Despina Meimaroglou is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou
Despina Meimaroglou was born and raised in Egypt (1944) and her deep interest and continuous observation of the overpowering socio-political situations which rule and determine the human fate around the world usually become the ignition of her involvement in long term art-projects. In 1966, after the completion of her art studies (NDD) at Kent Institute of Art and Design in Maidstone, Kent,UK, and due to the political upheaval taking place in Egypt during that time, she moved with her family to Athens where she worked as a graphic artist and art director in advertising for 10 years. Since the end of the seventies she devoted her time entirely to her artistic endeavour. Since 1981,she has presented more than 30 solo exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has participated in important international shows at museums and art foundations, such as: [un]known destinations, chapter I, former Zarifi residence, Kypseli, Athens, 2017;the Pyramid Atlantic Art Centre, Washington DC; JohnJayCollegeofCriminalJustice/CUNY, NY; Columbia College,Chicago; Fondazione Mudima, Milan; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris and other shows in Toronto, Czech Republic and the Library of Alexandria in Egypt among others. In 2009, she participated in the 2ndBiennale of Thessaloniki, Greece and the 1stInternational Women’sBiennale at Incheon South Korea. Since the mid 1990’s, her work has been presented repeatedly in a number of important art conferences mainly in the United States and she has been invited to several art workshops and residencies at American universities and foundations as well as at Quito University in Ecuador, Richmond American College in London and recently at MEU (Middle East University, in Amman, Jordan). Series of her works are included in important collections of American universities as well as museums in Greece (State museum of Contemporary Art Thessaloniki, Rethymnon Centre for Contemporary Art, Crete, the Portalakis Collection), and in private collections both in Greece and abroad. Today, her art practices include photography, video, in situ installations, printmaking and a number of artists’ books.
KP: Your work concentrates on aspects of cross-cultural narratives. How do you engage with a different narrative each time?
DM: Before going any further, Ιimpel to reveal that I initially conceive myself as a storyteller, always feeling the need to recite self-created stories or ones that somewhat settled in my perception. As time goes by, I seem to continuously dig out memories related to my early years in Alexandria; whereat, being the oldest of a bunch of cousins, I used to almost enforce them to sit still in our grandfather’s sitting room in order to follow me playact the stories I had made up for the occasion. I strongly believe that one’s family background and childhood have a great effect on one’s later life since we all carry within us our progenitors. My personal history includes roots in Asia Minor and significant experiences in Alexandria, Cairo, Upper Egypt, Athens, England and the USA. The relentless history unfolding continuously around my end of the world could be identified as my personal testimony, my own narrative, in the form of a life-long continuous journey. The varied experiences Ιhaveaccumulated mixing and residing in various parts of the world and the familiarity with a number of different languages I possess shared with dissimilar individuals, have provided me with access to a lot of knowledge, cross-cultural narratives and exchange of thoughts, shaping my priorities in continual communication with the Other, which I identify as ‘the human condition’.
KP: Throughout your career, you seem to have developed a keen interest in the way identities are constructed or deconstructed based on socio-economic and historical parameters. Do you interpret this as a result of your own personal story which has inevitably influenced the conditions under which you see and understand things?
DM: The identity issues remain very important in my work. Being born and raised in Egypt within an international society baring dissimilar identities, languages, religions,in an era during which -I am afraid to confess- the European society was still very prominent due to sociopolitical reasons of those times, made me aware from an early age of the way identities were carved in our subconscious. It helped me discover and face-up the Other. My art has evolved from social documentation. One of my main preoccupations over the years has been the mutual relationship between reality and its representation, truth and fiction, social and political (f)acts and their distortion. In effect, my aim is to try to capture and reconstitute my perception of truth from the layers of time and memory as well as from the mediation of social and media-induced stereotypes; observing and following the world news extensively has made me hugely conscious of the injustice reigning around us and urged me to try uncover facts in the course of my art-telling stories. Primarily, I am underlining the importance of the cinematographic notion which continues to remain the main aspect of my narration and the use of certain film titles that for some reason have been transcribed into my memory, after being mutated into something very personal, they often re-appear as titles for some of my series. Usually, the process starts with the collection of articles and images from the daily press and newsreels which are then manipulated or re-structured in such a way that either de-constructs the given information or exposes the manner by which it is communicated or adds more layers to it in an attempt to create more associations and offer new interpretations. That becomes my confrontation with the harsh so-calledreality, which always surrounds me.
KP: In your oeuvre, what is the role of politics and the way it affects our lives and how does your audience react or interact with it?
DM: I very often hear the sentence “I am not interested in politics”. I firmly believe that no matter what, that in itself, confirms a political statement; the repetition of history has become easily overlooked in our fast-paced, cruel material world. Our priorities have changed completely. Ever since the end of the 20th century, due to the intense globalisation, the easy expeditious access to all kinds of every imaginable consuming-related item or state of mind representing happiness reaches us throughout the media. This process has successfully managed to overturn our common consciousness. The newsreels which continuously infest our screens are catalytic. The media has finally managed to create an immune society by urging us to blur the boundaries between reality and high-tech Hollywood productions. The compromise between a popular war-movie and the horrendous homicide of an entire Syrian village ended up becoming a banal everyday narrative. I believe synchronicity is of primary importance. My daily assessment of unfolding universal news dealing with violence on political and social issues is the cause that ignites my inspiration. It becomes my endeavor to reach and impel mainly younger audiences throughout my storytelling as an attempt to present the huge importance of coexistence with the Other in an amalgam of ventures and insight gathered during my endless travels around the world. I often catch myself adapting the methods I have accumulated during the long period I spent in my youth working in advertising trying to transmit my message to the public opinion and ending up turning viewers into my accomplices. My intention is to try revealing the deceivingly obscure reality which lies in the shadow of the seductively produced images masterfully presented by the media.
