Face and speech are interlinked. The face speaks.

It talks, and it is the essence of the person that makes this possible and kick-starts any conversation.

Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity[1]


The project


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Photo by Nantia Panagopoulou


Face Forward …into my home is an interactive art project focused on the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homelands and are rebuilding their life in Greece. It includes: i) storytelling workshops in the museum inspired by a selection of contemporary artworks from the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST), ii) photo shooting of portraits outside the museum, and iii) museum exhibition of photographic portraits and personal narratives, with the aim to make refugees’ voices heard by as broad an audience as possible.


The project was implemented in collaboration with UNHCR and is funded by the European Commission, in the framework of the ESTIA programme. Following its first presentation and warm reception in Athens at EMST (2017-2018), the whole project was implemented and presented in Heraklion, Crete (2018) and in Thessaloniki (2018); a selection of portraits was also presented at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (2018); with the initiative of the Embassy of Slovakia in Greece, the exhibition was transferred to Košice, Slovakia (2019).


Lastly, the project was chosen to be presented among the digital activities of the Greek Chairmaship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (May-November 2020). The concept of equality, which was supported by the Greek Chairmanship, regardless of origin, religion, family and social status, age, gender, sexual orientation or any other criteria, is one of the basic principles on which Face Forward… into my home, both at the design stage and throughout its implementation and presentation, is based.


While among the initial aims of the project was to focus on personal stories prompted by contemporary artworks, its presentation through the EVC website reveals another aspect: the multiperspective approaches to artworks by people from deferent backgrounds, which meets EVC’s interest in diversity and the meanings and narratives that can be told about particular works.


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 Photo by Nantia Panagopoulou


This Introduction from the exhibition catalogue presents the idea of the whole project and puts it into the context of contemporary culturally diverse societies. The notion, put forward by Alma Wittlin in 1970, that “museums are not islands in space [but] have to be considered in the context of life outside their walls[2], still has a timely resonance. In today’s rapidly changing and ever more inclusive and multicultural society, museums are called upon to adapt and re-examine their role in society. The shifting demographic and cultural composition of European cities is challenging museums to take initiatives to enhance public engagement and promote social cohesion. Indeed, if today’s museums fail to respond to the needs and interests of different cultural and social groups, they will be viewed by the public as a luxury for the privileged few.


As a field of human endeavour, art discovers and brings to light facets of reality through its symbolic, and hence profoundly critical, language. Artists today are dealing with contemporary political and social conditions, multiculturalism, the refugee question, issues of war, violence, oppression, tyranny, discrimination, exclusion and poverty. In their work, these artists interrogate and critique these issues, often uncovering their reverse side, and in doing so, clear a path for dialogue and the re-examination, when not the revision, of broadly accepted perceptions.


Drawing on these aspects of contemporary art, the project Face Forward …into my home invited individuals from other countries who recently arrived in Greece as refugees and are now living in Athens, for a series of discussions. The purpose of the invitation was not only to facilitate access to art and culture for a group of persons for whom a visit to the museum is not an everyday priority at this point in their lives, given the circumstances. Rather, the main goal of the programme was to engage these participants as active stakeholders in a dialogue on issues of concern to us all. It is the kind of dialogue which contemporary art, in the end, seeks to provoke, and which is founded on cultural pluralism and mutual respect.


With works from the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EΜΣΤ) serving as a starting point and stimuli for discussion—though no prior contact or familiarity with contemporary art was assumed— participants retrieved memories, made connections with current and past experiences, and shared their ideas, feelings, and aspirations with the group. Through this process, a series of personal narratives gradually emerged, stories of individuals of different national or ethnic origins, religious backgrounds and beliefs, family status, social standing, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. Taken as a whole, these narratives exhibit a diversity of character, outlook, intensity, emotional colouring and ways of thinking. The common core of all these stories, however, is the profound need to communicate and the dreams for the future.


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 Photos by Stella Tzachrista and Marina Tsekou


The refugee question is portrayed these days, in both text and image, in a way that highlights hardship, acts of cruelty and despair. It is uncertain to what extent such an approach can foster respect for these persons, engender hope for their future, and cultivate solidarity, acceptance and social cohesion. Furthermore, refugees are not numbers and percentages, however often they are referred to as such. These reasons explain why Face Forward …into my home, as project and exhibition, approaches the subject in a different way, which is best described in the words of Emmanual Lévinas: “to see the face is to speak of the world”.[3]


The exhibition brings together the material produced in the project, namely, 20 photographic portraits and an equal number of recorded personal stories of the persons portrayed. The creation and exhibition of these large-format portraits aim to highlight the uniqueness and specific features of each of these individuals, who together compose the visage of the world today. The viewer is invited to meet these faces, hear their voices and come to realize that whatever differences exist, they do not divide societies, but, on the contrary, enrich them. The visitor is further called upon to discover how these similarities—their shared hopes and struggles and deepest emotions—constitute, in the end, the common ground on which we all stand. Perhaps the exhibition Face Forward …into my home gives new meaning to André Malraux’s concept of the museum, which he saw as “one of the places that shows man at his noblest.”[4]


Marina Tsekou, EMST, Education Curator

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  Photos by Vladislav Zukovsky and Stella Tzachristan


[1]            Lévinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and infinity: conversations with Philippe Nemo. Transl. Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, 1995, Pittsburgh, PA

[2]            Wittlin, Alma S. “A Twelve Point Programme for Museum Renewal.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, edited by Gail Anderson, The MIT Press, 1970, Cambridge, Mass.

[3]            Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1960, Pittsburgh, PA

[4]            Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. Transl. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price, Secker & Warburg, 1967, London.

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