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The Refugees Route

Interview by Jana Astanov.

[Photo: Tahir Carl Karmali]

Georgia Lale is a visual and performance artist based in New York City. She was born in Greece and graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Athens. In 2016, she completed her MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is the recipient of several awards and fellowships of excellence. She is coming from a refugee background. Her work explores the limits of the human body— questioning modern society’s responses to global humanitarian and economic issues. She has been widely shown in Europe and the U.S.A. Georgia developed a performance art project entitled #OrangeVest that seeks to confront the refugee crisis in Europe. These public space interventions were performed at different sites in New York and other U.S.A. cities, and most recently in Brussels, where a group of refugee artists was involved in the project. This work was also presented in the Greek Pavillion at 15th Venice Architecture Biennale.

3:AM: How did it all start? What made you a performance artist?

Georgia Lale: I had been taking performance and acting classes at the National Theater of Athens, Greece since I was nine. The classes focused on improvisation and body movement. I’m coming from an artistic family and my parents thought that it would be very important for me and my brothers to get exposed to the arts. During my studies at the Athens School of Fine Arts, I started creating video performances. They were self-portraits that where dealing with gender identification and sexuality. I explored and found my sexual identity through my art and through performance. I found performance to be a very direct medium that helped me express myself, become confident about my body and myself. I’m very interested in working with the human body as I consider it a living sculpture. This contributed to seeking out specialized studies that eventually lead to graduating with a sculptor’s degree. I love working with clay and the human body. For me these two materials are very similar. Later and through my studies at the MFA Fine Arts program of School of Visual Arts in New York City I became interested in creating performances that explore the limits of the human body— questioning modern society’s responses to global humanitarian and economic issues. My interventions in public and private spaces are intended to extend individual freedom of speech and expression.

[Photo: The “Emergence” public interventions took place at the Statue of Liberty, NYC, USA and at the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens Greece, in order to address the global uprise of racism, xenophobia and islamophobia. The Statue of Liberty is working as a symbol of Human Rights and Athens, Greece as mother of democracy. Photos by George Xourafas.]

3:AM: Where there any people who influenced you in the choice of performance art?

GL: I cannot say that they were specific people that influenced my choice to express myself and my times through my body and performance. For me it’s not even a choice between performance or another medium. I’m a multidisciplinary artist which means that I’m working with any medium needed for each work I’m making. I prefer performance over other mediums for some projects because of the immediate and direct connection that this medium is creating between the audience and the artist. I was surely influenced by other artists’ work but often feel that I can’t have a clear vision of my influences. I admire the work of Yoko Ono, Georgia O’ Keefe, Yayoi Kusama, and Louise Bourgeois. Though performance wasn’t always my influences’ primary medium; there was something performative around their lives and works that I greatly admire.

3:AM: What are the themes that you explore?

GL: I am coming from a refugee family myself. My grandfather was a refugee from Turkey who migrated to Greece in 1922. His people that were part of the Greek speaking minority in Turkey were forced to migrate to their “homeland”, but in Greece they faced racism and xenophobia, like any other refugee in the world. They were called “Τουρκόσποροι” (Turkey’s seeds). My grandfather came to Greece as a six-year-old boy with his mother and his five siblings. He had told me that one time he got so hungry that he tried to eat dirt. My grandfather did not speak a lot about those times. He was trying to forget and to leave those memories behind.
I had grown up not knowing where my grandfather was from, what was his religion was, or his heritage. My family thought that he was part of the Greek population in Turkey, but we were wrong. When he died, we surprisingly found out that he was circumcised. He was likely adopted from a Muslim family during the war. The sense of lost roots and the global uprising of xenophobia and Islamophobia that targets refugees, immigrants, and Muslims compelled me to take a strong position and speak up through my art.

[In Crisis performance, created and performed by Georgia Lale. The piece was presented at the opening night of the Tidal Flow Revisited show in Athens Greece, at May 15,2017. Photo by Kostas Lales.]

3:AM: What are some of your notable past projects?

GL: In 2015, I did a year-long series of public interventions called #OrangeVest that addressed the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. The piece used the human body as a living social sculpture and it deployed the visual language of the refugees’ trip from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy as they try to reach Europe. As part of the performance, a group of people walked in public wearing black clothes and orange life vests. The intention of this visual protest was not to force the viewer to interact or to take a position but rather to question and encourage the spectator to find out more about the refugees’ crises. The first #OrangeVest performance took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, where I walked from the museum’s Syrian art section to the Greek art section. My trek in the museum not only symbolizes the refugees’ route. It was also pertinent to the fact that both of these cultures are facing crisis, albeit crises of different natures. The last performance of the series was performed at the European Quarter in Brussels by refugees and locals in front of the European Parliament, the Greek Embassy, as well as the European Commission.

