Curator Sozita Goudouna, inspirer of “GREECE IN USA” in New York speaks to Elculture.gr
OCTOBER 05, 2021 ● INTERVIEWS
“Our cultural diplomacy should also focus on alternative ways of promoting contemporary art.”
Text: Marianna Mavroudi
“ For many of us, contemporary art is a kind of refuge from the superficial tendencies of the dominant culture — a place where alternative values, politics and different identities could claim some degree of cultural autonomy,” he said. our Dr. Sozita Goudouna. A special personality in the field of art, Dr. Sozita Goudouna is a curator, researcher and assistant professor of Art History. With a great biography and a worthy social and cultural work, he founded together with a strong team, the non-profit organization “ GREECE IN USA” Which aims to promote ancient and modern Greek culture in the US and beyond. The actions of the organization focus on the cultural policy and extroversion of the Greek culture promoting the international cultural cooperation and social participation.
Would you like to tell us about the cultural organization Greece in USA and its vision?
“GREECE IN USA” was founded in March 2020 in New York, at the beginning and during the pandemic period. The city had been transformed into a ghost town, like all metropolitan centers. The only similar experience for New Yorkers was 9/11. In this “atmosphere of fear” and following years of experience in promoting Greek artists in London and New York, I recalled the founding principles of Performa Biennale. Performa is the organization I owe my relocation to New York in 2015, which was founded in part against the fear of the 2001 terrorist attacks. For a month, Performa changes the way New Yorkers experience the city, and especially the city center. The Biennale aims to “reclaim” public space and locations that have changed use due to the dominance of Real Estate. Performa takes place in different parts of the city, from Times Square and New York Customs to museums including MoMA, Whitney, Guggenheim, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance), galleries and other cultural venues. In this context, I envisioned GREECE IN USA as an organization that does not align with the contemporary phobias of distancing and complacency, but that “reclaims” the importance of art in everyday life in public space and that primarily gives voice to a specific nationality that has no substantial or influential presence in American cultural life.
What are the challenges you encountered?
The main challenges, apart from the pandemic that completely changes the way we perceive art, concern the paradigm change for the reception of contemporary Greek art abroad beyond the stereotypes about Greek nationality that have been imposed mainly by the dominant popular culture. In contrast to international trends, especially in America and in the developed cultural centers of Europe, Greek contemporary art is more resistant to mass culture, either due to lack of resources or due to the different social context and concerns. The cultural perspectives of Greek contemporary art differ markedly from those of the international ones, and this “Greek uniqueness” that has not yet been mapped internationally sparked the idea and contributed to the decision to found “GREECE IN USA.”
At the same time, the closure of the pandemic coincided with the proposal we submitted to the Ministry of Culture on confinement, before March 2020, and the spread of the virus, therefore, this unexpected circumstance was the catalyst for the development of the project.
How did the public receive the project?
I consider that the audience’s reception was very sincere and spontaneous thanks to this synchronicity between the real confinement we all experienced and the exhibition’s theme on the “Miranda Rights” and the 5th Amendment, which as Greeks we are familiar mainly from American police films. I have always been impressed by the expression “you have the right to remain silent”. Silence is transformed into a right when what can be said is burdensome for the citizen of a democratic state. The paradox, however, is that some citizens always remain silent because they are not given the opportunity to speak, which implies the right to freedom of opinion and expression. In the group exhibition, “Miranda Rights” acquire a metaphorical meaning for the investigation of moral issues, but also of aesthetic forms and artistic means since silence is the culmination of abstraction.
I would like to clarify that for the opening exhibitions it was imperative to map the contemporary Greek art scene as objectively as possible in order to promote “Greece in the USA”’s mission to international colleagues and the public who do not know the peculiarities of the local scene. The practical and artistic challenges are immense and the mission wouldn’t be apparent in a project that would include ten artists. It is not only a quantitative issue but mainly a qualitative one. We seek to document Greek contemporary artists in an “objective” and “democratic” way without exclusions and this stance shows the basic values of the organization, ie quality assurance but through a generous and consciously accessible prism and value system. However, following this “mapping,” we also aim to focus on the work of specific artists with individual presentations, as well as on partnerships with institutions. We believe that the 150 socially engaged works presented in the first exhibitions on the internationalization of Greek culture in the USA reinforce our mission for an alternative promotion of contemporary Greek culture.
What are the forthcoming projects of the organization and the future aims of Greece in USA ?
“Greece in the USA” aims to activate the dynamics of contemporary Greek art with interventions in cultural spaces and in the public space of New York. As the curator of Performa, I realized that Greek and Cypriot artists, such as Maria Hassabi, managed to have a strong cultural exchange with American and international colleagues. I have the impression that local curators would like to learn more about the contemporary Greek scene and that is why the role of an organization like “Greece in the USA” can be a catalyst for promoting the work of contemporary Greek artists and performers abroad through osmosis with international artists and curators.
In the first years we aimed to map the Greek scene of contemporary art in the most objective way, to the extent that this is humanly possible and due to COVID there were many limitations. For this year and in the future, we will focus on solo presentations by artists in New York and other metropolitan centers, but also on group exhibitions and performances that invite Greek artists to a creative dialogue with international and American artists.
