The Documenta festival, a contemporary art exhibition that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, is currently in Athens. Its presence there isn’t uncontroversial. The role of the art market in gentrification, the festival’s preference for established or dead artists, the spectacle of a wealthy German institution descending on a city that has been at the centre of economic and refugee crises in recent years – all this has drawn criticism. The curators have made some effort to engage with the political context, but not everything has gone to plan: a collaboration between the artist Roger Bernat and an LGBT refugee group foundered when the participants stole the exhibit in protest at what they saw as exploitation.
All this seemed quite removed from the exhibits inside the National Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the main Documenta venues, surrounded by reverential silence and whitewashed walls, but some connected nonetheless. For his installation Biafra Time Capsule, Olu Oguibe collected books and ephemera from the Nigeria-Biafra war: academic studies and political journals; badges and vinyl record covers; trashy paperbacks and literary novels; photographs of soldiers, politicians, children; a policy paper from the breakaway Republic of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, on the management of refugee camps. These objects were laid out in glass vitrines, with only their front covers visible – an invitation to consider them at surface value.
In his short film series Oh Dearism, Adam Curtis argues that the Biafran war and famine was a formative moment in the way the Western media cover disasters. Helped by the advent of colour TV, the war’s political context was stripped away, leaving only the human suffering. Looking at Oguibe’s installation, I thought about the ways images and words proliferate during a humanitarian crisis, often following similar patterns even when the content is supposed to be quite different. A sad child stares mournfully at the camera in one of the photographs: how often do we see that today, without knowing who the child is or what has become of them?
In 2015 and 2016, almost a million refugees passed through Greece on their way to northern Europe. At least 40,000 remain in camps around the country. Throughout the crisis, especially at the beginning, much of the work of rescuing, feeding, sheltering and clothing the refugees was being done by volunteers – ordinary Greek citizens as well as international activists.
One evening the week I visited the museum, I had dinner with a friend who’d spent much of the past two years volunteering with refugees. She once told me that she’d been partly motivated by the history of her own family, Greeks from Asia Minor who had been displaced during the ‘population exchange’ of 1923. Since 2015, she had helped people as they arrived from the Aegean islands at the port of Piraeus, been involved with a group that set up a tent city in an Athens park, and co-ordinated a volunteer doctors’ network. And she still visits the official camps, looking for vulnerable people who need someone to argue their case.
‘In the beginning they left the volunteers to do the job of the state,’ she said. ‘I know lots of people who overloaded their mobiles, opened their houses. It was a beautiful thing to see, poor people giving everything they could, even if it was just a box of biscuits.’ Then, when the official response from governments and NGOs finally kicked into gear, the volunteers were gradually excluded. ‘We started to have problems with the police, they put out bad propaganda about the volunteers and said only authorised people were allowed in the camps.’ Eviction notices have been issued to the squats in Athens that house refugees, even though the best of them – the disused City Plaza hotel, for example – are more efficiently run and safer than many of the official camps.
My friend was tired, and a little bitter about the way volunteers have been treated. I think she’s right to be. When we look back on Europe’s refugee crisis, are we more likely to remember the stories told by the institutions responsible, or the connections forged between the people who found themselves at the centre of it?