Artemis Chatzigiannaki is not what you would call a conventional artist. Born in the early ’60s, she grew up in a wealthy family in the city of Athens, and like most people in her situation her future had been more or less laid out for her. She followed the path that lead from school to university to a career as a notary, as was expected of her.
In 2014, after struggling to keep her job in the depths of the Greek economic crisis, she decided to start taking adult painting classes in the evenings in an attempt to reaffirm her identity. Her teacher saw something in her and pushed her to develop her talent. A mere five months later, she was presenting her first exhibition.
The truth is that Artemis has always been a painter at heart. At school, her teacher told her that she risked repeating the year because she drew letters instead of writing them. School was harsh for Artemis but she didn’t give up the fight: In order to win, she had to sacrifice her passion. She never completely gave up on drawing, but stopped taking it seriously and focused on her career as a notary.
Today, Artemis has freed her inner artist. Her latest exhibition, ‘The Spirit of the 60s”, depicts a time of perseverance and hope, two traits that are mirrored in the artist’s personality.
The exhibition “The Spirit of the 60s”, curated by journalist and author Nikos Vatopoulos, is on at T.A.F. / The Art Foundation, Normanou 5, Monastiraki, Athens 105 55
The work by Artemis Chatzigiannaki is complemented by images by contemporary photographers that reference the aesthetics of the 1960’s, as well as by exhibit items from the period.
Opening hours: Mon-Sun 12.00-20.00
I am to meet with her on a Tuesday afternoon at T.A.F, where her painting exhibition is taking place; she wants to give me a tour so that I can properly immerse myself in her world. Yet it’s clear that I shouldn’t feel too special – she tells me that she is at the exhibition space practically everyday from 3 pm onward, making herself available to anyone who might want to discuss her work with her. This openness and lack of pretension is refreshing in a field where big egos are far from uncommon.
I arrive at the exhibition space which is on the first floor of T.A.F, a 19th century edifice with an internal courtyard that was once home to craftsmen and their workshops; after being abandoned and falling into ruin, today it has been given a new lease on life and hosts a bar, a gallery, a small number of exhibition rooms and a shop. History resounds in its every corner.
Artemis’ paintings are set in a row on two white walls that meet at an angle. She is sitting at a table next to her daughter who studies architecture and has helped with elements surrounding the exhibition. Artemis smiles at me and reaches out for a handshake. The first thing that crosses my mind is how delicate and thin her fingers are, and I should be careful not to break one of them. Thankfully, I don’t. The second is that she looks far too young to have grown up in the 60s.
“I was born in 1961. I have four older siblings who actively participated in the life of the city and I was made part of it. Many memories from that period I owe to them. They passed the spirit on to me.”
We begin exploring, one after the other, scenes of everyday life in the city of Athens in the 1960s. I see a street market, people getting on a tram, a photographer shooting a model, a cinema, a kiosk, a woman selling lottery tickets, pedestrians crossing the street. They all transport me straight to my childhood years, to my grandparents’ TV room that had walls covered in old advertising posters. I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of tenderness and nostalgia.
The paintings are as delicate as the artist’s hands. At first glance, they look like vintage pastel drawings. In reality, Artemis exclusively uses watercolor, the most difficult paint to work with as it is nearly impossible to erase or cover because of its thin and translucent texture. She tells me that it is precisely the reason she chooses this method of painting.
“Everything we do leaves a trace in life. These traces should be visible, they add beauty to our story. I’m not interested in what seems flawless, I’m interested in what has a story. The same goes with human beings. We should embrace our traces, our history. This is what brings people closer.”
I wonder: is Artemis nostalgic of the past? Is she longing for earlier, more communitarian days?
“On the contrary. I chose to depict the 1960s specifically because it was a time when people were looking towards the future. Athens was transforming, the city was turning into a modern metropolis after a harsh period. People wanted to move on. People wanted to be entertained. More and more villagers came to the city to look for a better life, and facilities needed to be built in order to host them. Everything was new at the time and everyone was working in unison to develop their way of life for a brighter future. Today, we live in fear of the future, and it is a shame… it destroys human souls.”
What Artemis truly misses is the optimistic mentality that surrounded her while she was growing up. She misses the solidarity. She feels that today, people are afraid to open up and feel responsible for each other.
We arrive in front of her painting of the swimming pool at the Hilton Athens.
“It was actually the first hotel with a large swimming pool in Athens, so you can imagine how important that was at the time. People were ecstatic when it opened. It was a new leisure destination in the city, and an attraction for tourists.”
She tells me about her research and how all her paintings are based on archive photographs.
“I created my own vision of the 1960s. I have intentionally betrayed collective memory, because I wanted to make something that was mine, and that expressed who I am. I have added members of my family in some of the paintings. I even added myself in one. I never depict exactly what I see in the photograph. I try to recreate an impression. I want people who see my paintings to grasp a mood rather than a particular moment. That’s also the reason why a lot of my paintings have blank or empty spaces. Each person can fill them with their own imagination. I feel it is very important to stimulate people’s creativity.”
Artemis wants to inspire people her age to believe in themselves and unlock their own power of creation.
What about younger people? How can they relate?
“To the younger generations, I say: be like Athens in the 60s. Be full of hope and optimism for the future. Unite. Experiment. Do not fear what others may say about you. This is the spirit of the 1960s that I hold on to.”