The expat arts scene in Greece: Those who came, those who left, those in limbo

The art world of Greece is diverse in many ways. The ex-pats that have chosen to live and work here in Greece have added to this diversity. The echoes of some of them, now deceased, even live on in their homes: Canadian Leonard Cohen’s home in Hydra was his sanctuary where he created some of his most beautiful songs and poems. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli (which he donated to the Benaki Museum) likewise was a haven where the eminent British travel writer was able to pen his exciting adventures.

Nowadays, musician Ross Daly has put Crete firmly on the map of the contemporary music scene. Originally from Norfolk, but with Irish roots, he has been living in Greece for over three decades, and has expanded his musical horizons in the country, creating the world-renowned Labyrinth Music Workshop in the village of Houdetsi in Crete. Founded in 1982, the workshop is a centre for the exploration of contemporary modal music. Internationally acclaimed French-Canadian pianist Alain Lefevre, has also made this country his home, as has the musician Blaine Reininger, of Tuxedomoon fame.

In terms of the visual arts, Jill Yakas was a key figure in getting the expat artistic community together, via the exhibitions at her gallery. But there are also Greeks of the diaspora, who have headed back here, such as the Sydney-Greek artist Chrys Roboras. Then there are those Greek artists who left the motherland, only to return, many years later, or who prefer to stay in limbo between countries – the Greek expats, such as Eleni Mylonas, or Filippos Tsitsopoulos. Here’s what some of these expats of the arts, either Greek or from elsewhere, (plus a royal expat), have to say about their experience in Greece, and beyond:

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Blaine Reininger

Musician Blaine Reininger moved to Greece in 1998 from Brussels. “When Tuxedomoon had come to Greece in 1987, I met a journalist, Nikos Triantafyllidis, the son of Harry Klynn,” Mr Reininger told Neos Kosmos. “He was a nascent film director and I started working with him. Pretty soon I had enough action going on in Greece that it made sense to move here. In 1998 I relocated from Brussels, where I had lived for 17 years. By that time, other sides to my career seemed to be winding down, my first wife died after we moved here. Things led to other things, I met Michael Marmarinos the director, who wanted me to act in his production of ‘Agamemnon’, and then I started to have a second career in the Greek theatre, especially in the ‘alternative theatre mafia’ of Athens, through which I met my wife Maria Panourgia (actress and director). I have made music for her productions and that’s what I have been doing and am still doing, working with a lot of different people in the alternative theatre scene, creating music for it but also working as an actor. Now, I’ve just finished a performance at Austria’s Mathausen concentration camp directed by Elli Papaconstantinou, for which I also wrote the music. Also, I ended up having a son here in Greece, which I never expected to happen. He’s now 20 years old and studying in Sydney.”

Reininger goes on to say that Greece was a “life-changing experience” for him. “It has been very welcoming. People liked my band Tuxedomoon. They wanted me to work with them. It hasn’t been financially all that rewarding but that’s the way it is in Greece. People work really hard to make really little money. They have five jobs just to break even. But in terms of the theatre, I don’t know anywhere else in the world that has so many productions going on at the same time. There are hundreds of theatres all over Athens and they have productions that are hiring people and there’s nothing like that anywhere, not in New York, not in Paris, nor Berlin.”

Prince Nikolaos

Prince Nikolaos, former Prince of the Hellenes, whose family was exiled for over four decades from Greece, has made Greece his home since 2013 (together with his wife Tatiana Blatnik). His parents also moved to the country in 2012. He was always an avid photographer, but it was in Greece where Prince Nikolaos’ artistic side flourished. His current show at the Benaki Museum brings together the Aegean and the Desert, connecting the countries of Qatar and Greece (‘Aegean Desert’ runs until 19 January at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art). He has had a number of shows already, his first one being at Christie’s London (2015), and his previous one at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum (2018).

“It’s the Greek light which sparked my interest in photography,” he told Neos Kosmos. “It all started when I came back to Greece from a trip in Switzerland, and there was a thunderstorm brewing. I rushed back home and went up to the top of the roof of my house. The thunderstorm never happened, but it was brewing and I found myself saying ‘thank you for giving me this opportunity to take these photographs’, I’ve been grateful to nature, to God, for providing me with the opportunity to be at the right place and time to take these photos. And it’s almost like a spiritual experience, because you spend all this time behind the viewfinder to get the right composition, and during that time everything else is blocked from your mind, you can’t be thinking of anything else. I went back down and told my wife ‘that was one of the most beautiful 45 minutes of photographic experience I’ve had in my life’, and she said to me ‘you’ve been up there 3 hours!'”

On living in Greece he says: “I’m home now, and I love it. It was a passion of mine from childhood and I got the opportunity to move here so I did.”

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Blaine Reininger of Tuxedomoon fame. Photo: Facebook

Jill Yakas

Jill Yakas moved from England to Greece in the Sixties. Through her work at the British Council, and later at her gallery in Kifissia (Jill Yakas Gallery, 1982-2009), Yakas managed to get together the British expat artists of Greece in particular, creating a very interesting art hub for them.