A month ago, I went back to Greece and I performed the piece “In Crisis” as part of the parallel schedule of Documenta 14. The performance was a commentary on the financial and moral crisis in Greece. Back in 2010, the politician Theodoros Pangalos made the statement that all people of Greece, himself included, took advantage of public money in order to profit. That was how he explained the uprising financial crisis in Greece. His exact words were: “Μαζί τα φάγαμε”, “We ate them (the money) together”. That was an extreme immoral statement, considering the fact that its paradigm included hard working people and the new generation of citizens that had not been involved with the mismanagement of the public wealth. The new generation of people in Greece are suffering the most from the misappropriation of power. As part of the “In Crisis” performance, I was eating and stuffing my mouth with enlarged paper EURO bills, self-torturing myself as a symbolic action of the suffering and the struggles my generation is going through. It is a generation that has to pay for the sins of the previous generation that had ruled the country for three decades. Nowadays, Greek society is often expecting from my generation complete sacrifice to build a future under the shadow of austerity and bankruptcy for Greece to prevail through the financial crisis.

3:AM: Who are the most interesting artists nowadays?

GL: I don’t know who are the most interesting contemporary artists. Time will show. I personally admire artists that are expressing our societies’ struggles and inequalities through their art. I strongly believe that is the artist’s responsibility to express their times and speak up against injustices. For me, the artist must have the role of a journalist to varying degrees. Art ought to prevent people from forgetting the struggles of humanity. Humans have a fallible memory. We tend to forget. A short and forgetful memory of our history has proven to be very dangerous for humanity’s future.

[The “Emergence” public interventions took place at the Statue of Liberty, NYC, USA and at the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens Greece, in order to address the global uprise of racism, xenophobia and islamophobia. The Statue of Liberty is working as a symbol of Human Rights and Athens, Greece as mother of democracy. Photo by Tahir Carl Karmali]

3:AM: What are you working on currently?

GL: I’m working on a public performance series that is called “Emergence” that intends to address uprising xenophobia and islamophobia in the U.S.A and in Europe. As part of the piece, I am walking in public spaces, wearing a hijab made out of an emergency heat blanket. The emergency heat blanket is made out of a metallic, golden material and it has been provided as first-aid to rescued refugees that have crossed the Mediterranean Sea. The emergency heat blanket has the ability to raise the body temperature up to 90%. Wearing the hijab, I posed in front of the Statue of Liberty and the Hephaestus’ Temple in Athens that used to be a refugee camp in 1922 housing refugees that came to Greece after a conflict between Greece and Turkey.

I have been living between two cities, Athens and New York City. These are my homes and I am very proud of what my cities are standing up for. New York City is standing up as the American symbol of welcoming the needy, the immigrant, as well as the refugee. New York City is constantly fighting for human rights, for gender equality, for freedom of speech, and free college education. In parallel Athens, the Greek city that founded democracy, philosophy, arts and sciences was the center of the ancient western world. Those two are my cities. Two cities that combine the new and the old. Two cities that have a very long history of migration. Two cities that became the center of the world because of their cosmopolitan character and the constant cultural exchange that made them globally unique. Through this work, I try to speak up against xenophobic and islamophobic voices and incidents that unfortunately are becoming more and more pervasive.

Statue of Liberty

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Poem by Emma Lazarous

[Orange Vest, photo byGeorge Xourafas]

3:AM: As a character in art history, what impact do you think you’ve had? How have you changed the ways in which people look at art?

GL: I am not interested in changing the way people look at art. I believe that people must look at art as they naturally will. What I think is more important and more difficult is to make more people interested in art. This is my primary goal; to bring more people in to the arts and to help the general public understand that art is not a pleasure only for intellectuals. Art is educative. It helps society understand its human-animal nature and develop. The problem is that the majority of the general public are not used to visiting museums and galleries on a regular basis. This is all the more reason why I like creating artwork in public spaces. The viewer does not have to go to a museum or a gallery to see the artwork. The art is going out to find and surprise the viewer. I do know if I am a character in art history or what impact my art has. What I do know is that we all have to work hard together in order to create a social impact and improve our world and our lives.


Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist currently living in New York. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance and new media. She started experimenting with writing poems in English in 2012, and since then has compiled three collections: Antidivine, Northern Grimoire and Sublunar.

Jana Astanov is on Twitter

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 19th, 2017.