By Emily Spalding
Perched on the hill of Schisto refugee camp in Athens, a large rabbit — around 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall — has found a home, with grass at her feet and the blue sky as her backdrop.
Stretched along an ISOBOX modular housing unit, an intricate painting of the rabbit spans the length of the box, offering a pop of color amid the browning terrain.
“We try to add color wherever we can,” explained Manos Chatzelis, who works at another refugee camp, Kara Tepe, located in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. As he spoke, he gestured to a sea of unique images carefully painted onto numerous containers. Chatzelis said that during his two years at the camp, it had transformed from a transit center to what operators now term a “hospitality center.” He attributed some of its sense of community to the art that now defines the camp’s atmosphere.
Artwork in refugee camps has become increasingly common in Greece, especially in Athens and Mytilene. Organizations like Project Elea at Eleonas camp in Athens, as well as visiting groups of volunteers from fine art schools, have worked to incorporate art into daily life in the camps by painting artwork on the containers. Additionally, they often offer a slew of artistic activities for camp residents.
Images of inspiring phrases and familiar pop culture icons in the container paintings seem to serve as emblems of culture, unity and hope. Sporadically placed throughout the camps, the paintings appear to serve as reminders of what lies outside the camps while still honoring what — and who — is still inside. Zooming out and zooming in on these works of art grants an entirely different perspective, one that works to emulate the experience of encountering the art in person.
At first, the art feels somewhat showy, with the vibrant colors sticking out as individual projects that lack a common thread. Some images — such as Winnie the Pooh — seem strikingly out of place. On further review, viewers might notice an unexpected cohesiveness throughout the various paintings.
By employing pictures and words that resonate with everyone, the artwork may forge a sense of normality in an otherwise almost unfathomable situation.