The following interpretations of Vlassis Caniaris's art work come from a unique project at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) in 2017. Face Forward …into my home was an interactive art project focused on the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homelands and were rebuilding their life in Greece. It included storytelling workshops inspired by a selection of contemporary artworks from the collection of EMST, the photo shooting of portraits, and a photography exhibition about and with refugees and asylum-seekers, then living in the greater Athens area. Link
Ali, 40 years old / Syria
Of the artworks we saw in the Museum, I was moved the most by Hopscotch by Vlassis Caniaris. I think that this work expresses all refugees. Personally, it reminded me of how I felt as soon as I arrived in Turkey. I did not know anyone, or the language, and I did not know what to do, where to start and how to go on. My suitcase was the only object I could lie down on, rest and think for a while. I identified with the man seated on his suitcase, who looks as if he was tortured by the decision he had to take, by the dilemma of whether he should stay in his homeland or leave. I experienced this dilemma, too. Deciding to leave was not easy for me. I had my doubts. I had to leave my wife and two daughters behind. This doubt still exists deep inside. Even now, I sometimes think that I shouldn’t have left them. But if my one hand was burdened by the concern for my wife and children, preventing me from leaving, the other hand was pulled by the need not to take part in such a war. I dislike violence. I do not want to hold a weapon. I do not want to harm anyone. I do not like blood. I want to live a peaceful and safe life with my family.
It’s not just that I have left my wife and children behind. What worries me the most is that two years have passed since I left Syria and I haven’t yet managed to do anything for my family, to be able to bring my wife and daughters here. I want to settle somewhere permanently, find a job so that we can all live together in a safe place. I do not care about where I’m going to be, as long as we’re all safe together. I worry for my wife, because she is alone taking care of our daughters. I do not know how she manages. I talk to them in the morning, at noon, at night. I want to know what they’re doing, if they’ve arrived home, what they ate. My wife is working as a teacher. My older daughter is six and is in first grade, and the younger one is four and goes to kindergarten. For a working woman with no help, things are not easy, the responsibility is huge. Not to mention that the place where our home is located is not completely safe.
Ava, 29 years old / Iran
Of all the artworks I saw in the Museum, Vlassis Caniaris’ Hopscotch stood out the most. In this installation, there are human figures in a space that’s bounded by a wooden frame. Only one figure, at the back, is outside the frame in the open space. To me, it means that this man has crossed the border. What I mean is, if [the game of] hopscotch symbolizes what being a refugee is like, then this man has played and won and now is beyond the borders. You can also tell by the way he’s standing that he’s the winner of this game. If you look at the figures inside the wooden frame, you see that one is sitting on a suitcase and the other is standing up waiting. The figure outside the frame has his arms raised as if he’s shouting to us “I won”.
The fact that there’s only one figure outside the frame and all the others are still inside and deep in thought shows how hard this all is. I also think that the way the figure is facing the others is supposed to convey a positive message, as if he’s saying, “Look, as soon as I won this game and crossed the border, I was safe, and you can do it, too.” Of course, now that he’s crossed the borders, he has to face a new “game”, which he must also win. And that’s adjusting to the host country. I identify with the figure who has managed to win.
Bryan, Student / Zimbabwe
If you look at the work by Vlassis Caniaris, you can see that it shows exactly the condition of a refugee who has just arrived in another country and is expecting something important to happen, to be given an opportunity to do something. I could identify with the figure outside the frame because I don’t like to feel constrained; I like to urge other people on and encourage them to do things that will help them move on with their lives. For example, my brother and I are not used to living alone. But we are trying to learn how to do it, and to continue our lives with what we have at the moment. That’s what we have in mind. Let’s see what we can do in the years ahead to realize our dreams.
Daas, 28 years old / Syria
In Vlassis Caniaris’ work I could see that Greeks in the past had gone through experiences like the ones I went through, leaving my country to come here. I remembered a saying we have, life is a wheel that comes around. What I’m going through now could happen to someone else tomorrow. Of course, it’s also significant that the artist chose to depict a game that’s played on one foot. But while you may play hopscotch on one foot, in real life you eventually have to stand on your own two feet. Most of the suitcases in the work are not only closed, they’re also bound with rope. It shows how much the owner of the suitcase values the few things hidden inside and how much he wants to protect them. The same is true for all of us. We each hide things inside us that we don’t share with anyone else. Anyway, a person doesn’t have to reveal everything; he might want to keep his memories and feelings stored in his heart and mind.
