Face and speech are interlinked. The face speaks.
It talks, and it is the essence of the person that makes this possible
and kick-starts any conversation.
Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity1
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 walls2, still has a timely resonance. In today’s rapidly changing and ever more inclusive and multicultural society, museums are called upon to adapt and re-examine their role in society. The shifting demographic and cultural composition of European cities is challenging museums to take initiatives to enhance public engagement and promote social cohesion. Indeed, if today’s museums fail to respond to the needs and interests of different cultural and social groups, they will be viewed by the public as a luxury for the privileged few.
As a field of human endeavour, art discovers and brings to light facets of reality through its symbolic, and hence profoundly critical, language. Artists today are dealing with contemporary political and social conditions, multiculturalism, the refugee question, issues of war, violence, oppression, tyranny, discrimination, exclusion and poverty. In their work, these artists interrogate and critique these issues, often uncovering their reverse side, and in doing so, clear a path for dialogue and the re-examination, when not the revision, of broadly accepted perceptions.
Drawing on these aspects of contemporary art, the project Face Forward …into my home invited individuals from other countries who recently arrived in Greece as refugees and are now living in Athens, for a series of discussions. The purpose of the invitation was not only to facilitate access to art and culture for a group of persons for whom a visit to the museum is not an everyday priority at this point in their lives, given the circumstances. Rather, the main goal of the programme was to engage these participants as active stakeholders in a dialogue on issues of concern to us all. It is the kind of dialogue which contemporary art, in the end, seeks to provoke, and which is founded on cultural pluralism and mutual respect.
With works from the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EΜΣΤ) serving as a starting point and stimuli for discussion—though no prior contact or familiarity with contemporary art was assumed—participants retrieved memories, made connections with current and past experiences, and shared their ideas, feelings, and aspirations with the group. Through this process, a series of personal narratives gradually emerged, stories of individuals of different national or ethnic origins, religious backgrounds and beliefs, family status, social standing, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. Taken as a whole, these narratives exhibit a diversity of character, outlook, intensity, emotional colouring and ways of thinking. The common core of all these stories, however, is the profound need to communicate and the dreams for the future.
The refugee question is portrayed these days, in both text and image, in a way that highlights hardship, acts of cruelty and despair. It is uncertain to what extent such an approach can foster respect for these persons, engender hope for their future, and cultivate solidarity, acceptance and social cohesion. Furthermore, refugees are not numbers and percentages, however often they are referred to as such.
These reasons explain why Face Forward …into my home, as project and exhibition, approaches the subject in a different way, which is best described in the words of Emmanual Lévinas: “to see the face is to speak of the world”3.
The exhibition brings together the material produced in the project, namely, 20 photographic portraits and an equal number of recorded personal stories of the persons portrayed. The creation and exhibition of these large-format portraits aim to highlight the uniqueness and specific features of each of these individuals, who together compose the visage of the world today. The viewer is invited to meet these faces, hear their voices and come to realize that whatever differences exist, they do not divide societies, but, on the contrary, enrich them. The visitor is further called upon to discover how these similarities—their shared hopes and struggles and deepest emotions—constitute, in the end, the common ground on which we all stand.
Perhaps the exhibition Face Forward …into my home gives new meaning to André Malraux’s concept of the museum, which he saw as “one of the places that shows man at his noblest.”4
EMST Education Curator
1 Lévinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Duquesne University Press, 1995, Pittsburgh.
2 Wittlin, Alma S. “A Twelve Point Programme for Museum Renewal.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, edited by Gail Anderson, The MIT Press, 1970, Cambridge, Mass.
3 Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1960, Pittsburgh, PA.
4 Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. Transl. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price, Secker & Warburg, 1967, London.
The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.
Susan Sontag, On Photography
Portraiture has been a popular subject in cultures since ancient times. For the artist—in my case, the photographer—the portrait is thus a subject both primitive and contemporary, as it is for the creative process in general.
Seen in this way, a photographic portrait is a depiction of the human psyche captured at a particular moment, fashioning an image of the present or recent past. It discloses or creates an enigmatic physiognomy which invites the viewer to look into the eyes of the photographed subject and decode the person’s thought, expression and world. Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is illustrative here. The painting is enigmatic because, although the girl in the painting seems to want to say something to the viewer, she reveals nothing.
Since the start of my career as a photographer I have loved portraits, mostly because human beings—the sole subject of this type of photography—are complex creatures, rife with contradictions that often surprise the subjects themselves. At the same time, I have realized that a portrait, above all, must be a good photograph and represent a part of me—or all of me—since it depicts my thoughts, my concerns, my culture, my beliefs and, more generally, my development as a photographer.
The faces I am interested in photographing are not simple photographic characters of everyday life; I seek them out on the basis of my approach to composition, light and background, trying in this way to make a statement not only about the subject but about myself as well.
Through this process and my efforts to get to know my subjects before photographing them, I discovered that they all harbored stories to tell and that each story, big or small, could unlock a world of mystery that only the two of us, photographer and subject, could know—provided I listened to it carefully and shared mine as well. I also discovered a “path” along which, equipped with my knowledge of light and framing, I could create enigmatic images with the figures who stood before my lens, figures who wanted to say something but didn’t let the viewer know what.
My career in portraiture thus took another direction, one in which I photograph not with the camera but with my heart and mind.
Today, with Face Forward …into my home, I feel as I’ve come full circle—to the place where I was born, grew up and played—but more mature, able to create portraits of people without the need to impress. The only thing that interested me were the persons who stood before me, who spurred me to explore the looks of joy, sorrow and happiness they so proudly wore and who made me devote the entire space to the “hero of the moment”.
Both the narratives and the portraits of these persons create a kind of contemporary realism, wholly rooted in reality. On the one hand, their stories are genuine and intensely realistic. On the other, the photographic portraits continue the narratives, without contradiction or confrontation, and deepen them. The viewer is invited to identify with the subjects of these portraits and realize that, in the end, beyond the stories we share, our dreams—which are universal—meet as well.
Photographer – Special Therapist, 18 Ano