Mapping Desire – The Experience of Place and Routes

The project “Mapping desire: The Experience of place and routes” was designed and curated by artist Christina Nakou. It was presented at the Benaki Museum in Athens (19/5 to 29/6/2016), in the occasion of the International Day of Museums (2016, Museums and Cultural Landscapes), and in the context of the “What is Home?” project of the European Cultural Exchange Programme – Tandem Europe.

 “What is Home?” is an engagement process focused on youth, aiming to provoke expressions of identity through art & culture, using cultural entities as mediators. Through a simple-yet-loaded question, it engages generation-Z in intercultural dialogue on identity, stimulating positive thinking on diversity and cultivating empathy on current migration challenges.

Tandem Europe is an initiative which was developed by European Cultural Foundation (Amsterdam) and MitOst e.V. (Berlin) together with Fondazione Cariplo (Milan). It is financially supported by Robert Bosch Stiftung (Stuttgart) and Stavros Niarchos Foundation (Athens).

Tandem Europe supports experimental collaborations between cultural change makers from the EU member states. It is tailor-made for cultural managers who work on creative solutions that tackle contemporary challenges in our societies and want to cultivate pioneering ideas and generate socio-economic impact with partners throughout the EU. The programme helps to create and sustain culturally innovative impact across sectors, disciplines and borders and allows cultural professionals from many different disciplines to acquire skills required for innovation processes, engaging long-term partnerships and organisational change.

Read more about the project in:

Museumedu 4 / Srping 2017, pp. 211-246. Copyright © 2017 by Museum Education and Research Laboratory, University of Thessaly. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

“In this part, Mapping desire: The experience of place and routes, we present a part of the paintings that were created by children and youngsters in the context of the art workshop that the artist Christina Nakou organized in shelters for unaccompanied migrant – refugee minors and public schools in Athens.

Christina Nakou’s project together with the youngsters’ paintings call us to approach the issue of migration and, especially, the reality of unaccompanied migrant-refugee minors from an open to several alternative perspectives point of view, while, at the same time, they shed light on the dynamics and hopefulness of youth. They also underline the significance of educational initiatives that a) promote communication among people of different cultural, ethnic and social background and status; b) enable expression of ideas, thoughts, feelings, expectations and fears; c) recognize children’s and youngsters’ creative competences; d) respect and present their artistic creations as works of art; and e) use visual or other kinds of art to record and present non-clearly formulated personal and collective experiences and situations that cannot be verbalised.

The paintings are presented in a plain mode, accompanied only by the artist’s notes over the personal, educational and social circumstances under which they were created. According Christina Nakou, this plain presentation aims at underlining the paintings polysemy as works of art, inviting us to construct our own readings, interpretations and thoughts and to reflect about them.

The project “Mapping desire: The experience of place and routes” was presented at the Benaki Museum in Athens (19/5 to 29/6/2016), in the occasion of the International Day of Museums (2016, Museums and Cultural Landscapes), andin the context of the “What is Home?” project of the European Cultural Exchange Programme – Tandem Europe.

The painter’s note

The art workshop “Mapping Desire: The experience of place and routes” focuses on the idea of Desire as the strength that motivates us to stand for life and creation.

Having worked as an artist in shelters for unaccompanied migrant-refugee minors for three months, I was impressed by their dynamics and their optimism. Most migrant-refugee minors expressed their intense desire to carry out their long journeys to countries of northern Europe and meet their families. Other, wish to stay in Greece. All of them imagine a life in safety and prosperity.

These youngsters, really, inspired me. They reminded me that Utopia, even if scarcely reached, offers hope and stimulates us as a motivating force. The “Mapping of Desire” project emerged by their optimism and their insistence to accomplish their imaginary. Αnd the exhibition of their artworks attempted to express this positive, optimistic gaze and the dynamics of youth. It mainly attempted to contrast the unfair gaze of mercy with a gaze of contact, acquaintance and recognition.

In addition, my experience of working at the shelters led me to realize how important it would be for the migrant-refugee minors to communicate with other youngsters of their age who permanently live in Greece, but, also, how important it would be for school students to communicate with migrant-refugee youngsters of their age. On this basis, the “Mapping of Desire” project was realised by the participation of unaccompanied migrant-refugee minors and school-students of two public schools of Athens, some of which are “natives”, while other students are second or third-generation refugees or migrants, the families of which came to Greece from Albania, Poland, Nigeria, Congo, Romania, Egypt, Pakistan, Bulgaria and Philippines. Consequently, the participants were “natives”, second-generation migrants, and minor migrants-refugees that had just arrived in Greece. In a way, three different states of experience coexisted: permanency, relocation and being on the move.

The idea of desire –as motivation for change and action– refers to all these three states. What was actually recorded in the paintings was both desire and its absence or lack.

