Irini Gonou’s latest exhibition ‘A Tale of Two Cultures’ combines Greek and Arabic cultures, highlighting in particular the ancient civilisations with the use of the ‘protective written word’, amulets, tunics and symbols. Irini wanted to keep the pieces and the exhibition in line with that of a museum, not bringing it out of its context and focusing on that period of time. Although the two are distinctive, they are joined by history and the sharing of the Mediterranean sea, and as Irini has pointed out “..the wider Mediterranean area is charged culturally with supernatural powers” as we can see through her work. ‘A Tale Of Two Cultures’ is currently neing exhibited at Lahd Gallery in London.
NM: There is an endearing quality when 2 cultures are used together in some art form, the experience is so enriching. Your work combines both Greek and Arab cultures; what did you want to highlight through using the two together, especially in a period where both are faced with their own crises and going through major changes?
IG: I don’t know how some things affect us more than others but old civilizations and especially those that have left their traces around Mediterranean Sea have always a big attraction for me. “Our Sea” joined its people together. The threads of its history are mixed, its memory confused, and that’s what I want to highlight in this exhibition. Two cultures, the Greek – the one I was born in, and the Arabic – the one I adopted, with their distinctive indigenous scripts, are here in dialog with their continuous and life-affirming exchanges and their cross-fertilisation influences. Actually, both in social and economic crises, I think they benefit from having a look to their collective cultural memory, as the mirror-shield Perseus used to extinguish Medusa.
NM: What is the story behind your latest exhibition “A Tale of Two Cultures” and what do you want to evoke in your audience?
IG: This exhibition is a “magic” wandering into the healing and protective power of the written word as a specific cultural idiom and as a dialogue between the Greek and Arabic culture. Some objects are inspired from real “magical” objects I have seen in the museums and then transformed in my own way. There are others that I invented totally trying to make them as they would be real. The whole collection is a kind of quasi-museum. When I exhibited some of them at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Athens between the museum’s displayed objects, some people were confused thinking them real. Using entirely natural materials such as textiles, fired clay, reeds, leaves, seed pods, eucalyptus bark and linen or cannabis twine, I make my own interpretations of amulets and protective clothing, magic bowls and talismanic objects.
NM: When did you start this project?
IG: This project began in 2007. Some of the objects have been shown at my exhibition “Al Khatt, the magic script” which took place at the Museum of Islamic Arts of Athens in 2008. Others were made in 2011-12. At The Museum, the written protection was only about Arabic script. For my recent exhibition at the Lahd Gallery, I created a dialogue between Greek and Arabic scripts. In between I was working on the Greek magic objects.
NM: I am interested in your “exploration of the protection of written words”. This is very mystical and actually, in mysticism, we are taught that the power of words; both written and spoken orally are in fact very real and once something is written or spoken, it is forever there. What did you discover in the power and protection of written words?
IG: I think for me everything began the day I discovered in the British Museum, two extraordinary tunics – the batakari tunic adorned with amulets, and the rigan yaki talismanic tunic both “made” for the Ashanti people of Ghana, inscribed with Quran verses and magical diagrams. I was completely amazed and consider these two pieces to be my initiation into the “magic world”. The Arabic words, letters and numbers are considered in the Islamic world to be of a divine essence and the written word to provide protection. The protective properties of small pieces of paper composed by the marabou in West Africa in order to protect his patient are generally well-known. Likewise Ethiopian magic scrolls and Greek magic papyri, to report only some examples of an unending list. So the written word, in the larger Mediterranean area, is charged culturally with supernatural powers and linked mystically to the elements composing the universe. Actually in our contemporary societies we are also attracted to the word and its magic power in many different ways. Words are everywhere. We are definitely the composers of our own magic universe. Writing down our intimate thoughts, spelling the lyrics of our favourite song – the enchantment is there!
NM: Do you personally believe in the protection amulets and symbols contain?
IG: I believe in the healing qualities of nature and I also believe in the power symbols are charged with through collective memory and cultural and traditional process, as well as the “animation” of shaped object through hand made work. Nature’s respect, patience, and the amount of time spent on each one of these objects are operating positive emanations.
NM: The more we can embrace each culture, showing them side by side, as we see in your work, it is very clear that the essence of it can never be threatened or erased. Cultures, especially when combined together, can play a large role in the healing process in a world where so much turmoil is present. What are your thoughts on this?