KP: Painting, print making, video and performance have been part of your artistic vocabulary for over five decades. How did that come about?
DM: The ignition of my art related discovery derived around the age of 12. Due to the fact that Minia –my hometown in Upper Egypt– did not provide a further Greek education, I had to move to Alexandria and adjust to the new environment away from home; to become a ‘lodger’. By rewinding my thoughts to those beginnings, I clearly see now the need which urged me to the construction of a private world tightly connected to the magic sensation of watching exciting stories unfolding in the dark environment of movie theatres. That unimaginable discovery was soon to take me back to my unforgettable recollection of the camera obscura phenomenon which I witnessed one hot summer day at the age of four and when put for an afternoon nap in a very dark room. I remember my astonishment when I noticed the dust particles filtered through a tiny hole on the wooden shutter settling on the bedroom ceiling while casting the scenes from the street below in reverse in colors and motion. That awesome memory has remained inscribed in my mind ever since. As an art student in England, I carry many recollections of myself in the typography department picking metal letters and setting words and sentences meaningful to me on the galley. Typography and the printing inks still have a tremendous effect on my psyche. Hand-printmaking became my art medium when I first settled in Athens in 1966. A year later, due to the gruesome seven years of dictatorship in Greece, I started producing series of hand-printed – mainly black and white– woodcuts, attempting to express publicly my severe distress for the regime. My basic themes at the time usually depicted revolutionary subject matters. The images were often replaced by meaningful words. Up until today, words often replace images in my work. I see this idiosyncrasy, which is tightly bound to my past as a graphic artist, being carried to my continuous devotion to the book making process as an art object.
KP: How have you been witnessing the progress of your own work and have you received or exchanged ideas and influences from other fellow artists in other parts of the world?
DM: Self-induced installations and performances hold a prominent part in my art practices. My constant experimental research involving new techniques especially related to the printed image had already began to appear shortly after my initiative visit to New York in 1983 which marked the birth of a very strong bond and exchange of ideas with a group of brilliant American artists, (such as Theodoros Stamos, Jack Whitten, Cris Gianakos and Helen Frederick) which remains to this day my artistic family.I discovered the polaroid towards the end of the 80s. I was driven towards that particular way of expression by the false colors effect of the medium, which refers to a dreamlike [false] reality. I was further engaged with the power of the moving image later, while constantly watching on my screen the newsreels and the first live broadcasts of the US bombardments in Bagdad in 2003. That triggered my ongoing involvement of a series of hand-made short videos, in order to reveal and narrate my personal feelings on socio-political injustice. The compartmentalization of sections of the image into a grid format, the separation into frames originates largely from my love for the movies. I am mesmerized by seeing the unfolding of the scenes in film, the transitions and the fragmentation. It is like the way thoughts follow one another; they don’t happen all at once. This helps me get into a new situation just by adding those frames, which are finally transformed into my personal genre of storytelling.
KP: How would you describe the contemporary art scene in comparison to what it used to be a few decades ago?
DM: During the last 30 years, my horizon was broadened during numerous art residencies and presentations of my art practices mainly at prestigious American art institution and universities and induced my research related to new mediums and exploitation of multiple overlaying techniques related especially to contemporary printmaking, which I continue to ensure to this day. I grew up in the 60s, when the young discovered their freedom. Back then, the issues which ignited almost everybody’s art practice were tied to the humanitarian response; the latent race and gender inequality, the horrors of the Vietnam War, the issues around feminism. The revolutionary winds blowing in every direction became the initiation for the big change which soon overtook every aspect of art including music, fashion, cinematography and writing. The difference in comparison to today’s contemporary practices can be described as the loss of innocence. Today, thanks to the unstoppable hammering by the media in every sense, we are all faced endlessly with the current human condition. No one can any longer remain innocent. Refugees, migration, gender relations, climate change, slavery, terrorism, the financial and political crisis and even religious conflict governed by the role of the media are mainly the current issues excelling in every aspect of our lives.
KP: To what extent do you believe that contemporary art today can be identified as regional, or has it adopted a more global character (i.e. artists from different parts of the world talking about the same issues) in the recent years?
DM: Art has always been the mirror of the society we happen to exist in. I believe that one of the good aspects of the present globalisation has led humanity to consolidate our common fate. The first thing crossing my mind is the large number of movies I’ve had the chance to come across during this last decade and deriving from filmmakers belonging to diverse socio-political backgrounds, from seemingly dissimilar societies nevertheless dealing with an identical matter closely related to our universal human condition. Hopefully, this fact will make us more knowledgeable at recognizing that ‘we are all human after all’. Finally, I’d like to single out from a large number of fellow artists I profoundly respect, the work of three artists I feel affiliated to, Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum and Francis Alýs.