The participants were asked to map the place of present residency, the place of origin or nostalgia, and the place of desire or expectation. They were asked to draw pictures, use personal or impersonal photos, to write down stories or record feelings. They were also asked to describe their drawings and narrate their stories. They were asked to interpret their personal experiences of place.

The project did focus on the survey of desire and its gaze rather than on topographical approaches to different places, since place was conceived as being imprinted through personal quest and as being presented as a valuable space that can express and unite the private, the social and the historical.

The participants’ artworks carry nostalgia but also express the dynamics of the present and the transformative imaginary of the future. In a way, they refer to the innovative potential of realizing, choosing and standing for desire and its multiplicity.

Usually, youth is gifted with optimism and fearlessness. Still, in any age, we all need to allow ourselves to dream and desire, in order to survive and remain alive. In every subjective experience of the present, desire motivates action and forms its interpretation.

I suppose that Αrt can offer a space where our desires can guide our perception and colour the interpretation of the present.


The place of current residence

The school-students and the migrant-refugee minors were asked to draw a map of the place of their current residence They sat around a large paper in order to mark their home, their school, the shelter, the playground, their favourite routes or other things that they consider important for themselves.

The fifth grade primary-school students (10-11 year old) worked all together and enjoyed drawing the neighbourhood of their school, in which they live and which they seem to like. One student, though, did not mark her daily route to school, because, as she said, she did not like going to school. In her case, desire may be expressed as denying doing something.

On the contrary, for the second grade high-school students (13-14 year old) it was difficult to participate. They tried to avoid it and it was only when they were informed that they could draw whatever they like in their neighbourhood that they started marking their favourite bar at the main square of their area, the billiards and the internet café. Nevertheless, most students could not orientate themselves. Others started asking for help, saying that they do not actually have a favourite spot or something that appeals their interest. A student from Nigeria marked the school party at the Black and White bar. Other students started participating marking their homes, their promenades around the neighbourhood or the bus that they take in order to go training. What was most surprising was their hesitation to define what is that they really enjoy doing. Adolescents that spend their days without personal interests or wishes? Their maps show the absence of desire and orientation – or, rather, that their desires remain hidden, or unconscious.

The migrant-refugee minors in the shelter drew their maps working in smaller groups or one by one, because they do not share the same language. Some of them used official maps to form a picture of the place where they live, while others drew the nearby Metro station, the square where they meet with other migrants-refugees, or the sea, through which they came to Greece, although they did not know how to swim.

Unsettledness, uncertainty or fluidity in marking the place of current residence, in contrast with the certainty and stability of the place of origin or the place of expectation? The past – although hard – exist as a reality, and the future as desire. The present escapes.

The place of origin or nostalgia

The school students and the migrant-refugee minors were asked to draw their homeland, the place of origin. Most youngsters drew a positive picture related with feelings of love and the presence of their family and friends. In other paintings, though, homeland relates to pain and insecurity.

Students who originate from different parts of Greece or East European countries, but have actually grow up in Athens, visit their villages or homelands usually during vacations. So, they relate their place of origin with leisure time, the relaxation of the summer and the communication with the members of their wider family, grandparents, uncles and friends. Students who originate from Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines or Egypt and live in Athens with their families use to visit their homelands from time to time. Thus, they drew their homelands expressing relevant positive feelings. Two students from Nigeria (in different schools) said that actually they would prefer to draw the airport rather than Nigeria. What they most like during these trips, is the sensation of traveling, being en route.

Some youngsters in the shelters, who are already staying there for some months and they feel quite safe and secure, also drew favourite places of their homelands. For example, one minor from Iran drew a picture of his own town showing a park, a fountain with a fish and an amusement park, and another minor from Bangladesh drew his house, a tree and the sun.

On the contrary, refugee youngsters from Syria or Afghanistan express agony and

The place of desire or expectation.

The students and the migrant-refugee minors were asked to draw the place of their dreams in a way that could include both imaginary and real characteristics. Where would they like to live?

Many drawings show houses in the countryside or at the seaside. One drawing shows a tree house, but another picture shows a luxurious villa with balconies, helicopters, a
marina and a swimming pool. “What we are all looking for, is a simple
and comfortable life. Isn’t that so?” mentioned the student who drew the latter.

A school girl from Bulgaria drew New York and a school-boy from Poland drew the Central Park, noting “What I like is the existence of a great park in the centre of the city”. Their classmate from Egypt drew a monster city and noted: “I want to live here, where no one gets killed.”

Youngsters in the shelter drew a detailed map of Germany, (using a map of Germany online), a map of Austria, where they will meet their family, or the map of Greece, where some minors wish to live. Others drew the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo (accurate representation of a picture in the Internet) or the Big Ben in London.

The students in the Primary School drew pictures of their vacations. Yet many of them
drew pictures of sandy beaches with palm trees, expressing a clear orientalist or exotic character.

The different drawings could lead us to observe two opposite directions of the expressed imaginary routes, and to pose the question:  Is there a link between imagination and reality?