I don’t understand what’s written on the squares of the work. When we play this game in Syria, we put a number in each square. Maybe Caniaris wrote the names of countries in his squares. On the other hand, if the work had to do with Syria, I’d write the names of the armed groups that destroyed my country. Despite the difficult conditions I’ve experienced, I still have dreams for the future. My dream is to be able to study. In fact, if I could afford it, I’d study all my life. I enjoy studying, and I wouldn’t have a problem, whatever the subject. But maybe I’d probably choose computers, with the idea of becoming a network engineer. A Greek friend of mine suggested I go into marketing because it gives you the chance to build relations with a lot of people. Of course, foreign languages are also extremely important. I’ve learned, though, that you have to approach your studies step by step. If you try to do everything at once, you’ll get lost and bogged down. That’s why I want to make a start somewhere.
John, Student / Zimbabwe
Vlassis Caniaris, in his work Hopscotch, shows the rules a refugee must follow in a foreign country. We too, in Zimbabwe, have the same game and I know that in order to play, one has to follow some rules. That’s what a refugee must do in order to adapt to a new country. I identify with the figure with his foot on the suitcase, as if he were trying to understand the rules in order to play correctly. That is exactly what I do so that I can integrate in this country and have a successful life. I often think that in the past, when the artist created this work, things for refugees must have been worse. At least today we have the internet and several organizations and people who are helping refugees, despite the language barrier, prepare their documents and find a place to live and be safe.
Kourosh, 34 years old / Iran
Vlassis Caniaris’ artwork shows a game that’s played on one foot; we used to [play it], too, in Iran. The people around the hopscotch look like they’ve lost and are now out of the game. They’re like refugees who are forced to flee their country for some reason. There are a lot of reasons why people leave their country and become refugees; apart from war, it could be the way they think, their ideology, their political or religious beliefs. It’s a disagreeable situation. And a refugee’s life, as the artwork shows, is like a game where you have to keep climbing, level after level, until you reach your final goal, which is to adjust to a new foreign country and succeed there.
Mahdi, Student / Iran
We played Hopscotch in Iran, too. In this artwork of the Museum, each square shows something a refugee has to go through when he gets to a foreign country. He waits for his papers and goes from office to office, to different agencies, and waits until the whole process is finished and he can stay here legally. There are a lot of people coming to Greece from a lot of different countries. At school there are kids from all over the world, even from South America. I have a classmate from Argentina and another one from Mexico.
Patricia, 34 years old / Cameroon
Vlassis Caniaris’ work, Hopscotch, which is about a game we used to play in Africa, too—mainly girls, not boys. Through it, the artist wants to show that he feels like a stranger in a foreign country. It shows human figures who are tired and worn out, with their suitcases by their side, struggling to start their lives again. The same thing happens in the game hopscotch, where you need to make an effort to move from one square to another – you have to try your best to win.
Reem, 26 years old / Syria
The first time I saw Vlassis Caniaris’ work, Hopscotch, I realized that the figures were refugees, confined within the frame defined by the country they arrived at. Their dreams and possibility of professional rehabilitation are all determined by the frame defined by the host country. We see only men around a game to be played, exactly as it initially happened in Syria: only men were leaving, followed by their wives after two or three years. In my case, I was forced to play this game by myself. I had to leave home and my family. And, of course, it was not an easy decision. You know, in Syria we’ve all lost someone close either in war, in the middle of the sea, or because they are in another country and we’ve lost track of them. Also, most of us who have left and have reached safety here have left our parents behind, who are elderly and therefore unable to make this trip. Now we do not even know if we’ll ever see them again.
From the figures in the work, I could be the one at the back, on the right, the one without luggage. I had a huge adventure until I got to Greece. Crossing the Syrian mountains, I had to go through a city occupied by ISIS, where I stayed for about two months. These were the worst days of my life. I had to pretend to be a Muslim. I took off the cross my mother had given me before I left, I wore a burqa and I was hiding from house to house because if anybody realized that I was a Christian, they would kill me in public. I was afraid, I could not sleep. Within this period, the smuggler stole my bag with all my belongings: clothes, mobile phone, identity card, everything. Even the souvenirs my sisters had given me, even my mother’s cross. I asked him to keep everything else and give me back the cross, but he did not because it was gold.
