- PhMuseum Days 2022 Open Call
Dates2016 - 2021
- Location Greece
In 2015, Lesbos became the centre of Europe’s largest population movement since the Second World War. However this isn’t an unprecedented event in this Greek island’s turbulent history. Since antiquity, waves of migration have followed one another on this piece of land at the crossroads of the worlds, a passage between East and West. Situated only 12 kilometers from the Turkish coast, the island still bears the traces of the Great Catastrophe of 1922. Following Greece’s defeat against the young Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal, more than a million Orthodox Greeks from Asia Minor were deported to the other shore, 45,000 of whom landed in Lesbos in the greatest deprivation. Almost a century later, it was their descendants who lended their assistance to modern-day refugees, to the extent that the island’s inhabitants were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s from this starting point that Agathe Kalfas and Mathias Benguigui carry out, between 2016 and 2020, Asphodel Songs, a four-handed work mixing text and images, which seeks to bring a new perspective to this highly mediatised territory. They examine the traces left in the landscape, meet its populations, collect real or imaginary stories, in order to put into perspective the different strata of migration on the island. During their stay, events succeed one another and tensions rise: the refugees’ waiting is endless, months or even years; economic difficulties and a feeling of abandonment take hold of the Greek population. Yesterday’s and today’s exiles observe one another, but the dialogue is broken. Has Lesbos become a mirror of the «Field of Asphodel», that mythological place in the underworld where souls who have committed neither crimes nor virtuous deeds, remain aimlessly and await forever?
Navigating at the borders of documentary and fiction, this long-term work invites to a new reading of Lesbos’s contemporary issues, by bringing together traces of the past, mythology and migration’s collective memory. The island, its populations and their constant movements, transmit to us a universal, timeless story, and make Asphodel Songs resonate.
The exhibition of this project was first presented at the Manuel Rivera Ortiz Foundation during the Rencontres de la photographie d'Arles 2021 and is now produced and ready to be shown. The book published by Le Bec en l'air is available in bookshops and was presented at Paris Photo 2021.
You can find below two abstracts of texts from the book by the co-author of the project, Agathe Kalfas.
Ode to Lesvos
Lesvos sails by sight, tossed by the silent swell of expectation, suspended in the vertigo of tomorrow. To the east, thousands of olive trees camouflage these gentle hills ; to the west, furious winds sweep the volcanic rock that secretly shelters petrified trees ; to the south, rests the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Kalloni where flamingos have found refuge abandoning their migration ; to the north, Asia Minor seems so close but remains lost in the mists of the Aegean Sea. On the beaches of Lesvos, one gathers fragments of history as one would glean seashells. Since the dawn of time, the coming and going of the waves has echoed the movements of men, now stranded. Yet, Aeolians, Greeks, Byzantines, Ottomans, pirates, poets, Albanians, Roma, Afghans, Syrians, Congolese and many others have sailed to the shores of this island, a land of passage at the crossroads of worlds, a union of East and West.
Moria or The Asphodel Field
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking aimlessly in this landscape of ruins. Remains of metal sheets, melted plastic materials and all sorts of rubble of lives crunch under my feet. Metal structures and a wooden door are still standing. Charred and starved tree trunks stand out of the soiled earth. Under a tarp marked with the UNHCR logo, I can see, buried, the bricks of a bread oven covered with soot. In the depths of my tight chest, my heart crumbles, soon forming a small pile of ashes at my feet.
Barely two months ago the camp of Moria stretched out among the green hills of olive trees, a strange Tower of Babel made of bricks and mortar, teeming with hopes and misery. A few sparks at the bottom of a hut were enough to start a fire, which by some divine intervention, did not claim any victims among the still sleeping inhabitants. The gigantic blaze swept away everything, wiping out the meagre possessions of the thou- sands of people parked here. Up to twenty thousand women, men, and children, of more than seventy nationalities, remained in Moria for months, years, leading an existence devoid of purpose, condemned to eternal waiting, like the souls in the Field of Asphodel, the mythological hell of those who have committed neither crime, nor virtue.
Over the continuous blowing of the wind that dissipates the acidic and carbonated smell, it seems as if I can still hear the hubbub of the crowd going about their business. I can smell the spices of a stewpot simmering in the air. Two women are chatting while hanging laundry while others are cleaning a tent and shaking out rugs. Men smoke while waiting in line at the barber shop. In the sky, colourful kites float a festive atmosphere. I hear a hoarse mewing at my feet, and suddenly the vision fades. I am no longer alone in the shadow kingdom, which seems to please an ash grey cat rubbing itself against my jeans, purring. A few metres away, I perceive another movement in the backlight. It is a young woman crouching, digging into the ground with a stick and putting in a plastic box some items that the flames have spared. I approach the rubble of what must have been a school avoiding stepping on the burnt papers, pieces of pens, stuffed animals, debris from the blackboard... She raises her head and we stare at each other for a long time without saying anything. I decide to crouch down by her side and together, tacitly, we fill the box with whatever can still be useful. Slowly, the winter sun disappears behind a hill giving way to darkness. She stands up and grabs the rope precociously tied to her box, now full. She makes one last gesture at me before setting off, dragging her collecting behind her with a scraping sound that follows the rhythm of her steps. She is leaving the realm of the dead, the camp of Moria, hangar for the unwanted souls, banished to the far reaches of Europe.