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DEO Projects: An International Arts Initiative Inspired by the Greek Maritime Heritage on Chios Island

DEO Projects: An International Arts Initiative Inspired by the Greek Maritime Heritage on Chios Island

DEO Projects, an alter-institution based in Chios, is pleased to present its artistic program for 2022, which is dedicated to international maritime histories, the unknown oceanic landscape, and sea-linked commerce. Based on the rich maritime culture and heritage of Chios, DEO Projects launches a series of events/exhibitions regarding our relationship with the sea. Greek and international artists were invited to discover the stories of the island, communicate their own perspectives and experiences, and create new works, which are presented for the first time on the international scene, through the second cycle of the Commission Series and its accompanying activities. The program, consisting of two exhibitions, a live performance, a public space intervention, the presentation of a newly established local maritime collection, as well as educational activities, are presented in various locations around the island from the beginning of July until the end of August 2022. Dominique White, Serapis Maritime, Rowdy SS are the artists participating in this series of art events.

Image: Akis Kokkinos from the solo show of Paulo Nimer Pjota titled “fragmented images, fragmented stories” in 2021, photographed by Jessica Cinel

We had the chance to discuss more details about this institution and program with its founder and Director Akis Kokkinos who is living between London and Chios island. Akis has worked for major cultural institutions in the UK and Greece, private collections, as well as independent projects. He studied the MA Curating contemporary art at the Royal College of Art (2018-2020) fully funded by the NEON scholarship, the Schilizzi Foundation, and the RCA continuation fund. His practice is focused on ways to disrupt the ‘objective’ and institutional by introducing or supporting other less appreciated and recognized forms of knowledge. Through multidisciplinary discourses, eco-feminist, non-western approaches, and other non-rational thoughts and philosophies, his practice focuses on the less spoken, invisible, or liminal.

Image: Installation view | Paulo Nimer Pjota, fragmented images, fragmented stories, DEO projects at the old slaughterhouse of Chios, photograph © Stratis Vogiatzis, courtesy DEO projects

Can you describe your origins and how they affected your career and current endeavors? In what ways the Greek spirit or even that of Chios reflects on your international work?

I was born and raised in Athens. Chios is the birthplace of my mother and aunt and the place I used to travel for holidays during Easter break and summer as a child. Every time I arrive in Chios by plane, I hold a very strong memory/image of my aunt waiting for me at the airport as I was flying as an unattended minor. Moving to today, each time I am at the Chios airport waiting for an artist to arrive, I reenact my aunt’s feelings as she was waiting for me. I’m not implying that I treat artists as kids, but rather that I’m conscious of the multiple forms of care I need to provide to the invited artists and participants of our programmes. I guess the Greek spirit coincides with notions of care, hospitality, and empathy, and this is reflected in the way I work and operate within the art world in Greece or internationally. It’s not just what I propose/present; I give equal importance to the process and how we do things. 

Why did you decide to form a cultural institution on the island of Chios?

The idea of setting up a cultural institution on Chios started as a seed about 4 years ago. Many artist friends were visiting me in Chios during the summer, and the proposition started from them as they wanted to spend more time on the island, do further research, and create new work. The climate and the life of the island, in combination with the diverse multicultural communities, histories, and landscapes that coexist on the island, create the ideal conditions for artists to develop their practice.

Why, so early in your career, are you undertaking such a demanding project with a leadership role? Which vision was so compelling that you had to do it right away?

I started my career in Athens, and in 2017, I moved to London. We set up DEO in 2021, in the middle of the pandemic while I was in London, and all of my projects had frozen. That was a moment, I guess, for everyone, where we started questioning what we do, why, and for whom. I had this feeling that if I didn’t set up an organization for contemporary art in Chios, nobody would do it. The vision was, and still is, to create a cultural hub, raise the visibility of the island on the international art map, and start a dialogue. Considering that I am based in London, I experienced Brexit, and I realized how important the transnational dialogue is, especially in areas that are located on political borders like Chios. It was a very risky and demanding decision to take; however, I feel it was the right move.

Image: The Failing Executioner (2021) Dominique White © Vegard Kleven, Courtesy VEDA, UKS (Unge Kunstneres Samfund / Young Artists’ Society) and the artist

Which do you see as career milestones so far?

To be honest, I don’t believe in career paths and milestones. I believe in what a former tutor of mine calls the “experience path.” The fact that I do what I truly love in a country with no infrastructure for art professionals, in combination with the fact that I’m coming from a low-income background, is such a privilege that I own. My approach to life is not a “one-night stand” but rather to build long-standing and meaningful relationships – personal and professional — and my pathway reflects that mentality. There are so many individuals and foundations that support me and allow me to flourish without changing who I am. I have been having a very intense year with very exciting projects in Malta, Spain, and Greece, and currently, I’m working on a group show in London which I’m looking forward to seeing it taking life. Having said that, I appreciate moments of “silence,” periods to restore my energy, reflect, and stay with my core self. These moments maybe are the truest milestones in my life.

What does your generation of art pioneers want to share with the world? Is it inclusivity, awareness of certain topics, or a new outlook on previously advocated things? Which are the things past generations in the arts didn’t manage to tap into as much as you wished?

