IN THE HEART OF ATHENS, that is becoming all the more multicultural with the progress of time, the exhibition ‘ex-pats’ at the Alex Mylona Museum, curated by Apostolis Artinos, and featuring works by Eleni Mylonas and Despina Meimaroglou, explores the whole notion of what it means to leave your homeland, to travel, to return, and to oscillate between cultures. The sculpture exhibition on the Museum’s roof, with works by Mark Hadjipateras, Cris Gianakos and Alex Mylona, further expands on the exhibition’s theme, by adding a few more parameters – including the refugee’s perspective. At the same time, the works of Eleni Mylona’s mother, the great artist Alex Mylona (who passed away last year), are also part and parcel of this art experience.
Eleni Mylonas left Greece for New York in the ‘60s, Despina Meimaroglou is a multilingual Alexandrian-Greek who has travelled extensively, and who moved to Athens with her family in 1966. Mark Hadjipateras is a London Greek who moved to New York, and then to Athens after the September 11 attack of 2001, and Greek-American Cris Gianakos, keeps on returning to, and is constantly inspired, by Greece.
There are many words that are used to categorise someone who has left their country of origin, and has decided to live somewhere else: expatriate, immigrant, refugee, diaspora member, foreigner. And they all have a different meaning, and nuance. The expat is not part of a ‘mass exodus’ from a country, as is the immigrant, while a refugee, is also an escapee. But they all have one thing in common: they are people in between cultures, in between lands. They are displaced, and have to live in that grey zone of displacement, and make their home between two worlds (or even more).
Eleni Mylonas’ video installation ‘Ave Maria’ encapsulates that feeling perfectly: a three channel video work, which presents her two homes – New York and Greece (Aegina). In the centre, the sea of Aegina is presented, where a bloated sheep carcass also has been filmed floating among the waves, before it gets washed up on the shore. On either side of this video, scenes from the New York subway are presented. The natural beauty of the Greek sea (together with its macabre floating sheep), is encompassed by the urbanity of New York. For some, the plight of that sheep could be associated today, with that of the many refugees who have lost their life in the Greek seas, but for Eleni Mylonas, it was a kind of omen for the war in Iraq, seeing as she spotted it a few days before the war began.
I remember Eleni’s words when I had interviewed her last year (for ‘Athens Insider Magazine’), before the elections in America brought about the ‘Trump era’. I had asked her then, to reverse the tables a bit, and to tell me what were the problems of living in New York, and the benefits of living in Greece (a country shattered by the ongoing crisis). She replied: “Obviously this is the place of my birth, where I grew up and this in itself is a huge advantage. The land, the sea, the food, are all pluses for Greece. It’s harder to find the negatives of life in NY especially since I have managed to divide my time between the two, so by the time I start to miss Greece’s natural beauty, it’s time to go back. Bottom line: In NY I am in control of my life. In Greece I am not. A major factor is the prevailing political system in each place. But the US elections might change things for both countries…” I then asked her which country would she choose if she had to choose just one, to which she replied “I would choose the one that offers me the most freedom. Above all, freedom.”
Now, upon returning from New York, in order to organise the show ‘ex-pats’ in Athens, Mylonas was happy to come back to the beauty of the Greek sea, a therapeutic force that might help relieve the symptoms of Trump era America.Times change, political systems change, and before you know it, you may feel a stranger in your own land. Or even in your adopted one.
As a piece of graffiti in downtown Athens says: “We are all refugees”. Or we might all become one. Furthermore, with the internet and communication technology being what it is today, you can be living in Greece, but working around the globe – a cyber refugee. Whilst some countries are now bolstering their borders, the internet continues to build globalisation.
Who knows what will be the reason to make you leave your place of birth: are you escaping a war? Poverty? Or it could even be a certain situation – a personal event that has sent you running for another chance to build your life again. Whatever you are labelled – expat, refugee, immigrant, traveller – you will leave your footprint wherever you go. You will have a tale to tell – a message. The ‘Hermes’ Foot’ and ‘Clay Foot’ installations by Mylonas in the show symbolise just that – the human footprint, that from the beginning of humanity has left its mark on various regions of the world.
And home? Where is home? ‘Home is where the heart is’, as they say. The family home, will always have a special place in your heart. Despina Meimaroglou’s works ‘Soul House’ and ‘Reconstruction of Paradise’, which explore her return to what was once her family home in Upper Egypt’s Al-Minia, reminded me of how I too, always return to our ‘old house’ in London, being an expat British citizen myself, at present living in Athens (but also a 2nd generation Greek immigrant, part of London’s Greek Diaspora). Like salmon who swim upstream to the place of their birth, we feel the need to return and see ‘that home’ once again. For nostalgia’s sake? For memory’s sake? To figure out what we have lost and what we have gained? That place of birth, that first family home, the place of your childhood, that so moulded you, is like a meter of measure by which you calculate everything else that follows. It sets the scene for your life.
And now, let me diverge a bit (as I am accustomed to): A few weeks ago, whilst zapping late at night, I saw a great documentary on second generation immigrants in Greece. A second generation African immigrant living in Athens, was discussing the problems he had faced growing up in Greece. He was wearing a T-shirt which had imprinted on it the image of a Greek ‘tsarouchi’ shoe (which the Evzones wear), which had an Afro comb stuck in the shoe’s traditional black pompom. The words ‘Afro Greco’ were also imprinted on the T-shirt. That T-shirt encapsulated what it means to become part of that ‘foreign’ culture that you have entered, as an immigrant. To make it yours. To find connections. To create a new culture, which blends both that of your roots, and that of your new home (whilst nonetheless feeling in limbo between both).
There are new cultures emerging in Greece at the moment, that are exciting and fresh. They will add yet more perspectives to this wonderful land, they will enrich it even further – especially with their art and music. This is the beauty of multiculturalism. We have a lot to see yet. Because up till about three decades ago, it was mostly the Greek ex-pats that were the only kind of ‘foreigners’ living in Greece, when they returned from Egypt, Australia, America, London, Africa, to the homeland. Plus the foreign expats working in embassies etc. Then came the Albanians, and so many other cultures have followed.
Now back to the show. On the roof of the museum, you meet with Cris Gianakos’ ‘OMEGA’ – a work that looks like part of a stealth plane. Ominous and foreboding, it also speaks of ancient Greek geometry. Alex Mylona’s immaculate marble sculptures inspired by the ancient Greek kouroi look towards the Acropolis, as does Hadjipateras’ work ‘Sham (Syria)’. The latter work presents us with a Syrian refugee, a mother, holding her child and looking towards the Acropolis (there’s a stunning view of the Ancient Rock from the museum’s roof terrace). She and her child are imprisoned in a tight-fitting cage, which follows the contours of their bodies. This work questions the form of ‘democracy’ that has created the wars of today, and the refugee crisis that has sent so many Syrians looking for a new home, and has killed so many others. As she stares at the Acropolis (the ancient symbol of democracy), we are reminded that it is not the refugees that are the problem, but the current political systems that have created the refugee crisis. Like an imprisoned Madonna and Child, this woman reminds us to feel empathy, before anything else.
- The show ‘ex-pats’ runs till July 30 at the Alex Mylona Museum (5 Aghion Asomaton Square, Thission). Tel:210-321-5717. Open Wed, Fri, Sat 11-7; Thurs 1-9; Sun 11-4