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Refugee portraits tell of women’s strength and individuality

20 February 20200 comments

A new series of eye-catching portraits that celebrate the individuality of refugee women is creating a buzz in the art world.

The collection, titled ‘Chrysalis’, is an amazing series of portraits by Greek visual artist and photographer Olga Stefatou.

Ms Stefatou has photographed women from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan inside a neoclassical building in Athens.

Dressed in golden suits made with emergency blankets, the portraits of the women tell of their different experiences, dangerous journeys and aspirations for the future.

“From the beginning, it was crucial for me that women actively participate in the process and express their own individuality, which is often hidden behind the labels given refugees or oppressed due to cultural factors,” Ms Stefatou said in a recent interview.

“I started filming in early 2018, but I was working on the idea for six months before. At that time, I used to work as a graphic reporter covering the refugee crisis in Greece and I realized the various problems faced by refugees and the difficulties in exercising their rights,” she said.

“I didn’t feel that simply covering the crisis was enough, so I began to think of a personal project to express a different narrative closer to my own values.”

Ms Stefatou said the work was an extension of his interest in gender issues.

“On this occasion I was eager to create a project designed to offer a positive and playful experience, as well as to present different aspects of the personality of these women,” she said.

“The idea came from a self-portrait that I filmed for another personal project, Relative Dating of 2014, in which I ran in a forest with a survival blanket in the form of a long golden skirt. Knowing that the blanket has been synonymous with the refugee crisis, I thought I could use this material to create tailored dresses for women, and this motivated me to start gathering all the layers of the visual narrative that interested me.

“I decided to collaborate for the creation of the costumes with the artist and designer Guram Chachanidze. We take into consideration women’s preferences and try to reflect their personality with each dress. However, this is not a fashion project but documentary.

“It took me a while to find the right location; I was looking for a place where women felt safe and comfortable to change clothes. Wael Habbal, a Syrian refugee whom I met on the island of Lesbos, introduced me to communism, a group that runs a beautiful neoclassical building in Athens.

“When I entered his blue room, I knew I had found the place I was looking for. The concept of the environment, the ceiling light, the different platforms and the Athenian background: all work metaphorically on experience and photographs.” Ms Stefatou said.

She said developing the project was a challenging experience and a great learning process.

“Most of the women were excited to wear a dress created just for them, but it was not easy to convince them to participate in the project,” Ms Stefatou said.

“The majority of refugee women are vulnerable people who have experienced violence and have suspected others after all they have suffered: unaccompanied minor girls, single young women, single mothers and mothers with children waiting for the opportunity to leave Greece and head north to join their husbands.

“All of the women in Chrysalis have consciously decided to seek a change in their lives and currently face unimaginable difficulties, such as inhuman living conditions, slow asylum processes, closed borders, aggression and poverty. I deeply admire their courage,” she said.

Ms Stefatou said the women who participated in Chrysalis were powerful people who were ready to speak and stand out despite all the risks.

“It is very inspiring when the passion for life overcomes fear, when the intention to move conquers the internal conflict. To this day, I try to keep in touch with them and help them as much as I can,” she said.

The series is currently being exhibited in Doha before going on show at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto between March and August.

See more of the portraits here: