Risk Change residency: Meet Fotini Gouseti
MMSU presents artists on solo residency programme within EU project Risk Change. Solo residency programme took place from 6th of February until 18th of March 2020. In a third series of interviews meet artist, Fotini Gouseti.
At the end of 2019, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Rijeka announced the open call for artists in residence as part of the Risk Change project supported by the EU. Artists were invited to spend February and March in Rijeka to develop artistic proposals in the form of a lecture, workshops, or public intervention.
The residency was the closing program of a 4-year project Risk Change. It attempted to identify and describe the mechanisms that support well-rooted contemporary stereotypes and existent colonialist heritage. Fotini Gouseti, a Greek artist living in Rotterdam, was one of the four Risk Change residents.
Fotini Gouseti is a conceptual artist and a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology of the University of Thessaly, Greece. Gouseti’s artistic practice and academic research explore the role of art in society. She is mainly interested in the ways society evolves on collective trauma and focuses on such issues as divided memory, gender, class, and the local versus the Other. Her learning processes derive out of her connection with others while her work aims at understanding and contributing to the ways trauma functions as a social glue and the potentialities this condition creates.
Fotini first came to Rijeka in October 2019 as an artist exhibiting at the group exhibition ‘We’re not like them’ at the MMSU. Then she discovered the Moretto (morčić), a traditional figurine in the form of a black head, wearing a white and red turban. According to the legend, Moretto derived straight out of the Grobnik battlefield where, on 24th March 1595, locals defended their area against the Ottomans.
The Moretto symbol functions as an amulet, made to prevent the evil and the Other, and commonly takes the form of an earrings, made out of gold and enamel, with optional use of gemstones, worn in different manners throughout history by different classes and all genders.
The figurine momentarily caught Fotini’s attention. Soon she knew she wanted the Moretto to be the subject of her research.
The second time she came to Rijeka was mid-February. She planned to stay until the middle of March, but the lockdown forced her to stay longer. Fotini is, actually, still in Rijeka, with her research not halfway finished.
Now, without any of the tools she originally wanted to use at her disposal, she is exploring alternative ways of conducting anthropological research. One of the ‘alternative’ tools will be the online symposium on Moretto that will bring together cultural workers engaged in the broader areas Moretto implicates, with the objective not only to explore contemporary meanings of the Moretto figurine itself but also to look into the emerging perceptions of who the Other, whom Moretto represents, might be today. The outcome is aimed to contribute to a critical dialogue with other existing traditions in Europe that also implicate black figures. And that, in some cases, can be linked to colonial pasts.
In the text announcing the symposium, she wrote: “Avoiding an univocal deterministic reading of the colonial, or the logic of cultural appropriation often practiced within the arts in the post-colonial era in Europe, Moretto will raise its voice locally, on the base of its specific social and historical background.”
We talked to Fotini mid-April, during the lockdown.
Why Moretto? How does it fit your practice?
It reminded me of black faces existing in other places in Europe, that catch a lot of political tension and discussion connected to colonialism and postcolonial struggle. What was interesting to me is the way Moretto was displayed around. It was clear that the connotations here were different from those of the other black figures; that the general proud was spread around it. So I wanted to learn more about it.
You live in the Netherlands which was one of the greatest colonizers in the world. But you also come from Greece. Can you compare attitudes towards colonialist history now, in the Netherlands, as an atmosphere and on the level of your observations, and in Greece, if that narrative is existent there?
I will start from Greece which is, I think, an example of the oppressed mentality. There are different ways of understanding the past and the present in Greece regarding that question. The period of the economic crisis in the past decade caused a new understanding of what is the position of the country in terms of the European narration. Before the crisis, it was quite normal that Greece was a boundary between the West and the rest, a quit isolated country if you check the borders to the East, a west island in the middle of the east sea. Somehow it was normalized, in terms of the ignorance about the surrounding countries and the Balkans in general. But with the crisis, suddenly the understanding arose that we too are the part of the Balkans.
