The Schwarz Foundation has recently opened A World Not Ours, its exhibition for the summer, curated by Katerina Gregos. The exhibition takes place at the Foundation’s venue in Greece, Art Space Pythagorion, on the island of Samos, one of the three Greek islands across the coast of Turkey that have been at the crux of the refugee crisis since 2015. Given the highly charged location, it is vital that an art exhibition there should address this situation, which has been an unremitting reality on the island, and a pressing, unresolved issue for the whole of Europe.
A World Not Ours examines the refugee crisis and forced migration from different perspectives and positions through the work of artists, photographers, filmmakers and activists who offer diverse reactions and insights into the subject, all based on long-term research and engagement into the issue. The exhibition thus reflects on the issue not from an outside point of view, but as experienced from within. Harnessing methods that range from activism and direct action to poetics, performativity and metaphor, the participants in the project highlight and complicate the issue of forced displacement and the experience of homelessness, perpetual insecurity, diasporic identities and existential limbo. The exhibition challenges standardised media representations and polarised narratives of the refugee crisis, and acknowledges the complex roots of one of the most pressing issues of our time, and a major existential question for Europe. A World Not Ours borrows its title from the award-winning homonymous 2012 film by director Mahdi Fleifel, which in turn borrows its name from a book by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72). The film is a portrait of three generations of exile in the refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh, in southern Lebanon, while the book speaks about diaspora and the search for identity. As migration will remain one of the pressing issues of our time, with more and more people forced into flight and nomadism for political, economic or environmental reasons, we need to re-consider what it means to co-habit this spherical, increasingly inter-connected planet in terms of mutual hospitality and generosity. This is one of the most serious challenges of our time and, as the exhibition also testifies, the solution cannot be the divisive politics of exclusion.
In an extensive presentation of the exhibition, curator Katerina Gregos explains that the work on view “provides deeper insight into the plight of the refugees, from a humanitarian point of view, acknowledges the complex roots of one of the most pressing issues of our time, while contextualising it into the larger global picture. A key idea underlying the exhibition is also that of engendering empathy – which is perhaps one of the things that can spur us to action. It considers what Susan Sontag has said, that we often see pain in images but we cannot feel it. Therefore, it aims to make the whole issue more palpable and tangible for the public.” The works on view are the result of in-depth, long-term research, on-the-ground engagement and first-hand experience, Gregos says; they offer “genuine empathy and sincere motivation” as opposed to media or artistic uses of the images of poverty and precariousness to create sensational images. “In the contemporary art world,” Gregos continues, “the refugee crisis has unfortunately engendered opportunism, with some with some rushing in to profess their engagement by producing facile one-liners and generating publicity for their own sake. This exhibition, rather, includes artists who opt for a nuanced way of working with these highly sensitive issues, who stay under the radar, working with discretion, thoughtfulness and beneficence. Many of the participants come from the Middle East or southeastern Europe, from countries that have experienced war, trauma, exodus and perilousness first hand.”
“The refugee crisis has thus become one of the most fundamental political and existential issues of Europe,” Gregos comments, “testing the continent’s attitudes towards human rights, notions of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The crisis has brought political polarisation, a rise in nationalist rhetoric, prejudice, increasing xenophobia and racism to Europe once again. The question of refugees may be highly politicised but it is first and foremost a humanitarian issue. So far, Europe’s policies have been largely anti-refugee, with many countries unwilling to open their doors and seeing the migrants as a threat.” There is also a crisis in the management of migration within the EU itself, Gregos continues, as well as a lack of common ground in policy-making and sharing the responsibility of the crisis, together with the convenient overlooking of the fact that immigration has played a positive role in the economies of hosting countries. A virtually bankrupt country that is itself suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, Greece is at the forefront of the refugee crisis and has become a focal point for the conflicting viewpoints on the subject.
