Art, craft and politics

Photo: Prostitute II, 2011.

Old but still valid: this interview by Tineke van Dun for Dutch magazine „Handwerken Zonder Grenzen“ may interest textile and Greek-embroidery-lovers. It was published in December 2011.
For original text in Dutch please click on the link:

English transcript:

– What is your background in textiles?

I studied Visual Communication at the Hochschule der Kuenste Berlin (now Universitaet der Kuenste Berlin) thank to an Onassis Benefit Foundation grant. I was completely into painting, when I observed the design of a 19th century Peloponnesean kilim. The motif originated in Anatolia and has changed arrangement, colors and meaning after it has been copied by Greek weavers. This discovery fascinated me and made me curious to explore the world of textiles.
I was awarded the Fulbright Foundation Artist Grant in 2007 to do a research at the Greek Embroidery Collection of The Textile Museum in Washington D.C. This was a decisive step in my career and divided it into ‚before and after D.C.‘

– Do you come from a ‘textile-minded’ family?

I grew up literally surrounded by textile. Women in my family loved to embroider, make lace, knit or sew. My grandmother’s family were merchants trading in Istanbul. Textile contributed in their wealth.
My stepfather’s family of Sephardi origin has been in the textile business for very long. They fled from Spain to the Othoman empire after the 1492 Reconquista. The sultan had invited the Jewish weavers of Iberia to settle in Greece (under Othoman rule); in a sense, their textile skills saved them from the Inquisition.

– Which technique do you prefer?

I love embroidery. Craft historians call it the ‚most individualistic craft‘ since the stroke of the needle bears the maker’s signature like the brush strokes tell a lot about the painter’s idiosyncracy.
I do not differentiate between painting and textile art and I transfer techniques of the former to the latter. Modern painting can be technically seen as a row of undisciplined brush strokes and modern embroidery could be seen as a row of undisciplined stitches, I believe.

– Where do you get your inspiration from?

Although I love many textile traditions – for example, I adore the Ikat coats from Central Asia or the embroidered tents of the Othoman sultans or the naive embroideries of pre-revolutionary New England or the Russian 19th century popular textile prints – my main source of inspiration is the Greek tradition.
I think it is quite natural though; I am inspired by a living tradition with textile patterns dating back to 6th century BC that are still in use.

– Who do you admire in textiles, craft, arts etc?

I admire a lot of people but the works that left me breathless were the ones by Polish textile artist Magdalena Abakanovich, American Sheila Hicks and American basket weaver Ed Rossbach. It is hard for me to make a top 5 in the visual arts, but if I have to, this would go like – Old Masters: El Greco, Rublev, Velasquez, Vermeer, Rebrandt. Modern: Mark Rothko, Jenny Holzer, Constantine Brancusi, Vincent Van Gogh, Constantine Parthenis.

– How do you start a new project: what are the steps in this process?

I take a walk around the Acropolis, where the peripatetic school of philosophy used to meet, walk, think and argue.
There, one still sees clearly the Panathenaia procession road. During this festival, the ‚creme de la creme‘ of ancient Athens carried a piece of textile stretched like a sail on a mast in the form of T, atop a chariot in the form of a ship. It was not only an allusion to the naval power of Athens, but more importantly a reminder that the city — πόλις/polis in Greek, thus politics — has ever since the archaic period been considered a ’ship‘ mastered by the crew of its citizens.
Retrieving the cultural and topographic continuity of Greek textile is a powerful boost for my imagination. I also read, think, write and sketch a lot. And then I play with materials and techniques without following any draft. It helps me relax my mind and allow impressions and thoughts to come in, make matches and build the outcome.
‚Material safari‘ is also a great source of inspiration for me. Not rarely, the material leads me to the concept.

– What is the significance of textiles/crafts for Greece or the Greeks?