Before that, we didn’t have the colonizer’s background but we had the background of the privileged country affiliated to Europe, later the EU. I think that our oppressed mentality became vivid throughout the crisis.
When it comes to the black figures, some black faces are part of traditional carnivals, for example at Pharos during the re-enactment of pirates’ attacks of the island. Even though the pirates were not Africans. So, there are complicated connotations connected to that. Greece, of course, had a long way to go to understand that it has normalized the racism, which is implied in the culture in a broader sense, both in terms of black people and the Roma people living in the country. Discrimination is not fully understood. Many simplifications cover the complexity of the situation and the way racism interferes with the everyday understanding of normalities.
Regarding the Netherlands – it is important to stress that I’m an immigrant in the Netherlands, the Other. So this is a totally different position of understanding. I was really surprised when I was for the first time confronted with the St Nicolas day where the Black Pete is demonstrated on the streets, as people paint their faces to imitate black people. I find this very problematic. But many of the people tell: You know, it is the tradition here.
The country has such a strong colonial background, so this kind of manifestation coming from the privileged point of view is rather problematic when interpreted as a tradition. It also hides a lack of respect (not only to the part of the population who is Afro-Dutch, and there are many, but to many immigrants as well) in a manner I find pretty painful. It’s an aggressive normalization. I understand that maybe the reading in the past was different but today — we cannot set it aside.
Of course, during the last few years, Dutch citizens from different ethnic backgrounds do protest and contribute into finding a new balance.
Do you have any personal impressions of Croatia and racism?
My understanding of Croatian cities other than Rijeka is very limited, so I can only speak of Rijeka. I don’t feel like the Other here. I don’t feel looked at, I feel comfortable. I find Rijeka very welcoming. I also don’t have the impression that you cannot meet the people of other races on the streets of Rijeka. I have seen people that don’t look like locals, and I have also seen some Roma people. Being a foreigner myself, I sense this kind of thing. I can understand that during the ages of the industrialization and the golden age of the port, there were more people of other nationalities in Rijeka; that character of the city remained present.
As opposed to that, during the 90s in Greece, overwhelming majority of the people were Greeks. When the first wave of immigration came, mostly from Albania, it was a shock for the society. Nowadays the situation is far more complex because of the European borders and geopolitical games played — while the people are trapped. The value of life is really attacked.
Why do you think it is, at this moment, for Croatia but also for Europe, relevant to research Moretto and the different readings of it?
I think it brings a ground for different perspectives — which will hopefully start to develop out of my project — because it stands on the specific position. As a symbol, it is not marking the colonizer.
Postcolonial discussions and narratives are coming from the side of the colonizers or the colonized; in Europe, the dominant voice is coming from countries that have the colonizing background. Populations immigrated to those countries are still struggling for equal living as a result of this colonial background, and the general vocabulary aggresses the condition of this struggle. While there are different ways to colonize, there are also different ways to stand in the spectrum between the colonizer and the colonized. I think Rijeka could represent a point in the grey zone because it was never a colonizer.
I am aware that the symbol of Moretto has different connotations. I would like to examine and find out in which way it stands in the contemporary narration. For example, if we compare Moretto of Rijeka to Moretto of Venice, even if they look similar it is clear that they’re not of the same background. That they are not holding on to the same heritage. You can see that even from the material they are made of. The one coming from Venice gives a much more rich and privileged outcome in terms of all the precious stones used, but also the mythology behind it — this Moretto comes out of the colonial past, it addresses the story of a decorated victim of slavery, while the Moretto from Rijeka is made out of more humble materials, and the mythology behind it turns it into kind of a talisman. It has to do with the local need to protect oneself from the Other, so it is related to the fear from the Other, but also to the need to be safe. I’m sure there are different ways to read it throughout history and social classes and gender and so on, but as a standing point, I think it is very different from the figure in Venice or the black faces in the Netherlands or other relevant traditions all around Europe. Finding the specific way that Moretto stands on today could give a voice to a part of a postcolonial discourse that hasn’t been articulated yet.