More specifically, in November, “Greece in the USA” collaborates with Nectarios S. Antoniou, member of our board of directors, to present the world premiere of Arvo Pärt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Temple of Dendur is the setting for the world premiere of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt commissioned by Nektarios S. Antonios in collaboration with The Schola Cantorum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterpieces from the composer’s seven-decade career are performed by the choir The Schola Cantorum and the Artefact Ensemble, conducted by Grammy-nominated choir conductor Benedict Sheehan. Soloist from the Experiential Orchestra is conducted by Grammy Award winner James Blachly. Consequently, Greece in USA focuses and in the curatorial work of Greek colleagues promoting their work in collaboration with our organization.
We also aim to present the Greek-South African artist Penny Siopis and her piece “Welcome Visitors!” with the participation of jazz musicians based in New York. The play is based on the story of the jazz melody “Skokiaan” composed in 1947 by Zimbabwean musician August Musarurwa. The melody became an international hit by Louis Armstrong in 1954. Mixing archival footage from Armstrong’s tour of South Africa in 1960 with anonymous footage from the film’s film connects the melody’s migration with images of Zulu, real and imaginary, the connections between South Africa and the American South that it reveals.
We also plan to present a new opera work composed by the young Greek artist Orestis Papaioannou with libretto by Aleko Lountzis and co-author in English, Orpheus Apergis entitled “The Fall of the House of Commons” ideal to be presented at Poe’s house in Philadelphia. The work connects the uniqueness of Poe’s iconic house with the most ordinary everyday house (thus contrasting the concepts of “high” and “kitsch”). It also aspires to combine musical idioms ranging from classical operatic melodrama to multi-stylistic, eclectic recompositions, typical of postmodern music.
Would you like to tell us about your projects in Greece?
In July 2020, while we were still in the insecurity of the pandemic, Mr. Lefteris Giovanidis, artistic director of the Municipal Theater of Piraeus, invited me to conceptualize the visual arts program of the Theater. With great generosity, the board of directors approved the proposal for an interdisciplinary program that focuses on the dialogue between Greek and international artists focusing on the symbolism of Piraeus itself as a port of cultural exchanges.
At the same time, since 2016 I have been trying to present the “Airport” by John Akomfrah to Greece because I was so impressed when I first saw it. But there were many difficulties because the production is very demanding. However, the fact that the piece was shot in Piraeus and pays tribute to our cultural history and the play of Theodoros Angelopoulos, who lost his life in Piraeus, contributed to the ideal presentation of the installation on the main stage of the historic theater of Piraeus.
From “Airport” to “Artport” for a port that can take off through a real contemporary cultural development. We know that the silo buildings have been transformed internationally into exceptional museums as was the goal with the competition many years ago for the Museum of Underwater Antiquities in Piraeus. I remember that experts thought that the museum would not be implemented any time soon. The program we designed attempts to fill this cultural gap and complements the private initiatives of galleries that have opened annexes in Piraeus as well as some institutions. The work of Andres Serrano in the Stone Warehouse, which is for the first time granted to the Municipal Theater by the Port Authority of Piraeus, underlines the creatively subversive character that we seek to accomplish with the program.
Tell us more specifically about the art program and your collaboration with the Municipal Theater of Piraeus, the exhibition of Andres Serrano and the video installation of John Akomfrah? Why did you select these artists?
The art program instigates a dialogue between these two visual artists that are seemingly quite different but that are in fact “far away so close.” 70-year-old American Andres Serrano, with parents from Honduras and Cuba, who had expressed a desire to photograph the homeless in Greece and 64-year-old Briton John Akomfrah (ascendance from Ghana), founder in 1982 of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) — one of the few international artists who managed to capture the Greek crisis in such a poetic way — are the exponents of this dialogue.
I thought that Andres Serrano’s vision remains influential and that it was unfortunate that his work had not been presented in Athens. The new Port Authority venue added to the site specificity of Serrano’s solo exhibition “Torture” by a / political that deals with the act of causing intense physical or psychological pain from one person to another.
Since the 1980s in New York, Serrano’s work has sparked heated debate, raising questions worldwide about censorship, taste, public decency, and accepted forms of expression. Serrano’s name, along with Robert Mapplethorpe, was at the crossroads of the 1989 Cultural Wars in New York when his photograph Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987) became the subject of a national debate on artistic freedom. expression and public funding of controversial art. Nevertheless Serrano, with the poetry of his work, goes beyond the public debate on censorship as expressed in his historical works, while John Akomfrah focused on the recent economic crisis in Greece and the abandoned former Hellinikon airport to capture Greek history through a resilient approach to historical time. Akomfrah’s “Airport” that inspired the platform “Artport” has been conceived as a meditation on the history of Greece and its recent financial crisis. The project focuses on the landscape of Southern Greece and the abandoned former Hellinikon airport that is being transformed.The film is inspired by the work of two films by Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) and Theodoros Angelopoulos (1935–2012). The resilient sense of time of the film refers to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), while the technique of continuous movement between the camera, the characters and the locations of Angelopoulos is also used in a poetic way.