This is a dynamic question depending on the context you operate in. Generally speaking, I believe that the past generations did a great job in diversifying the audiences of contemporary art. We live in the era of representation, inclusivity, ecological concern, and global uncertainty. The majority of the curatorial proposals touch upon those socio-political conditions even though many times are quite hypocritical, and they turn into policies that I’m not happy with. Policies mean that they don’t question; they check a box and move on. What we truly need is discomfort within safe spaces to discuss those concerns and re-examine symptoms of the past. Inclusive spaces where we build trust within certain communities, and from there, we are free to disrupt existing systems of knowledge and thinking. Patterns we reproduce and carry through body and mind. Those systems of the past we need to re-evaluate and un-learn.

Which are your references on an international level, and who are the art insiders/artists/curators that have inspired and motivated you so far?

I don’t know if Chios influenced me on that (as a matriarchal structure coming from the maritime tradition of the island), but all my references to the art world and life come from women. Some names are: Chuz Martinez, Elina Kountouri, Irene Panagopoulos, Gayatri Spivak, Elvira Dyangani Ose, and Katerina Gregos. These are all people I follow, and their work is inspiring for me and allow me to develop a stronger vision of my agency as an art professional.

In terms of artists, it’s usually the ones I work with, and that’s why I didn’t include any names, but there are many.

Image: Dominique White, self-portrait (Commission series x artist)

What will your audience have the opportunity to enjoy this summer during DEO’s second year of events?

Drawing on the maritime heritage and culture of Chios, this year, DEO has designed a versatile programme dedicated to the transnational nautical histories, the unknown oceanic landscape, and the – sometimes dark – sea-linked commerce. The objective is to reflect on our relationship with the sea and seamanship in order to explore ways of navigating in an ever-changing world.

In this context, we have invited the Serapis Maritime collective from Greece and the artists Dominique White and Rowdy SS from the UK to carry out extensive fieldwork, encouraging them to relate to the collective memories of this island-seafaring land, and then to share with us their own perspectives and experiences through the creation and presentation of new works that take the form of two solo exhibitions, one public art intervention, and one live performance.

This year, particularly important for DEO is the achievement of collaborations with public and private institutions, local associations, and cultural organisations, in order to activate, through the experience of art, overlooked or “invisible” spaces that resonate again with human footsteps, claiming memory and continuity. Our ultimate goal is to integrate new routes into the everyday life of the residents and to connect the rich history of Chios with other cultures and geographies.

The projects of DEO this year – which include a workshop for children – will take place from the beginning of July until the end of August 2022 and are free and open to everyone.

Image: SERAPIS, Protext! When fabric becomes a manifesto, curated by Camilla Mozzato, Marta Papini. Exhibition view at Centro Pecci ©photoOKNOstudio

Can a visitor enjoy, along with the cultural activities, a unique travel experience in Chios? Which are your suggestions and favorite places there?

Chios is an island that you shouldn’t explore through a tourist guide. It’s a place full of secrets that you need to explore by yourself. That’s the reason why it’s not a mass-tourism island, and it has a high cultural tourism audience. It is also the fifth biggest island in Greece, so one time visit is not enough. You need time to get lost in the endless citrus trees of Kampos, swim in the green-blue crystal waters of Agia Dynami early in the morning, and discover cultural treasures like the chapel of Ypapanti in Vaviloi village.

Can you describe your vision of turning a somewhat localist/traditionalist island into an international cultural hub? Do you agree with the localist/traditionalist attribute in the first place?

I’m not sure how I can best respond to this question. I will start by saying that the vision is not to create a hub for foreigners excluding local audience, wisdom, and creativity but rather to incorporate international voices within the existing creative source and see what happens. Chios is a culturally rich place with many Greek artists, curators, collectors, and art dealers to be connected with the place. All I did was create a platform where all of this community could meet each other, exchange ideas with other Greek and international artists and share them with the general audience. As a spaceless cultural entity, the organisation operates across the island in collaboration with local museums and associations, non-institutional spaces, and the public realm. Therefore, our presence is incorporated into everyday life.

Image: Ato & Tonya Wright, self-portrait (Commission series x guest patrons)

What are your plans for DEO’s future? What’s coming up next?

For the third year of DEO, our goals are to set up some important foundations so we can grow over the next years, including building a small team on a full-time basis, creating an international advisory board, and extending our period of publicly-faced projects and research beyond the summer season.  So far, we have built the DEO Patron Circle that allows Greek and International patrons to support the organization and be part of its pivotal future. At the same time, with the support of Arts Council England, I invited Salma Tuqan, Delfina’s foundation deputy director, to be my mentor by providing strategic guidance for the long-term vision of DEO, including aspects of programming, partnerships, sustainable models, and community engagement in the context of Chios.

How do you explain Greece’s so-called cultural revival since the financial crisis? Where did it all start, and how does it develop? Were the seeds of it always there?

I’ve been in this field for almost ten years, and I’m utterly excited to see how the contemporary art scene has been transformed into an active and robust ecosystem. Due to mainly the large-scale private institutions and foundations (NEONOnassisDESTE, and SNF), contemporary art in Greece has been embedded in the everyday life of the general public and has attracted international interest. These foundations also support smaller organisations, initiatives, and individuals, allowing other cultural voices to be heard through grants, scholarships, residencies, and other programmes. We also have some commercial galleries in Athens with an international presence that promote Greek artists, as well as many artist-run and independent spaces that shape a very vibrant contemporary art scene.

Which Greek cultural institutions/galleries/art spaces/events do you admire and follow the most?

Tavros, State of Concept, Onassis Air, and Arch are some of the initiatives I follow in Athens. Then, K-gold Gallery, phenomenon Anafi, Sterna, and Lucy Art Residency are some other great initiatives taking place on islands and periphery of Greece.

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