Can you tell me about your tools? You wanted to use interviews, archives, have the workshop with the students from the Fine Arts Academy, artistic research, ethnography fieldwork, collect data coming from different communities… So what did you have a chance to do before the corona pandemic burst?
I had the support from the team of the MMSU, especially Marina Tkalčić. Then, I had the meeting in Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral with Ivana Šarić Žic, with Theodor de Canziani, Fokus group, some random talks, with Etem Fazli, a teacher in Roma school, Vuk Ćosić who had the Moretto exhibition in a the City Hall, Bojan Mucko (anthropologist, artist) and most of all, for now, that is it.
I also have a dialogue with a Dutch artist about the research here because what goes on here will trigger the general understanding in the Netherlands as well — the connotations related to Moretto are very different from connotations related to the Black Pete, and his comments also give me a direction to address the Moretto in a broader manner afterwords.
But first I have to gather a local understanding among people that are already specialists on the topic and then find a way of how it can be addressed on the European or a global level. So the part of the methodology is sending the material that I have so far to friends from different countries all over the world to collect their feedback — what they feel about it and how they sense the situation. I don’t want to oversimplify.
What I don’t have, due to the lockdown, is a background from the Academy, I haven’t been to a workshop where they make Moretto (because the materiality of it is extremely important to me), I wanted to research the way this symbol is embodied in the city, manifested on the bodies of the people. I also wear the Moretto earring since I came here, to embody that aspect of it. I haven’t talked to as many people as I would like to. Usually, my main goal, when I’m placing fieldwork, is to understand the way everyday people feel about traditional elements and culture because I’m very interested in the relationship between art and everyday life. In other cases, I would stop people on the street but in this case, I didn’t have enough understanding to do so before the quarantine. The contact with real-life people is what I miss the most: to understand how an old lady carrying the Moretto for her whole life is connected to it, or how the person of color living in Rijeka and having this figure all around feels about that.
I do have notes, pictures, drawings, but the initial idea of the outcome was to have interviews, maybe a text or some pictures or archive. Now that everything is changing so radically, I don’t know what it could be. But I’m also getting more passionate, I want more.
So what you are doing now is the research in the times of a new reality, without physical contact.
Yes, I’m thinking a lot about it from my room. Anthropology, during the first years of the discipline, was a science connected with colonialism. The first anthropologists were doing their work from their living rooms, out of the material somebody sent to them from the field, from the outside. They were the anthropologists of the armchair. There was this huge criticism of the anthropologists of the armchair and the discipline evolved in directions were the researcher is in contact with the field, placing fieldwork, participatory observation and lab-work. Now I am the anthropologist of the room! Dealing with post-coloniality in Rijeka that had all these super important positions: as a port, had an extremely rich past, it’s the meeting point between the east and the west… and I’m in the room! Karma is a bitch.
But, I also see this condition as a challenge pushing me towards new methodologies. So, I am trying to conduct interviews with Rijeka citizens via sound-calls and video-calls. It is a slow process as I have been in Rijeka for a short period before the lockdown, so my network was limited. But gradually it expands as informants suggest other informants. Hopefully this interview will turn out to be, also, a methodological tool and some people will reach me and contribute. Apparently, it seems that a different way of placing fieldwork evolves.
In the context of this new reality and the arts, how do you see the ongoing tendency to put all the artworks online, as the only ‘new’ way to communicate with the audience?
Do you mean democratizing the archives? It is a positive outcome of a panic attack. But it should have come a long time ago. Because a part of our incomes come from the taxes. Almost everybody is paying for us to exist so somehow we should be more thoughtful on how to give that back. And what’s the accessibility of the information that we provide, also in terms of the means through which we do so. I think that from this experience what we do will be established more democratically. For me, it makes sense that everything is online and we are making the first steps. But of course, not everything has to be online; then in the next step, we will have to decide what should stay online. But yes, this is the first step in panic.
Photo: from the repository of the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral, Rijeka