A new art show on the frontline of the refugee crisis

An exhibition on the Greek island of Samos hopes to inspire refugee crisis solutions

A Syrian refugee and his daughter near the Greek village of Idomeni©Yannis Behrakis

A Syrian refugee and his daughter close to the Greek village of Idomeni

Behind a white-walled cemetery on the Greek island of Samos, 1.6km from the Turkish coast, is a graveyard for young children who have drowned attempting to attain the sanctuary of Europe. Artificial flowers mark a row of nameless graves, identified only by numbers and the year 2016. Other gravestones marked “Syria” have names in Arabic, including a mound with three tiny graves on which a grieving mother has propped soft toys.

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Along the south coast, in a repurposed 1970s hotel, Tanja Boukal’s 3-minute video “The Youngsters and the Sea” captures the incongruous tranquillity of this deathly spot, with its birdsong and crickets. The film is spliced with harrowing text about three beneath-fives who washed up on Samos’s shores in January. In the artist’s insistent memorial, the hidden graveyard becomes a focus of contemplation and questioning. Her collage “Memories of Travels and Dreams” contrasts the secure tourist passage from the Turkish port of Kuşadası with the perilous and extortionate crossings at the hands of men and women-smugglers. Pictures of discarded clothing, tyres used as lifebelts and other traces of clandestine arrivals are arranged like postcards on a sea of blue, around an advertisement for a higher-speed ferry.

These new functions by Boukal, a Viennese artist born in 1976, type part ofA World Not Ours, a group show devoted to the worldwide asylum crisis, at the Art Space Pythagorion in Samos. The space was developed in 2012 by the Greek-German Schwarz Foundation from a derelict hotel on Pythagorio harbour, a picturesque waterfront of tavernas and painted boats. The €500,000 renovation struck some Samiots as a luxury amid Greece’s unending economic woes. Yet Peni Petrakou and Stelios Loulourgas’s elegant white cube draws guests, giving a fillip to a faltering neighborhood economy. From its panoramic back window, Mount Mycale in Turkey seems almost within attain.

The Art Space’s founder, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, a psychoanalyst from Athens whose husband’s wealth derives from pharmaceuticals, also hopes Pythagorio’s 7,000-year history can inspire solutions. The city’s golden age amongst the 8th and 6th centuries BC peaked below Polycrates the tyrant, host to artists, engineers and philosophers. Herodotus deemed the six-storey Temple of Hera “the greatest I have seen” (1 column nonetheless stands). The Sacred Way to it was lined with 6,000 statues. Museum treasures testify that such achievements came with the free flow of individuals, goods and tips from Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia — also sources of today’s refugees. Outdoors the Art Space is a statue of Pythagoras, the Samiot soon after whom the town was renamed, who brought geometry from Egypt, identified the maths behind musical tones and coined the term “harmony”.

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

1 of the biggest Greek islands, Samos, along with Lesvos and Chios to the north, has been on the frontline of the Mediterranean refugee crisis because 2015. Of much more than 1m irregular sea arrivals to Europe final year, 850,000 — mostly Syrians — came by way of Turkey to Greek islands, more than 800 dying en route. According to the island’s mayor, Michalis Angelopoulos, Samos saw 153,000 arrivals within a year — five instances the regional population. The controversial EU-Turkey deal in March reduce everyday arrivals from 1,700 to fewer than 20. But in the hillside above Vathy on the north side of the island, more than 1,000 folks — a third of them children — stay in an overcrowded, nominally closed camp ringed by razor-wire.

Tensions are increasing. Tourism accounts for 80 per cent of the island’s economy, but tourist numbers are down this summer by at least 40 per cent, visitors deterred by images of death and desperation. “The social tolerance of half of this society is exhausted,” the mayor told me. “We gave almost everything to a humanitarian effort municipality volunteers ready 4,000 meals a day. And central government does absolutely nothing.”

Still from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)©Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks

Nevertheless from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)

The show’s curator, Katerina Gregos, attempts to tackle these tensions with global context. “EXIT”, a superb collaborative video installation, deploys a spinning globe and ingenious infographics to animate statistics on population flows, remittances and the “push factors” of conflict, urban density and climate alter, underlining the futility of Fortress Europe.

Gregos chose artists with lengthy engagement with refugees. Boukal volunteered in Lampedusa in 2007 soon after 1st finding out of the drownings. The US artist Sallie Latch interviewed arrivals in Samos for a sound installation. Excerpts were read by actors to a rapt audience in Greek and English. Three curatorial scholars provide guided tours. For Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, “it’s up to Greece to participate in the discussion, not just be passive to a wave of incomers”.

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of tourists with that of refugees

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of vacationers with that of refugees

Numerous Greeks are themselves descendants of refugees, which often creates unexpected wells of compassion. Numerous of these forcibly expelled from Turkey in the course of the war and exchange of populations of 1919-23, recognized as the Asia Minor Catastrophe in Greece, came to this island — memories stirred by Marina Gioti’s seven-minute video “Saint Marina”. Probing the loved ones history of an icon she inherited from ancestors who fled to Samos and then Piraeus, the function is a meditation on what is lost and saved in flight.

“My family’s story is everybody’s story,” Gioti says. In the 1940s the flow went the other way, as a third of Samos’s population fled to Turkey throughout the Italian and German occupations, numerous in rowing boats.

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion©Costas Vergas

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion

Two of the strongest exhibitors are photographers who do not regard themselves as gallery artists. “The Persecuted”, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Yannis Behrakis, is a huge-scale slide projection of photographs documenting final year’s refugee crisis for Reuters. But Giorgos Moutafis’s “Europa, Europa”, tiny black-and-white photos in light boxes, draws the viewer in closer. A new arrival kisses the European shore. Another on a ship’s deck resembles a deposed Christ, haloed by a white hood, with echoes as well of the transatlantic middle passage.

Moutafis took up photography 12 years ago “in a recovery programme for drug users”, and now operates only with refugees. With black-and-white photo­graphy he seeks “to place memories in your head”. “My grandfather did this trip from Izmir to Chios in 1922, in the Catastrophe,” he says. “Greeks and Italians went to America in the 1950s. In the financial crisis, Greeks are going to Holland and the UK. No one particular can stop it just like that.”

Utilizing low cost, disposable cameras, “you only have 12 exposures, so you have to feel,” he notes. “I want the viewer to keep and think, too. I do not want to inform them they know currently.” The final pictures are of the even much more treacherous passages from Libya to Italy that have resumed considering that the March deal.

Beirut-born Ninar Esber fled civil war to Paris at age 15, and this experience of reluctant exile informs her performance piece “The Blind Lighthouse”. Its red-dressed woman on a tower is portion seductress, portion Medusa. “People are attracted to Europe like Ulysses to the sirens,” Esber says, “but she is blind, she can’t guide them.”

By contrast, Mahdi Fleifel’s 2012 documentary A Planet Not Ours, shown in the open-air cinema, gave a profound insight into the compelling motives for flight. It is set in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon exactly where Fleifel grew up. With a nod to Woody Allen, the film’s humour draws viewers by stealth into a nightmarish cycle that traps generations in camps, barred from jobs and with practically nothing to drop. By the time a single character makes a break for Europe via an unnamed Greek island, this audience, gasping with recognition, was rooting for him.

‘A World Not Ours’, to October 15, Art Space Pythagorion, Samos, Greece art-space-pythagorion.com

Photographs: Yannis Behrakis Giorgos Moutafis Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks Costas Vergas

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