IG: I think that we artists, like medicine men, marabous or Bamana priests of our contemporary societies, have to revisit the symbols again in order to reactivate ancient bonds to stimulate the healing process in our societies in turmoil.
NM: Now, on to more technical questions. I saw a lot of natural materials being used in the various pieces. I hear a lot of different artists who work with natural materials and stone say how much they feel a connectedness to the earth and our planet in general. What are the reasons for you?
IG: Truth is that working with natural materials you are feeling the pulse of nature and this process provides you with a long lasting feeling of well being. The more you delve into exploring nature’s secrets the tougher are the challenges, because you are in an immensity of new experiments with “magical” properties. Working on my magic bowls, amulets, protective talismans and charms, I used fired clay, reeds, eucalyptus leaves and barks and calabash seeds. I also made my own natural inks and decoctions. None of these materials could be bought and everything had to be found and made from scratch. Same for my inscribed magic scrolls and protective tunics. Working on these raw materials, I was at the same time meditating on their medical-magical-protective properties and symbolic meanings.
NM: I saw a very interesting piece using cannabis strings, which you told mentioned that they came from China. You also used calabash seeds and Aloe Vera dried flowers. What made you decide to use these? What made you get the cannabis strings from China?
IG: I found cannabis string at a Chinese cooperative society in Paris and I was attracted by the mythology of this drug and medicine plant. I made my amulet-tunic at my studio in Naxos Island, tying knots of this cannabis string every day for a month during the sunset. I needed at this time to experience a ritualistic way of working. In the end I attached to it some calabash seeds for their fertility properties and dried Aloe Vera flowers, the well known plant for its healing and soothing properties.
NM: Can you explain a bit about the scripts and how they were shown in the form of tunics? Why were they shown in the form of tunics?
IG: As I mentioned previously this concept comes from the Ashanti tunics and “inscribed” talismanic cloths. These clothes were a “written” shield protecting the owner – especially soldiers or chiefs – from dangers of all kinds. On my protective tunics verses are Adonis poetry verses in Arabic script and Elytis poetry verses in Greek script, in order to emphasize the healing properties of art in modern societies.
NM: What is the significance of the numbers you showed in the sheltering word ii and viii?
IG: These are the magic squares, arranged in a three by three grid pattern whose sum of the numbers in each row, column and diagonal is 15. Magic squares were inscribed, painted, embroidered or engraved on textile, clay or metal bowls and worn as talismans to ensure long life and prevention of diseases. It was always considered a very strong talismanic arrangement.
NM: What are the words inscribed in the sheltering word viii?
IG: This is an ancient Greek incantation asking for “a good life, a congenial mood, to be ‘right in the head’, to have an iron constitution, peace and god”. The two letters at the end Ψ and Χ form the phonetic spelling of the word «soul».
NM: Do you have a favourite piece?
IG: I always change the ones I like but I feel now I am closer to the ‘protective tunics’ and would like to work on them more and make them bigger.
NM: What are you working on now?
IG: One part of my project is the ‘protective tunics’ I just mentioned and I am also working on a big exhibition about Demeter, the goddess of harvest, in an old tower on Naxos Island. In fact the tower is near the sanctuary of Demeter and I am producing work on her. I would like to underline the importance of agriculture today through this exhibition and Naxos is a very agricultural island so this is going to be very interesting.
Irini Gonou was born on 1955 in Athens. She studied sculpture at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and after at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs where she has also worked as a workshop assistant for two years at the section of ceramic sculpture. She lived in Paris for eleven years studying at the same time the multicultural dimension of art. From 1980 she has shown her work in thirty two solo exhibitions in Greece and abroad. Her solo exhibition Al-Khatt, the magic script on 2009 was a visual dialog with the Benaki Museum of Islamic Arts exhibits in Athens. She has participated in a numerous group exhibitions in Greece in collaboration with prominent curators of the Greek art scene, but also in France, UK and Belgium. Her artwork is included to the collections of the French Ministry of Culture, to the Musee Ernest Renan in France, to the Museum of Islamic Arts in Athens, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Florina to the Anthropological Museum of Ptolemais and to The National Bank of Greece Historical Archive, also in Greece, to the Municipal Galleries, private Museums and Foundations, and to a variety of important private collections in Greece and abroad. She lives and works in Athens and in Naxos Island in Greece and teaches Arabic and Byzantine calligraphy at the Museum of Islamic Arts of Athens.