George Sfougaras

"There is a cosmopolitan nature to Leicester that I find very inspirational and healing... I think living in Leicester is liberating and gives me hope for the future"

What do you do?

I paint and print, write, research and sometimes make objects, automata and installations. There is no fixed technique or method of making, but in the last few years I have focused more on printing. Usually, being based in a studio upstairs at the Leicester Print Workshop, I am able to use the large screen-printing table and the beautiful Columbia press, which allows me to make larger prints.

As the lockdown has limited the possibilities and the use of equipment, I have shifted towards Lino and woodcut relief printing. I have been working from home, which has been surprisingly not as difficult as I had first imagined. Some years ago the loft was made into an extra room and that has been a life saver. Luckily too, my partner loves to see me making art around the house and so, it has been relatively easy. I have however missed the social aspects and relationships of the studio and the communal making at the Print Workshop.

As the lockdown progressed and hand printing became physically very demanding, I have added a couple of small presses to my home studio. I am always open to new possibilities and I think that is key to keeping us inventing and developing. I am the coordinator of a group of very talented artists and artivists from a number of countries, the Focus on Identity Collective.

How did you get to where you are?

I was born in Crete. Both my parents’ families were displaced by war and an enforced population exchange in the 1920s from what is now modern Turkey, but had been occupied since antiquity by Greek speaking peoples. They escaped certain death and arrived in Greece in 1922, where they lived in refugee camps until they were processed and allowed to settle as Greek citizens. My father’s parents both died when he was very young. His father Nikolaos was a captain of a ship that carried grain from the Russia via Istanbul and the Gibraltar straights to Sweden. I traced his ship ‘Penelope’, which sank at Cape Bougarane off the coast of Algiers on the 28th April 1912.

Why do you love what you do?

Most days it is very clear: if feels meaningful, playful, and wondrous. Art can create new worlds, new meanings but also open a new window on what we feel and what we know. It helps us to find out more and expands our emotional range. It can communicate complex beliefs in a way that does not sound evangelical, rather opens up an internal dialogue in the viewer. When we look at a painting or sculpture, we delve deeper into our emotional range, we soften our focus and give up our search for absolutes.

I am still filled with awe as I make something. It is not about my own facility or how good the work is. It is not about the outcomes. It is that moment when something new is created. A new entity enters the world and our understanding is nudged forward a few millimetres. For me, art has been the wise counsel that, now that I think about it, in some ways replaced my parents. It is my best inner voice. It has helped me move forward, by giving me the time and the space to ask questions, look for answers and when feeling particularly brave, share them with others. I do not mean to say that I am shy about sharing my art. I share a lot of what I do through social media, but the truly convincing works, the ones that came from deep within full of conviction and in absolute honesty…well sharing those often involves risk. The moment when you make a piece of work that fills a void in you, is rare, but it happens. For some reason, others see that and engage with it differently.

A version of my print ‘Hope’.

In 2015, I made a little print of a tree in a storm in a little boat. It was a time when migrants fleeing war in Syria risked everything to reach safety in Europe and landed on the same little Greek islands that my parents escaped to in the 1920s. The simple image captured a moment for me and gave me the feeling that art could be both simple and powerful in unexpected ways. It won a prize, but more importantly it has become loved and used by many organisations and in literature and poetry as a poignant symbol of transition and hope. Most recently by ‘The Other Side of Hope’, a literary magazine that exists to serve, via words, the refugee and immigrant communities worldwide. The composer Yvonne Bloor has written a musical composition inspired by the series of prints entitled ‘Hope Sets Sail’:

Art has also allowed me to make some significant contributions in ways that I had never foreseen and which have been immensely meaningful and fulfilling to me. A number of these have involved residencies in Jerusalem, Osnabrück and Crete, working with diverse communities and people that I would not have met otherwise. Some of my reconstructed maps and books documenting significant events have moved some readers to express their gratitude for this work. I had this kind of nourishing feedback throughout my career as a teacher and without wishing to sound pretentious I would say that teaching and making art can be transformational. I have treasured memories of the generosity of students, their words of spontaneous kindness, and colleagues whose wisdom support and encouragement sustained me for thirty years in the educational sector. They together with my family and their stories and living examples supplied me without any particular effort on my part a rich internal treasure trove of feelings and experiences that inform my ideas and my artwork.

In 2020 just before the first lockdown I worked with acclaimed director Adina Tal. The project ‘Grandmother Stories’ is a series of theatrical pieces by a group of Arab and Jewish Israeli women in Jerusalem; it recounts their memories and their lives, showing the way they are interlinked in geography and in friendship, despite the political difficulties that define their daily existence. As I look back now, at this very moment when lives are lost through another conflict in Israel and Gaza, I feel very moved about that experience and very grateful that as an artist I was able to work with them in solidarity. It is that belief that art can make a difference in extremely difficult circumstances that feels important and worthwhile. I am calling on that memory in humility to help me to make good decisions about future projects and engagements with my own practice.

Why Leicester?

There is a cosmopolitan nature to Leicester that I find very inspirational and healing. Coming here in 1984 was a cultural experience that caused a personal shift. I grew up in the predominantly working class, mono-cultural Nottingham of the 1970s and that experience was harsh. I was not one to join the Greek community; rather I found friendships wherever I encountered progressive minds and people that had a wide, socialist world view that matched my own. Therefore in some ways I think I had moulded my identity order to create a new me, a George, rather than a Yiorgos. Although I did not fit in exactly, I was allowed to get on with my life. I assimilated superficially, for convenience and peace of mind. I did not want to have to deal with people’s questions about who and what I was and an easier anglicised name relieved me of that constant inconvenience.

