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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Sfougaras

‘Who do you think you are?’

Updated: Feb 12, 2018

An ‘Art Lab’ event Organised by Alnoor Mitha Founding Artistic Director of Asia Triennial Manchester, (2008 – present)  In the form of an interview of George Sfougaras Artist and Project coordinator by Elizabeth Kwant curator of my 'Personal Maps' Exhibition October 2017-January 2018

I was invited to talk about identity, in the context of the Asia Triennial in Manchester on the 21st of November 2017

The talk would be in the venue of my exhibition ‘Personal Maps’ in the Alexandria Library in Manchester in one of the multi-ethnic areas of the city, Wilmslow road, in Rusholme 

I was very happy to talk about the selection of prints which are on display.  They fit well with the question ‘Who do you think you are?’ which would be the stimulus for my presentation/Q&A session with Elizabeth Kwant, who also sympathetically curated the exhibition.  

I felt that having already spoken about the prints at the opening in a month earlier, I needed to go a little deeper.  I ‘searched my heart’, as I usually do, when I want to say something meaningful.  I thought it would be really hard to bring to light information and facts that were pivotal in defining me as an individual…but in fact, certain things and images jumped out at me over the next few days.I found myself gathering certain images and ideas that had acted as points of departure, as defining lasting influences, in shaping me and my work. I wanted to be disciplined and limited these to five pages of A4.  I held them up on the evening, more as a way of anchoring my talk, rather than as a way of presenting the information to the audience. I gave each a number, and a title.

Birth Right

The image shows my older brother and my aunt with me in the middle. I was born in Europe, on the fringes of it, for sure, but in Europe all the same. I never questioned my identity, my looks or my sense of who I was. I was who I was by birth.  I knew that I looked different to my brother and sister, but in Greek families such differences in appearance and colouring are common.  This photograph and what it came to represent has been central to my sense of identity.

Many years later, when I became aware of looking ‘alien’ in the UK,  ('foreign' was the word that was mostly used to define me in my teens) this photograph, filled me with mixed emotions. As a teenager in a new country, there was nothing I would have liked more than to blend in, to just fit in, to be, to deal with the challenges of adolescence without the added complication of xenophobia. 

I mused with my teenage brain, that had I looked like my brother my path would not have been so tumultuous. I found that I was no longer able to blend in. I came to expect that people would react to the way that I looked before they knew me. It was not simply a question of judging me. It was the strangest feeling of having to constantly prove that I was a good person.  Well-meaning; capable; not lazy; not ignorant.  It was exhausting fighting to disprove others’ stereotypical views of who I was. Guilty until proven innocent is the overriding feeling I recall during those difficult years in an austere and cold 1970s England.

Bad Education 

My secondary school Anthropology book, published in 1964, was an antiquated, anachronistic publication, full of pseudo-racial science and cranial morphology. Dinaric and Mediterranean physiognomy, Nordic and Mongoloid races, North American Indians and Africans neatly fitted into the tabulated format of the dull pages of this book. 

I knew then as I know now that it was oversimplified, political propaganda, and this feeling of being fobbed off, of being sold short instilled in me among other things a mistrust for second-hand knowledge and in particular knowledge that served a political agenda. Nationalism was rife in Greece, a country that was keen to define itself as a homogenous Orthodox Christian European country.  

The version of the book we used must have been the third or even fourth edition, as it was issued to us in 1972, two years before the Junta finally lost control of the country. 

My father who was a humanist more than anything else was somehow classified in the state records as a leftist, and as a child, I recall feeling that our position was tenuous. Never the less, until I came to the UK and saw a stratified society both in terms of class as well as race, I thought of myself as a Greek and a European. 

This was challenged by people's perceptions. I was now a member of an identifiable ethnic minority.  That too had many permutations and values attached.  Definitions of who I was varied from Italian to Asian and everything in between. The language of tolerance, plurality and multiculturalism did not yet exist. The world beyond the UK was described by the media as less desirable, inefficient and backward. Popular TV entertainment echoed the mood of the day with the hapless Spaniard in 'Faulty Towers' and the two-dimensional Black characters of 'Rising Damp' and 'Love Thy Neighbour'.  Asian people were invisible on television apart from documentaries on the main depicting a bleak and biased view of  inner city life. Poverty and immigration were synonymous.

3. Ugandan Asians arriving in the Uk in the early 1970s.

Seeing and experiencing racism in action in those formative years, particularly in the late 70s, made me question who I was, and made me see the political struggles of ethnic minorities as something that I was a part of. It was not immediate. At first, I resisted and asserted my  European status. As time passed, this actually became embarrassing. A form of apology, rather than a valid, provable assertion. Later when I became a teacher and saw Ethnic minority children 'fail' at school, I knew that many of them had decided to opt out of a system that at that time was heavily weighted against them. It fills me with sadness to think that many of those children would have thrived if they had only believed that they could. 

 At the same time, I was conflicted as my family did not experience the same kind of difficulties.  The hurt that I felt had to remain private, and not shared. Telling them that I was experiencing racism was to admit that I looked different.  To admit to my parents and friends back home that the way that I looked carried negative connotations of being undesirable,  inferior and alien.  In essence to admit that I did not fit, that I failed, and that in some strange illogical way, I personally was to blame. 

