September in Greece and art
“THE WALL There is such cruelty in exclusivity, and such exclusivity in the entitled. And there are many walls.” From Am I Pretty When I Fly? An Album of Upside Down Drawings by Joan Baez
“It’s incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you. You’re so innocent in the beginning you don’t know.” From Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramovic, performance artist
“An artist has to understand silence. An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his / her work. Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean.” Marina Abramovic, performance artist
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” Native American Proverb
“We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.” Qwatsinas, Nuxalk Nation
Susan David, whose work focuses on emotions and values, refers to a beautiful greeting used in South Africa, where she comes from, “sawubona”, an African word for “hello”. She says: “There’s a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word because “sawubona,” literally translated, means, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” In Greek our most common greeting when meeting and saying goodbye is “Γειa σου” [Yiassou], which derives from the Greek word for health [υγεία] and more or less translates into “May you have health”. So, today I would like to open this September post with these two greetings.
At a personal level September has so far been a more or less uneventful month, with jobs and repair work around the house and in the garden in preparation for winter. We’re also still visiting the beach when the weather is not too windy, but at another level this month has brought disaster as the much anticipated autumn rains have wreaked havoc in Greece [and elsewhere]. This September has brought collective concern, grief and worry in my part of the world. It has brought environmental destruction of “biblical” proportions. Mostly central Greece has experienced floods that have left a trail of devastation with roads, bridges, buildings, dams and vital infrastructure uprooted and washed away. Entire villages have literally been erased, “wiped off the map” as I read somewhere.
From my home I have felt some of this pain. It has impacted me viscerally while watching the News and thinking about it as I’ve gone through my days, waking up during the night worrying about people I know. Greece, being small, makes it more likely for us to know people from all over the country, which brings the whole thing home in a different kind of way. I’ve been anxiously anticipating what might happen in particular villages or communities. I’ve felt strong surges of empathy and compassion. I’ve thought of the things that should have been in place to work as buffers in at least some situations, I worry about the future and how all this will unfold for the people who are going through this. What will become of the thousands of dead farm animals and the vehicles that are floating in the water? I think of the people who have lost their lives. I worry about how people will survive financially. I think about what the future holds for us at a planetary level. As I watched people on rooftops waiting for days to be rescued and others refusing to leave their homes, the drinking water shortages and the destruction of infrastructures I could not but also feel anger at how economic and political decisions going far back both in Greece, but also in other much bigger contexts of concentrated power, have led to the broader ecological crisis.
People have died and many have watched their houses go under water losing everything they owned, while others have lost farmland, crops, farm animals and small businesses, their livelihood. Areas that depended heavily on tourism resemble war zones. I don’t think the country has ever been through such extreme flooding. Storm Daniel dropped a year’s worth of rain on central Greece in one day. It will probably change the morphology of the affected areas and it definitely brought the destructive face of Nature to the foreground of our awareness. And all this has taken place after a summer of unprecedented forest fires.
The economic catastrophe is massive since the productive heart of the country is in central Greece. Flood-stricken Thessaly region is one of Greece’s richest agricultural areas, generating more than a quarter of the country’s agricultural produce. These swamp like areas now are also ripe for the spread of diseases. There is no electricity, no clean tap water and there are shortages in bottled water. Three years ago the same area was hit by a rare for the Mediterranean cyclone, Ianos, and funding was allocated for the construction and reinforcement of anti-flood structures. It is obvious that any anti-flooding measures that were in place failed to shield the flood stricken areas from these extreme weather phenomena. For reasons that will, as time unfolds, become clear, it seems that the quantity and / or quality of the existing infrastructure were not sufficient.
Some voices support that “we are all in this together”. Well, honestly, it will not be the same for everyone. It never is. This cliché phrase can sometimes be unhelpful, because it does not reflect the whole truth. We could say it is both true and not true. If not clarified it can obscure hard facts about circumstances and people’s different realities and can often lead to the silencing of anger that can motive action, and indignation or truth telling, often named blaming. Yes, we are interconnected, what happens in one part of the country or the world and to our fellow human beings impacts us in many significant visible and invisible ways. The effects of this interdependence are seen in ecological, economic, social, emotional, psychological and biological levels, But it is also true, in this current situation for instance, that those who have jobs that can allow them to work elsewhere or those that have the means to buy a new house or farmland or rebuild a life, will be more able to start over in the midst of their grief and losses. Others will be in a far more tragic situation. And for those winessing from afar, no matter how deeply they feel the pain and provide support or are impacted by the side effects of this disaster, it will be a whole different matter.
At this point we cannot but hope that the State will deliver and that it will provide adequate financial support, and that there will be compensations and rebuilding of communities. We hope that the elderly and those with no means will be taken care of. We hope that this new environmental tragedy will finally result in more responsible policies and actions concerning the environmental crisis, and also, the need for the right infrastructures to be put in place. We also hope that what is known as Greek hospitality, as well as, solidarity, community and compassion will be extended to those in need.