Yaser, 27 years old / Syria
Thinking about Vlassis Caniaris’ work, I want to say that there are times when a person leaves their country because there’s no freedom of speech or other civil liberties. As a person of Kurdish descent, I was forced to leave Syria when the war broke out for an entirely different reason, and as long as I live I’ll never forget what I went through to get here. My wife and my son, who was a baby at the time, were with me in the boat. Suddenly, the engine stopped, stranding us in the middle of the sea. No one could get it started again. We all panicked. We thought we’d be left there to die. The only thing I could think about was saving my son. I had to do something. And so, without really knowing how, I tried starting the engine and it seems that willpower drove me to succeed. My son, Amar, is my whole life. That’s what my second tattoo says: “You are my whole life”. I got it the day he was born.
Idris, 17 years old / Afghanistan
In the human figures of Vlassis Caniaris, I recognize this feeling of loneliness and all the other feelings you experience when you’re faced with a problem in your country and don’t know where to go. Living abroad is a difficult thing. This is what the squares of the game symbolize. This [art] installation shows the suffering that people go through when they are forced to leave their homeland. Also, the artist did not put a head on the figures, because anyone, and I mean anyone, could be a refugee. Anyone could find themselves in their position. And the suitcases also have a meaning. Apart from clothing, a person can also carry in them their papers, diplomas or degrees, to demonstrate what they can do, their skills or experience. Often, though, during a journey, not only are the belongings of refugees lost but their lives as well. Every morning when I wake up, for me it’s a new difficult beginning.
Mo-Sabi, 19 years old / Iraq
I have left my country, Iraq, and I want to talk about how I feel.
Hopscotch by Vlassis Caniaris shows people who have fled their country. I want to talk about how important it is to have goals and not give up on them. This is what the squares in Hopscotch symbolize. Each square is a goal. Of course there are always obstacles and difficulties, but it’s important not to stop. It’s not good to stay inactive in our grief, but [we should] pursue our efforts until we reach our goal.
I really like this installation. It’s the first time I have seen something like this: a nice composition with amazing meaning. If someone plays hopscotch and steps on the line, they must start again from scratch. When you go to a foreign country, you start from square one and, overcoming the challenges you encounter one-by-one, you will eventually reach your goals.
A first difficulty for us refugees is the language barrier and how society sees us. Usually they see us like strangers. There are people who want to talk, while others hear you speak a different language and turn the other way.
Reem, 23 years old / Syria
For me, the installation by Vlassis Caniaris, where suitcases are located next to each human figure, symbolises escape. Also, the game, Hopscotch, has a lot to do with fleeing. You throw a stone and off you go. I did exactly the same thing. It was like I threw a stone, so I could leave. I packed my suitcase and I came here from Syria.
Each figure in the work is different: one has a small suitcase on their side, one has a big one and another has three suitcases. Perhaps the suitcase symbolises the money each one has, the class struggle, the diversity or problems. But, in the beginning, all those who leave their country feel like they have lost everything. They feel surrounded by chaos, by a blank. They can be neither sad nor happy. Whatever happens, they have that same feeling, the blank. These feelings are depicted by the figures of Caniaris, which are headless.
One of the first challenges all refugees face is how to access basic necessities, since at first we have no idea where the shops are, where the market is. We can’t find them on our own and we are afraid. But hardship makes one stronger. And not only that. Hardship changes a person!
Zacharia, 46 years old / Syria
In the work of Vlassis Caniaris I see people with suitcases next to them, but their soul and roots seem to be elsewhere. The suitcase represents the past, memories. I think, also, that when someone takes a suitcase with them, it means that they have had the time to prepare for their departure. They may not know where they’re going, but they have organized it. We refugees didn’t even have time to take our memories with us. We barely had time to pick up our belongings and leave.
There is an expression in Arabic that says, when a person recovers from drunkenness, their memory returns. After the shock, you start searching for a solution that will help you live better. You weigh up the circumstances, so you can make a fresh start. Journeys, even the longer ones, begin with one step.
The more I look at Hopscotch by Caniaris, the more my mind is filled with new thoughts. I wonder, for example, what do these headless figures symbolise? I am a photographer and to a certain extent I am familiar with art. But each time I look at this installation, I can tell you a new story.