Regarding the Mykonos Biennale, could you share with us the information about the program and Caribbean — Greece exchange?
In the summer of 2021, after a research trip to Aruba, I designed the art program entitled “Greece — Caribbean Cultural Exchanges” on the occasion of the Mykonos Biennale and the invitation by the artist Lydia Venieri, in an effort to create cultural bridges between Greek contemporary culture and the Caribbean. My intention was to create a network that connects the diverse creative landscape of the Caribbean and documents interregional efforts to promote outstanding artists in local and global art communities.
In collaboration with the Ateliers ’89 Academia de Bellas Artes Aruba and the director of the foundation Elvis López, I nominated the following 10 artists to be presented at the Biennale: Chelsea Peteson, Irvin Aguilar, Jess Wolf, Ken Wolff, Romelinda Maldonado, Samuel Samiento, Velvet Zoe Ramos , Wilfred Jansen, Alydia Wever. Efforts to connect the arts locally and regionally go hand in hand with efforts to connect Caribbean art and artists worldwide, supporting contemporary art and artists on a regional and international platform, and strengthening art organizations. One of the difficulties is the cultural, economic and physical isolation that separates different parts of the Caribbean.
In this context, my colleague Mr. López founded the Caribbean Linked platform. Different languages, cultural traditions, administrative systems and inadequate communications and travel mean that the region remains culturally fragmented. Cultivating a regional and international exchange around Caribbean art and artists is one of the top priorities and contribution of the cultural exchange I designed.
You are a person constantly involved in cultural projects, what are your goals for the future as the founder of Greece in USA, but also as a curator and researcher?
While teaching at City University in New York, I became interested in American aspects of public education that are so different from European ones. I think CUNY presents an exciting public education mechanism and I was amazed by my students who were so different from my students at NYU. Students who work during the night or who are employed in demanding occupations and who struggle to survive to study. This made sense of my role as a teacher and had an impact to the very teaching of art history. So CUNY and the confinement we experienced during the pandemic inspired me to think of incarceration in a way I had not thought before, especially as a citizen of Europe. We do not have private prisons and the justice system is very different.
The inaugural exhibition of “Greece in USA” was entitled “The Right to Silence” and the unofficial motto of the organization states that “we give a voice to Greek artists”, however, two months after the establishment of the organization in New York, on the 25th of May in 2020, George Floyd was assassinated. In combination with the pandemic and the limitation of our basic biological need, the need to address the issue of respiratory policy and the ways in which physicality and biology interact with politics became imperative.
“Greece in USA”’ mission isn’t restricted to Greek issues but to negotiate international issues with issues that currently concern the local and Greek society. The group exhibition “The Right to Breath” is based on the “shortness of breath” that comes from the experience of political pressure, social injustice and economic austerity, exploring its connection with poetry, physicality and embodied politics. Concerns that have been raised in the “I Can’t Breathe” movement over racial issues, discrimination and violence have remained unanswered for too long. At the same time, the countless social injustices and consumables policy posed by the COVID-19 pandemic expose the illusions of a post-racial society, as well as the deprivation of the universal right to breathe (see Achille Mbembe). The issue of restraint as defined in the exhibition also aims to re-evaluate criminal justice reform.
As a researcher this year I will research the above topics in collaboration with the institute “The Organism of Poetic Research” supported by NYU and Brown Universities. Greece in USA aims to conduct relevant research and publish research. In this context we have commissioned Professor Michalis Skafidas a new monograph on Loukas Samaras based on rare interviews of the artist that will be published in collaboration with the Eris Press.
At the same time, I would like to include the intervention we presented with the renowned American performer and artist, Karen Finley and the African-American Kimiyo Bremer, for a forgotten chapter in the history of New York in a part of Central Park that is not so well known to the general public. The action took place in Seneca Village, the first major African-American settlement and the epicenter of black political power in mid-19th-century Manhattan, where some 1,600 African-Americans were expelled. The settlement occupied the western end of Central Park, between about 83rd and 89th streets. New Yorkers generally believe that slavery was limited to the South, but a 1991 excavation in southern Manhattan showed that there were hundreds of skeletons in a forgotten colonial-era cemetery with 15,000 African skeletons. The burial site, known since 2006 as the African National Burial Site, highlighted the fact that New York in the late 18th century was the center of the slave trade. In 1799 the state of New York ratified the gradual emancipation of enslaved offspring born after July 4 of that year but by 1827 only 16 African Americans had the right to vote in Manhattan. Beyond that, white New Yorkers were constantly harassing African-American institutions, setting fire to churches and blocking school-building efforts. Racial terrorism has worsened and no African-American has been safe. Our intervention seeks to shed light on aspects of this city’s history in its attempt to interpret social justice issues.
For many of us, contemporary art is a kind of refuge from the superficial tendencies of the dominant culture — a place where alternative values, politics and different identities could claim some degree of cultural autonomy. I believe that, due to the lack of strong cultural infrastructure in our country, our cultural diplomacy should also focus on alternative ways of promoting contemporary art.