Textile is a material of sacred character in the hellenic heritage, an allegory for life as innumerable myths testify.
Today, one can still observe how millenium old metaphysics find expression in an embroidered piece of scarlet velvet symbolizing a dead God (Jesus) which is carried through the streets of Greece during the Good Friday litany.
Ancient Greeks had a strong preference for weaving. They had the technology to make textile looking like it has been indeed woven by a spider. If you observe carefully the graceful chitons of the statues, you see painted floral or geometrical motives that one also finds in the Greek Embroidery samples of 17th and 18th century.
Embroidery is considered to be a Persian invention by craft historians. Greece is the bridge between the West and the East throughout its history. The Eastern influence is prominent in the rich decoration of textiles from the main Byzantine era (6th – 15th century) onwards.
Sunni Othoman rulers (15th – 19th century) often prohibited the making of big scale Christian Orthodox art – murals, architecture – which was forced to decline. However, creativity found expression in the already flourishing textile crafts. I think of textile as the very essence of Greek art under Turkish rule.

– Do you find this is different from other countries?

Embroidery (on dress, houseware, religious items, curtains, furniture etc.) is the most beautiful sample of Greek textile art.
Even if we trace stylistic similarities or same influences between Greece and neighboring countries in the field of embroidery, there are great conceptual differences deriving from distinctive cultural backgrounds and history. The embroidery ‚alphabet‘ – the pictograms or motives – may look similar in some cases but the story told is different.
To wrap it up: Greek Embroidery
a) echoes the concept of ‚joy of life‘, a deep rooted belief that life is ‚here and now‘, excluding hell/paradise or a punishing/rewarding God from Greek metaphysics. This concept remains unchanged in Greek collective consciousness since the Homeric times.
b) testifies of a highly extrovert culture which does not hesitate to fuse foreign influences (Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian (islamic), Othoman, Venetian) into a new style craft historians call ‚unique‘ and
c) manifests the millenium old belief in the ‚united cosmos‘, where man and nature exist in absolute harmony. This is a very contemporary ecological message, I think.

– Are crafts like embroidery, sewing, knitting, lacemaking still alive in Greece?

Unfortunately, the government has decided to save money by closing down the 60 years old fee free craft schools (weaving, embroidery, lacemaking) run by the Greek Crafts Council (EOMMEX). The institution itself will also have to go.
Although there was a lot to be wished regarding the marketing strategies of EOMMEX, this decision sets the tombstone on Greek traditional crafts which – under the right management – could contribute in the recovery of Greek economy and culture.
In rural Greece one still finds women stitching together outside their houses.
However, many Greeks associate crafts with the lower living standards of rural Greece. A white collar job, preferably in the lay-off-safe public sector, has been the dream of many Greeks in the last 30 years, if not longer. This has created the sick mentality of despising everything that is made by one’s own hands. The crisis forces many people to reconsider their values.

– What is your favourite work/project that you have made so far?

The Red Light District Project at Ted Noten Atelier under the auspices of City of Amsterdam was the most exciting project I have ever participated.
The RLD Project had a strong concept, the group of fellow artists was a constant energizer and Ted Noten himself had a big influence on the progress of my work through his accurate comments and supportive suggestions.

– Can you explain about the women’s faces that you made inspired by you work in
Amsterdam? Why did you portrait these women? Why did you choose these techniques?

The women’s faces are the faces of sex workers I met daily while an Artist In Residence at Ted Noten Atelier in the RLD in Amsterdam.
I think one must be very strong to stand half naked at the brothel’s window while drunk men or tourists making silly comments pass by.
I observed various ‚transactions‘ from my window. I do not pity sex workers nor blame them; I do not admire them nor moralize about them.
There is a lot of ambiguity in the portraits I made.
Their colors and shades look quite expressionistic but icons connaisseurs may recognize the Byzantine influence of painting spiritual beings or ideas instead of people.These women are both powerful and fragile, dominating and desperate; beautiful and ugly; vulgar and absolved; ’sinners and saints‘.
In the Orthodox tradition there is an ‚epidemic‘ of former prostitutes, userers, murderers etc. ’sinners‘ who changed their destiny and opted for a new life of kindness, compassion, unconditional love. If you take it out of the religious context, this dynamic concept of deliberate change opposes pre-destination (theological, social, economic) since one can become the master of her/his own life whenever she chooses to.
More specifically: one of the portraits is inspired by a well know icon depicting the archangel Michael. May be it is a sacrilegious act but up to now nobody minded, including church goers. Michael is supposed to be the most powerful angel in the divine hierarchy, the messager of death and salvation – a Christian/Jewish ‚Hermes‘. What message does this angel have to deliver? This is up to the viewer to judge!

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