Artists and cultural practitioners have a different way of looking into socio- and geopolitical catastrophes, Gregos argues; they may highlight the complexities while pointing out all kinds of different positions and alternative approaches to look at problems from different and unexpected angles. “Artists not only reveal the predicament,” Gregos explains, “but also point out the myriad subjectivities that get lost in the mainstream narratives. They steer clear of polarising notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’, make us aware of our own predispositions, biases, preconceptions and hopefully guide us to become more open-minded, and less self-contained and secluded. They frequently offer a wider perspective and greater criticality, and show contemporary issues under a different, more considered and nuanced light. They bring untold stories to life and reveal hidden experiences, subjectivities and narratives.” (read further)
Our Highlights in the Exhibition
A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has worked for Reuters since 1987, Yannis Behrakis (b. 1960, Greece) has photographed major moments in history over the last 25 years, including the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the changes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the civil conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the wars in Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the two Gulf Wars, and the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. For many years, he has photographed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in 2008 he moved with Reuters to Jerusalem as the chief photographer for Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In 2010 he returned to Greece to cover the financial crisis, where he has remained to cover the refugees arriving in his homeland in 2015. Of his work documenting the refugee crisis in 2015 he said, “The least challenging part of this year was taking pictures. The biggest struggle was the emotional involvement… it was so sad to see the same thing again and again… No one expected there to be so many of them. But most Greeks have some refugee blood, and locals realized these people only wanted to use Greece as a stepping-stone to go north. I want to express my gratitude to all the Greek and foreign volunteers who helped in the islands and the northern border. You prove that humanity is alive!” A seven-time recipient of the Greek National Fuji Awards Photographer of the Year, and three-time winner of the European News Photographer of the Year awarded by the European Fuji Awards, as well as the recipient of numerous other prizes, Behrakis and his team were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2016 for their work covering Middle Eastern migrants arriving in Europe.
Born in Budapest but holding dual Hungarian and Syrian citizenship, Róza El-Hassan’s practice is shaped by working with refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Combining the use of maquettes and mixed media sculptures with works on paper and wall-drawings, El-Hassan merges many contradictory qualities into a multi-faceted and nuanced reflection on the human condition and particularly marginalized communities and refugees. The founder of Syrian Voices: Mediation and Art, a digital platform for Syrian Artists on Facebook and blog, El-Hassan’s practice involves social intervention and social design projects, such as her project No Corruption, a brand of wicker bags and cases based on an old technique and developed together with members of the mostly impoverished Romani community in Hungary (who number 600.000) to alleviate their economic situation. Many of the projects that El-Hassan develops thus combine social function with environmentally friendly techniques of production. Such an example is the ‘Beehive’ or ‘Adobe House’ eco-architecture, part of Róza El-Hassan’s long-term research into ecological, sustainable and humanitarian Syrian architecture, as a small scale possible solution to the refugee housing crisis. This house is where the artist’s ancestors lived and which was a common housing type in villages in northern Syria until the 1970s. The Beehive is a rotund building with a very high dome, at least four or five meters high. As the artist recalls from her childhood, inside these domes there was a sense of warm hospitality, and they were nearly empty and always very clean. In response to possible solutions for the housing problem due to the Syrian refugee crisis, El-Hassan decided to re-visit this simple architectural form as a model for re-building based on cheap, sustainable local materials (adobe mud bricks).
An artist born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1971, who has been living and working between Paris and Beirut, Ninar Esber primarily uses her body as a material in a practice organised essentially around performance, installation and video, playing on the notions of slowness, immobility and resistance. Her work also pays particular attention to the status and role given to women in the Middle East, in Europe or elsewhere. She uses her own body to highlight the absurdity, hypocrisy, violence and injustice that women and minorities are subjected to. For the exhibition A World Not Ours, Esber has developed a new performance piece. A blind lighthouse stands facing the sea. It is lit but it’s light is powerless. Atop the tall structure is poised a female creature; she beckons but as soon as one approaches her she turns. The lighthouse and its sentry beckon but at the same time are unable to protect those who run towards them. A deadly game of seduction is played between a tempting but precarious presence and the stunned voyagers who run to their doom. As with most of her performative pieces, here too, Esber manipulates the seductive effects of her chosen medium, stirs our curiosity, and encourages us to reflect upon our relations with those on the ‘other’ side.
Writer, film director and visual artist Mahdi Fleifel was born in Dubai in 1979 and has spent his early years in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon before moving to Denmark. Refusing to “feed into familiar representations,” his films consider the exilic experience—shared by generations of his family—often in satirical or humorous ways. In 2010, Fleifel set up the London-based production company Nakba FilmWorks with Irish producer Patrick Campbell. Their first feature-length film, A World Not Ours (2012) premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It has since picked up over 30 awards, including the Peace Film Prize at the 2013 Berlinale; and Grand Jury Prizes at Yamagata, Edinburgh, and DOC: NYC. A documentary about identity—how we think of who we are and where we come from—the film blends historical footage, personal recordings, and family archives to tell an intimate story of three generations of exile in the refugee camp, Ain el-Hilweh. Fleifel describes the film as “more than just a family portrait; it is an attempt to record what is being forgotten, and mark what should not be erased from collective memory.” (taken from Mehdi Fleifel’s personal site, June 6, 2016) Fleifel’s latest project, A Man Returned (2016), won the EFA nomination and the Silver Bear at the 2016 Berlinale. It follows another young man, 26-year-old Reda, on his failed attempt to escape from Ain el-Hilweh. Trapped in Greece for three years, Reda finally returns to the refugee camp with a heroin addiction. Ain el-Hilweh is being destroyed by internal strife and the escalating tension from the war in Syria. Here, against all odds, Reda decides to marry his childhood sweetheart. A bittersweet love story, A Man Returned resonates with the triumphs and despairs of the camp itself.