I think that coming to Leicester and experiencing the diversity that exists here, freed me up to look at myself anew. To reflect and embrace those aspects of my own culture that I had suppressed in order to fit in. In a world where the main rhetoric about life focuses on difference, somehow Leicester had been able to focus on diversity and inclusion. It was not idyllic and I was acutely aware of the disparity and poverty in some of the communities here and of course of dissonance. Yes, there were issues, but look how far we have come and how comfortable it is to be in such a richly diverse environment. I think living in Leicester is liberating and gives me hope for the future.

Also, in a romanticised and edited version of history, perhaps I see in Leicester the cosmopolitan and vibrant Constantinople/Istanbul of my father’s stories. He used to recount with joy the way people coexisted in relative harmony, jostling along in packed markets in a multilingual, busy, oriental yet westernised metropolis. The history of Rome and Byzantium overlaid with the rich otherness of the Ottoman Empire creating a complexity that I find fascinating to this very day and which often surfaces in my work. In my Arts Council funded project with the ArtReach organisation and Leicester Print Workshop in 2019, that layering of histories, meanings and visuals resulted in the Recovered Histories Exhibition, at Leicester’s LCB Depot. Layers of history and different narratives combined, surfaced and interplayed with light to reveal our shared complexity and common history as human beings.

What next?

I am making more work than ever, releasing one limited edition of prints roughly every month at the moment, but I am also reflecting on direction rather than speed.

In terms of soon to come projects, I have a couple of diverse ones coming up. They both build on earlier work and relationships established via residencies of publications. The first was to be installed in January 2021, but now it will be going up, all being well, in June 2021. Both projects stem from my self-questioning when taking on something new. It is the ‘Why’ I am doing something, rather than the ‘How’ I am going to do it. As with the Jerusalem Project mentioned earlier (my first foray into film) I got involved in these projects because I believe in the causes they represent.

Constructing the frame of the tent for an installation at Leicester Museum.

The first one which is being installed in early June and July 2021 is a commission that responds to the Leicester Museum exhibition of the painting ‘Thou shall not kill’ by Matheus Koetz. The Light in the Darkness Installation symbolises the fragility of life and the power of hope and remembrance. It comprises two installations of illuminated tents. One tent was originally intended to be exhibited at the Leicester Museum and the other at the Cathedral; the latter had to be subsequently rescheduled for the Great Meeting Unitarian Chapel in the City Centre. They speak of the common need for shelter by all exiled and displaced people and the duty to remember those that passed. The photographs depict murdered Jewish and displaced people. Amongst those depicted are African, Armenian, and Greek people from Turkey. (The latter representing members of my family). In the installation, the photographs appear and then fade as a searchlight casts them into sharp relief against the tent walls. The revolving light which is housed inside a 'black box’ records and exposes the sadness of the past but also illuminates the way to a better, more just tomorrow. The tents echo the refugee camps that housed my parents and the displaced people all over the world, as well as the temporary huts constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot. The sukkah shelter symbolises the fragility and transience of life and dependence on the Almighty.

The soundscape represents a soundtrack of past lives through many years and in many voices, heard incidentally and faintly, just as I heard my parents’ voices as I fell asleep and woke up in my childhood. The tents are the same as those used in refugee camps and made specifically by the manufacturers in China for this installation. The hope is that after the exhibition they will be used as intended as stores or shelters. They stand as symbols, monuments to lost homes and lives. They reaffirm our commitment to justice for the persecuted and the displaced. Let us all work towards that.

The other is reinventing my art residency online following on from my physical one in Germany before the pandemic. I was privileged to be invited to work alongside academics and religious leaders that have come together yearly to maintain links between the Abrahamic religions after WWII. This will be the second time I have ‘resided’ virtually at Haus Ohrebeck in Osnabruck and I very much look forward to meeting some of the wonderful friends I have made over the last three years.

Reader Recommendations?

‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ by George Saunders. It is a book that has enabled me to reflect on what I do and how I think about the work’s meaning and purpose. Although it is about literature, I really loved the parallels with all the arts and it enabled me to look beyond the written word to the meaning intended by the writer and to the way art can only really come from the heart, if it is to mean anything. I think it resonated with me in ways that many books about art theory have not because of that last realisation.

For truly magnificent, incomparable research and breadth as well as detached and impartial scholarship, ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’ is a 2011 non-fiction book by British historian and writer Simon Sebag Montefiore. Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers and a lifetime's study, Montefiore illustrates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a historical chronicle of the city of Jerusalem. What I love about that book apart from the brilliant handling of very difficult historical events, is the impartiality and love that emerges through the writer’s uncompromising search for the best version of the truth. A tough act, but inspirational.

I love Escher’s work and his creativity, but also Kathe Kollwitz. I sometimes think that owe my love of printmaking to them, even before I was fully aware of the genre and what it would mean for my work. The artists that inspire me are often quite understated. I don’t think it is because of any modesty on my part, rather there is a beauty in the clarity of their limited palette of black and white. Of course the same simplicity cannot be ascribed to Albrecht Durer, yet his woodcuts and engravings are magical and a huge source of inspiration.

The thing that excites me is seeing how much creativity there is out there. Instagram and Facebook are full of examples of art, and it often amazes me how many people are simply making things purely for pleasure or self-discovery. In the final analysis I think maybe that is the point of making anything.

Thank you for reading my thoughts and reflections.


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Twitter: @sfougaras