My denial of being different was challenged by my daily experiences, but it was not until much later that I would be able to explore my identity in a positive sense and embrace my physical appearance and heritage; I also came to understand that equal rights issues are everyone's responsibility and that race is, as I suspected all along, a concept laden with attributions which serve   particular political and economic agendas.

Hope, Trees and Little Boats

4. Syrian refugees arriving in Lesvos 2016

5. Smyrna on fire in 1922

I am the son of refugees from Asia Minor. Over one million Christian Greeks fled Turkey between 1914 and 1922. The formalisation of the exchange of populations by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 encoded in international law a process that had started long before. The Syrian refugee crisis re-awoke in me a tangible and intense sense of loss.  It was on behalf of my parents that  I was feeling it, that is for sure. It was also a moment of realisation and a

sense of solidarity with the displaced millions. Later, I found some feelings of loss for my self;  for my departure from my country of origin and the subsequent struggle to adjust and to live peacefully within a frequently unwelcoming environment. I know that what I experienced was minor compared to the suffering of millions of people displaced by war, but there was certainly  loss within me. I recognised it and learned to accept it as a trade-off, but that took time.

I was born in relative safety, on the island of Crete, where my family eventually relocated.  They replaced the thousands of Muslims (including many Greek-speaking converts)  who were classed as Turks and transported to Turkey.  I had not experienced the ‘Asia Minor catastrophe’ as that time is known to Greeks. My parents’ generation was mostly silent about the extent of it all. It is a terrible thing to be rejected, hated and displaced and I suspect it was the shame as well as loss and pain that silenced them. I

This recent exodus of the Syrian refugees and the starkly portrayed human suffering found expression in a body of work about transition,  about feeling uprooted and being transplanted in another land; and finally about the tentative hopes of a new life, of putting down roots and perhaps flourishing. 

The series of printed and drawn works are arranged within a publication entitled ‘Hope, Trees and Little Boats’.

 It felt important to make these images as wave after wave of desperate displaced people arrived on the same islands that the Greeks had fled to in the 1920s.

Personal Maps

6. Photograph of Morosini Fountain, Heraklion, 1904.

The process for the development of the ‘Personal Map’ series is documented in the publication that can be found here:

Images such as this 1904 photograph of my hometown, are a testament to the layers of Ottoman and Arab influences, eradicated for the purposes of presenting a more 'desirable' Westernised country. Ottoman and particularly Arab traces within the culture are seldom evident in Crete. Venetian buildings and historical monuments, however, are seen as beautiful and have enjoyed a process of restoration and rebranding. Chania on the West of Crete is particularly well established as a ‘Venetian City’. Boutique hotels boasting an illustrious past as residences of dukes and Venetian aristocracy proliferate. The Byzantine quarter is much lauded. The Mosque that defines the famous quayside, by comparison, was only recently partially restored and for many years looked embarrassingly neglected.


7. Photograph of grandparents

It seemed natural to turn to images of the family that extended into a past that had been well concealed and forgotten. Both sets of grandparents were born in Turkey.  The photograph above is of my maternal grandparents, who were the ones that actually made it to Greece with the exchange of populations, formalised  signed in 1923. They arrived with their six children on the 22nd December 1922. I was able to discover my grandmother’s maiden name and her family only in 2017.

I recall seeing a picture as a young child. It showed my grandfather with a Turkish fez. For many years I had thought that this was the actual  photograph and that some photographer had been asked to ‘doctor’ the picture, and paint a rim around the fez. It is a nice story, but I cannot substantiate it.  Later I recalled that the one I had seen as a child, depicted my grandmother with her hair covered. It seems that that old photograph, possibly taken in Smyrna/ Izmir before their departure, was discarded. It appears that in this later one shown below, my grandmother no longer covered her now grey hair and my grandfather was persuaded to wear a formal hat in an attempt to make him look less of a 'Turk' and more of a modern, European Greek.  Poor grandad. What lives they had. Twice the strangers in a homeland that did not recognise them as their own. 

DNA analysis has enabled me to retrace my maternal's  family’s dispersal around the world.

Names changed, stories forgotten or suppressed. A curtain was drawn over that time, and the pressure to make a living and survive pushed the experiences behind a wall of pain and silence.  I discovered that Greek is only one part of my DNA and that other cultures found their way into the family, somewhere and somehow.  Georgian, Armenian, Middle Eastern. I am proud to know that I am a child of the world and I send them, my lost brethren much love when I depict them in my art. 

My physical appearance, my complexity and my inner world are inherited from lives lived in parts of the world that I can only imagine. Displacement and hard labour, love, procreation, war, and turmoil jostled with the daily grind to made my ancestors grasp  security and solid ground, wherever and wherever they could find it. They are in me and I can feel them all. My own struggles seem small by comparison.

I have discovered that a sense of belonging comes from knowing who you are, regardless of your physical self and your surroundings. I continue their journey and will continue to search for them as they emerge within my work and enrich my art and life in my  own mixed media 'Lazarus Project'.

George Sfougaras November 2017

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