Marina Gioti (b. 1972, Greece) studied Chemical Engineering, Environmental Management (MSc), Filmmaking, and Media and Communication (MA) in Greece, UK and Belgium. Her films and installations have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions and film festivals, including Hypnos Project, Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens (2016), the 5th Thessaloniki Biennial (2015), Wroclaw Media Art Biennial (2015), Yebisu Film Festival, Tokyo (2016), Viennale Film Festival, Vienna (2015), No Country For Young Men, BOZAR, Brussels (2014), Depression Era, Benaki Museum, Athens and Mois de la Photo, Paris (2014), Les Rencontres Internationales Paris / Berlin / Madrid (2010 and 2007), Toronto International Film Festival (2009), or Transmediale (2007) among others.
When Gioti returned to her family home in Greece after her parents’ death, she re-discovered the one and only item that her grandparents managed to salvage during their flight as refugees: an icon of Saint Marina, the starting point of Gioti’s film. Forced to leave the town of Mylassa in Asia Minor (now Milas in present-day Turkey), Gioti’s grandparents were among the over one million Greek expelled from Turkey during The Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, played out during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Massacres on both sides and forced deportations resulted in one of the largest refugee populations of the early twentieth century in Europe. The icon of Saint Marina is the sole remaining possession from Gioti’s grandparents’ exodus. The artist inherited the icon as a gift from a grandmother she never knew, Marina Yahaki, who wished for the figure to be handed down to the next Marina in the family. Wanting to know more about her heritage, the artist asks her two ninety-year-old aunts to reconstruct the icon’s history and thus participate in a shared family effort to remember. The film is not only a meditation on the condition of the refugee, but also what the artist sees as a “race against time” to salvage family history by those closest to the events. Whereas the Greeks were once refugees, now they find themselves acting as hosts for those fleeing persecution. As history repeats itself, remembrance becomes one of the mechanisms whereby human empathy might be safeguarded.
Giorgos Moutafis (b. 1977, Athens) is a Greek photojournalist and filmmaker who has spent the past nine years documenting migration. Using an unconventional photographic practice – Moutafis typically shoots with a disposable $20 camera – the artist has produced pictures of severe humanitarian crises and conflicts in more than 20 places including: Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Kosovo, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, South Sudan, Haiti and Swaziland. As he says, “I was interested by these population movements and I tried to set my goal on the lives of immigrants and telling their story […] I am convinced that no human being will leave home without good reason. War, violence, economic problems and politics are often the reasons why these people leave their homeland.” For the exhibition A World Not Ours, Moutafis exhibits photographs from his ongoing series Europa, Europa. This long-term project is dedicated to showing refugees landing on Greek islands with the hope of reaching their “Promised Land” of the European Union but also documents the plight of migrants now crossing from Libya and the southern Mediterranean. The artist’s small-scale photographs are presented at the Art Space Pythagorion using light boxes, a technique that highlights the details and immediacy of Moutafis’ images. His work is the combination of black and white, the snapshot-like quality, and the almost accidental way of paying attention that makes these images so engaging. His photos, often vignettes of young siblings or profiles of individuals, poignantly capture one of Europe’s most significant historical moments. Currently based in Athens, Moutafis’ photographs have been published in numerous international publications including Newsweek, TIME, the New Yorker, Courrier International, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, CBS and CNN.
Exit (2008–2015) is an installation composed of a series of animated maps generated by data from over 100 sources that investigate human migrations today and their leading causes. Based on a brief set out by French philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio, this experimental work was created by American artists and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with architect-artist Laura Kurgan and statistician-artist Mark Hansen, with a core team of artists and scientists including Ben Rubin, Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith. As Virilio explains, unprecedented numbers of migrants are leaving their home countries for economic, political, and now increasingly for environmental reasons. Originally commissioned by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain for its 2008 exhibition Native Land, Stop Eject, the installation was completely updated in October 2015 on the occasion of COP21 (Paris Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015), reflecting the alarming evolution of the data since it was first presented. A repetitive motion of a globe writes and re-writes translations of different aspects of the migration data into maps, texts and trajectories. The maps allow the visualization of a number of global datasets, displaying six animated scenes: Population Shifts: Cities; Remittances: Sending Money Home; Political Refugees and Forced Migration; Rising Seas, Sinking Cities; Natural Disasters; Speechless and Deforestation.