There a piece in Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism without Beliefs, on belonging and compassion. He explains how our compassion usually extends to those on one side of the invisible barrier that segregates us from the rest of the world. It is easier for us to feel compassion for all that belongs to the domain of “me” and “mine” like ourselves, our friends and families, our communities and sports teams. He writes: “The bonds that unite us, be they common parents or an arbitrary preference for the same football team, are exaggerated by desire for belonging and fear of rejection. This in turn leads to a hardening perception of “us” and “them.”
However, he continues it is not always like this because there are times when the barrier is lifted and we feel for other people’s pains, people we don’t know and people who don’t belong to our groups. He writes: “I find myself moved by the plight of those I do not know and probably never will: the hungry child, the abandoned dog, the streams of refugees….. And when I finally run into S and he tells me how scared he’s been of telling anyone he’s HIV positive, all the resentment vanishes and his grief and terror become mine too. For as long as these fragile moments last, I inhabit a world where all living things are united by their yearning to survive and be unharmed. I recognize the anguish of others not as theirs but as ours. It is as though the whole of life has been revealed as a single organism: reaching out to someone in pain is as natural and unself-conscious as my hand’s reaching out to my injured knee.”
This month I’ve also felt tired, but still I’ve done some reading and looked at some art, and I’ve made some drawings, while considering painting again as the weather becomes cooler. I’ve also been listening to some Joan Baez interviews after buying her new short memoir with upside down and non-dominant hand sketches and drawings she has made. I’m glad Baez published these sketches and drawings. Her experimentations reminded me of my own left hand drawings at one point. I had used my non-dominant hand to lightly complement my right hand drawings, which I found enhanced the symbolic and emotive nature of these drawings.
I think some of her cartoon captions, being culturally and era specific, eluded my full understanding, but art once it has moved from the creator to the audience is there for the viewers or the participants to engage with and make their own sense of it. Performance artist, from ex Yugoslavia, as she likes to say, Marina Abramovic, has among other things claimed in her manifesto: “An artist creates his own symbols. Symbols are an artist’s language. The language must then be translated. Sometimes it is difficult to find the key.”
In the introduction of the book with the title, How I Got Turned Upside Down, Baez describes her earliest experiences with art making: “When I was very young, I drew a little girl with her hair flying in the wind. She was holding a kite, which was flying in the opposite direction, but all in all, it was a pretty good depiction for a child. Soon afterwards, I graduated to drawing cows with enormous udders, then tepees. At school, with lots of crayons, I filled an entire sheet of construction paper with a picture of the earth, then took a paper towel and rubbed the whole thing until it shone….. In third grade, I drew pictures of Bambi and Thumper on plain paper from an art pad. I cut them to size and sold them to my classmates for three cents apiece.” For some of us who loved drawing and making art as children some of her stories will ring familiar.
In the following chapters we get to see the evolution of her art activities at different points in time. For instance, when she was eleven she was given a book with a sketch of a woman’s profile on the cover, titled Draw Me, and a wooden human figure with moving parts. In another chapter she describes her return to art through painting portraits when she was seventy. She writes: “One day, I decided to paint a portrait……. I went on to paint portraits of people who had made social change through non-violence.” Through her humorous sketches and short chapters she also touches upon topics like exclusivity, bullying, cruelty, patriarchy, the extinction of species and the damage we are causing the environment, and more.
In the previous post on belonging, I referred to another book with illustrations The Arrival by Shaun Tan about migration and immigrants’ spirit and stories of trauma and resilience. I’m returning to this today, as I’ve been relooking at the book.
On the last page of the Greek edition, the publisher [I think] writes; “What’s it like to travel, to an unknown country, without knowing what awaits you? To hope for a better life, with no guarantee of finding it? What’s it like to feel foreign and alone, overlooking a – perhaps – inhospitable place where you will build your future? You seek better opportunities for your life without having confronted your fears. The great fear of every immigrant that is uprooted from their homeland. Will they remember what has been left behind? Will they find something that will be worth the trauma of separation?”
In his website Shaun Tan writes:
“Beyond any personal issues, though, I think that the ‘problem’ of belonging is perhaps more of a basic existential question that everybody deals with from time to time, if not on a regular basis. It especially rises to the surface when things go wrong with our usual lives, when something challenges our comfortable reality or defies our expectations – which is typically the moment when a good story begins too. We often find ourselves in new realities – a new school, job, relationship or country, any of which demand some reinvention of ‘belonging.”
You can read more about the book and the topic of belonging at his website: https://www.shauntan.net/arrival-book
Finally, I’ve also been reducing my inbox. As I’ve been sifting through e-mails, I found one that included a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which I thought I’d share here today as a way to end this post:
Quiet friend who has come so far, / feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower / and you the bell. As you ring,
What batters you becomes your strength. / Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain? / If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night, / be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, / the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you, / say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.