to go to a country which is at peace. Like the people in the paintings next to the fish, who are leaving to go to another country without looking at the fish. One of those people could be me, someone who doesn't want to live in a country that's being bombed...

Patricia, (34 years old), Cameroon

... Although I had never visited a museum before and I had no previous contact with art, the projects and the discussions at the Museum created strong emotions and gave me the opportunity to focus on issues that concern me a lot. I kept thinking about them even after I got home. I saw in them pieces of myself, pieces of my life...

Kimsoja's Bottari reminded me of the boats we all started out in when we left Turkey for Greece. The Raft by Bill Viola brought to mind the time we got ashore; we left the inflatable and were so happy we all cried. It is a very powerful feeling, hard to describe. It is important when you become aware of your own existence and how close to death you can be at any moment. But once we set foot on land, we had already our first victory - a victory over death. I saw something like that happening in Viola's work, when all these different people, who were standing together in the same space, were suddenly hit by a jet of water. I saw it as a divine intervention, a threat, a shock sent by God, after which the people realised they needed to come together to better face danger. We, too, faced this danger in the boat in the rough sea, when we all tried to save ourselves.

What we experienced was a transition from dark to light. This is what Mona Hatoum's work Fix It, made me think. Light always symbolises life, regeneration. When light lights up this space, with the old, rusty objects, it resembles the moment you turn back to light, you find yourself after a deeply thoughtful or difficult phase of your life when you have sunk in the dark.

But the work that influenced me most is Heart in Heart by Yael Kanarek, which looks like a wedding dress hanging from hooks. There is something hard and violent about it, far from gentle, cheerful and pleasant. When I learned that the love letters of two people living apart from each other are written on the ribbons, my thoughts immediately travelled to my relationship, to my girlfriend who stayed back. It is the first time I've had a relationship from a distance, and I can see how painful it is. We think about each other, we communicate through social media. But as time goes by, I feel despair, because I see that, there can be no relationship....

Although thinking about all this made me cry, in the end I felt positive. I was even keener to work, earn money and be able to go for a few days to see my girlfriend and then return to Greece...


  1. Brilliant! Fascinating! Thank you so much for writing about this in so much detail.

    1. The exhibition was such a pleasure, Olga. I was expecting to see photographic portraits, but it was so much more than that... The whole concept is fascinating and the huge, glossy catalogue an integral part of it.