We need ears to listen

Somewhere amongst the overwhelming amount of refugees who have entered Europe, are a number of them who are accompanied by an ‘imaginary friend’, created during a workshop with local fine artist, Meletios Meletiou, on the Greek island of Lesvos at the beginning of the year, when Meletiou first visited the location.

Meletiou is not alone in raising awareness of the refugee crisis through the arts; I have been following his steps as he struggles to internalise the current situation and in turn conceptualise its reality through his work.

It’s been months since Meletiou and I have been exchanging ideas about the crisis, through his role as a conceptual artist and as an advocate of the ever-changing situation on the ground and a new European realm.

Born in Limassol in 1989, Meletiou’s work is often preoccupied with situations and conditions which surmount people’s own will. Undeniably, there is a link which intertwines all of his work to date; a missing link in approaching critical matters through the arts, perhaps. This is a link which he defines as being of an ‘anthropocentric nature’.

Yet playing with the belief that human beings have a moral status higher than any other species comes with a certain responsibility, a notion which Meletiou shrugs off as being, above all, human and very much based on one’s morality.

“Whenever there is an artistic attempt, especially regarding such sensitive issues, I find it impossible to escape moral criticism,” admits Meletiou as I question his role as an artist meddling with a humanitarian crisis.

Meletiou acknowledges that the reality refugees face can only be truly understood by people who have lived similar situations or have potentially experienced the situation first-hand; I trust his opinion but query at how feasible it is to represent refugees or the situation at hand through his work.

“My work does not intend to record events in the form of a documentary, nor to present happenings through the eyes of a refugee. I would like to create a project that is based on the present and will show future generations what is happening today; a project to remember those who passed from ‘point zero’ and those who have not succeeded,” says Meletiou as he refers to the title of the work being developed in Lesvos, ‘Lesbos: Simeio 0’, (Levos: Point Zero).

“History repeats itself in a different manner each time and our actions are imprinted in our memory. For some, it torments them, and for others it makes them better people… my installation will be a work of reflection and remembrance,” he adds.

Meletiou began the Lesbos: Simeio 0 project in January by creating small figures out of wire as ‘imaginary friends’ that now accompany refugee children on their journey to Europe.

“The creation of imaginary friends is a parallel activity which is brought to reality in the form of a workshop. In this case, the activity took place at the refugee camp of Better Days of Moria [Lesvos],” reveals Meletiou.

“The ‘imaginary friends’ are figures made out of wire who accompany not only little children but also others on their journey. This is supposed to be an alter ego; the creation of a symbolic, imaginary world: a trusted friend to listen to all their thoughts, to keep them company and play tirelessly with them whenever they feel like it,” he explains.

Referring to the use of the Greek word ‘σημείο’ (spot), Meletiou adds, “Lesvos is ‘the spot’: the end of a dreadful journey from a war-zone to a European shore, but also the beginning of something new for them, something that ‘civil’ Europe makes harder for them day by day”. Wire has been a material that seems to follow Meletiou through his varying works: particularly, one can identify the artist with a wire hanger which he uses to represent human weakness.

I see wire as a crucial symbol for refugees themselves, they are confronted with barbed wire and fences which, in my eyes, constitute a prominent visual barrier for refugees. Meletiou is aware of this paradox, and will, it seems, continue to use it as he develops the Lesbos: Simeio 0 project further.

“It is an interesting conceptual parameter that coincides with the theme of this project. In my work, the wire is being used as part of a three-dimensional presentation, from the dozens of my initial sketches, which are mainly just outlines,” he says.

“The procedure of creation — or establishment — is evident in the handling and final form of the material, and as a result the definition of ‘memory’ carries a lot of meaning in my work, especially on a project such as Lesbos: Simeio 0, in which ‘memory’ is the final goal.

“The hanger symbolises people with weaknesses, trapped in situations and circumstances beyond their own will. The installation will therefore consist of a plethora of hand-made hangers, made with wire, which will be used to create a mass proportionate to that of the lifejackets on the beaches of Lesvos.

“The project testifies the coercion of the refugees to flee their houses and to seek a new, peaceful beginning. They remove their personal ‘hangers’ just as they remove their life-jackets whilst they take their first steps ashore and at the same time take their first steps on the difficult path to the ‘freedom’ of Europe.”

“I would like to create a project that reflects the present and looks into the future of what is happening today; a project to remember those who have passed from the Lesbos: Simeio 0 and those who have not succeeded,” he adds as he refers to the natural evolution from his previous project ‘PortaCorpi’.

“PortaCorpi was the evolution of my previous work, emphasi-sing the conceptual significance of the hangers as symbols that deal with issues of physical and spiritual freedom. ISIS’s parade pictures was the focal point for this project, where those picture showed do-zens of people trapped in individual prisons.

“Their characteristic orange-coloured uniform which in general terms created a strong correlation with the symbolism of the hangers in my previous works. Sometime later the orange colour, from the lifejackets, would flood the beaches of Lesvos and huge mountains of lifejackets will develop, alongside natural mountains, a disorganised scene that is a shame for humanity as a whole.”

Currently, Meletiou has submitted Lesbos: Simeio 0 for the Talent Award 2016, but is prompt to clarify that it is only part of a series of installations which he intends to carry out in the near future and potentially after he visits Lesvos once again.

“The most important thing at the moment is to resume the workshops of the ‘imaginary friends’ in Lesvos which is arranged to take place in the near future – if of course there isn’t any subversive evolution, seeing what is happening on a daily basis,” clarifies Meletiou.

Dignified in his approach, and in his wording, I try to fault him to no avail. Even when I prod at how feasible it is to explore the notion of giving a voice and a made of expression for refugees, or even singling out the voice of refugees as opposed to those of migrants, he turns it upon ourselves.

“As the time passes us by and this paranoia doesn’t seem to end, I get the impression that if someone needs something, it is us. We need ears to listen to their voices. Even if that voice comes from a refugee or an immigrant. No one leaves their home with the risk of dying, suddenly, and without a reason.”

More information about Meletios Meletiou and his work can be found at www.meletiosmeletiou.com

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London