“There were a number of artists resident in Greece at the time, for instance Hilary Adair and Delia Delderfield,” Me Yakas told Neos Kosmos. “I put on exhibitions of contemporary original prints by established and up-and-coming British artists (Patrick Caulfield, Joe Tilson, David Hockney, Norman Ackroyd), at the British Council gallery in Kolonaki (in 1976, 1978, 1980). Cherry Pickles, Anna Christy and Mary Louise Coulouris, for instance, were recommended by the British Council, Athens, to get in touch with me after the closure of their gallery due to ‘cuts’. Others were introduced to me by artists I was working with (David Shutt via Cherry Pickles, Dorothy Andrews via Scotty Michell). Then there were others whose work I spotted and got in touch with myself (William Pownall, Jennifer Tsiopou). Rosalind Forster got in touch having read about me, Guy Vaesen having heard about me at a dinner party in London, I think. I don’t remember how I met Lilly Kristensen but she was one of the first artists to have a one person show with me and made unique work. Judith Allen I met through an exhibition at the British Council. We went on to work on a number of commissions for passenger ferries. I am very much in touch with the living artists who became good friends. A culmination of my efforts was the exhibition ‘British Artists in Greece’, part of the ‘Britain in Greece Festival’ in 1995.”

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Jill Yakas has immersed herself into the Greek arts scene. Photo: Facebook

Eleni Mylonas

Eleni Mylonas, is an artist who divides her time between New York, Athens and Aegina. She organised the show ‘ex-pats’ in 2017, at the Alex Mylona Museum in Athens, (a museum named after, and founded by her mother, an eminent sculptor). There, the works of various ex-pat artists of Greek origins, who have left Greece, returned to Greece, or are living in between countries were included (Cris Gianakos, Mark Hadjipateras, Despoina Meimaroglou, Eleni Mylonas).

“I never actually decided to divide my time between the land I was born in and the land I adopted and which adopted me in return,” she told Neos Kosmos. “It was the circumstances that brought me in this position. I was studying at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism when the colonels took over the country in a coup, installing a seven-year Junta on Greece. As a budding journalist I had no choice but to stay where I was, in New York, while my country was under siege, albeit with the support of the United States. So I stayed away from Greece for the duration of the Junta and beyond, returning for brief periods for exhibitions and to visit friends and family. Circumstances are somewhat reversed now with the United States itself under the siege of autocracy and lawlessness, while Greece maintains a strong democracy in a very sensitive part of the world which is increasingly ravaged by war and threatened by powerful neighbours. For better or for worse I still divide my time between the two countries absorbing what is best in both of them and keeping the peace.”

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Filippos Tsitsopoulos

Filippos Tsitsopoulos is a contemporary artist who works with performance, drawing from the history of painting. He left Athens for Madrid, where he worked at the Prado Museum, and then moved to London. But he is now slowly making his way back to Athens.

“I now live and work between London and Madrid, but am returning to Athens since the UK is in the midst of the post-Brexit referendum’s landscape,” he told Neos Kosmos. “Brexit to me is a situation that I see in the streets, I see it all over and it poisons people’s characters and dizzies their judgement. I see a country which is divided and politicians that want to get into power in the filthiest way. This is partly one of the two reasons that makes me want to come back to Greece. The other is that as a young boy I tried to reconcile with the figure of the genius white male artist so dear to patriarchal and colonial European art history but also tried to appreciate traditionally defined beauty also as a measure of art, so much so that I think sometimes I have the Stendhal syndrome. You simply have to leave your country in this situation – Greece in my case. But it is that same syndrome that makes me return, in search of that beauty and meaning that has been lost in other parts of the world.”

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Filipos Tsitsopoulos left Athens for Madrid, where he worked at the Prado Museum, and then moved to London. But he is now slowly making his way back to Athens.

Chrys Roboras

Then of course, there are the children of the diaspora, who have been brought up on the ‘Greek dream’, and come here to live it. Sydney-Greek artist Chrys Roboras explains.

“It was my father’s dream for all of us to return to Greece, it became a reality in 1998,” Roboras told Neos Kosmos. “Culturally it has been an enhancement in my personal and artistic life, being in Europe everything is at an arm’s length away. The journey between the two countries, the two cultures, the two upbringings has definitely encouraged a wide range of creative flow.”

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So what to conclude? Basically, that Greece is a muse for creative people, offering plenty of inspiration, widening their horizons in unforeseeable ways. And it is becoming all the more so. A recent article in ‘The Telegraph’ even talks of an Icelandic group of artists that are now living in Kypseli, where another more alternative art scene is developing. The beauty and light of this country, as encapsulated especially in Rosalind Forster’s detailed depictions of Spetses (where she lives and works), are testimony to why Greece offers much to the expat arts scene, and makes even the Greek expat artists unable to say good bye to Greece for good.