Cultural heritage is an ongoing process

Nov 18, 2020

Good governance

An interview to Aemilia Papaphilippou, visual artist from Athens, Greece, by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.

Aemilia Papaphilippou is a contemporary Greek artist. Departing from the survey of her chess continuum, Papaphilippou focuses on the notion of the ubiquitous and perpetual motion via the historical, socio-cultural and anthropological realms. Through her works we can have the affirmative answer to the question:  can contemporary art play a pivotal role in the understanding of our past through our present and future hypostasis? In her artworks she explores the interconnection of realities. One of her essential works is a major intervention set at the public site of the Ancient Agora of Athens, right at the foot of the Parthenon. Following, I will present her elaborated points of view on the topic of Shared or Contested Heritage.

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Aemilia: The claim and opening sentence of this questionnaire “we do have heritage”, in the plural, suggests that this “heritage” (whatever is meant by that) is a cultural, or actual, property that is shared. Furthermore, it is implied that having different readings of this “heritage”, testifies to the fact that it is indeed shared, and it is only a matter of viewpoints. This however is a slippery road to fallacy; having different opinions upon the subject of “heritage” doesn’t necessarily testify to a shared cultural understanding, nor, of course, to a cultural property that belongs to all the parties involved. One only needs to think of Indonesia and Netherlands for example; many others exist in the history of colonialism. Or Cowboys and Indians to put it lightly. Intertwining pasts do not necessarily lead to a common future- far from it!

What does heritage mean to you as an individual and as a citizen of your country and the world?

Aemilia: Being Greek, and to continue from where I left off in the previous paragraph, I understand Culture as an ongoing process, which is exactly that: a constant cultivation, a culture which breeds the Present, the Now! It is democracy in the making. This process incorporates all kinds of twists and turns yet it keeps reinstituting itself incessantly. When one realises that responsibility and respect comes forth from within, and regardless if one is actually Greek or not, it sheds light on what Socrates meant when saying “Greeks are the ones that partake in the Greek culture”.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?

Aemilia: Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, created in 1907, and the usage of African masks, (among Asian or Iberian indicatives) in his portrayal of womanhood as the scary, confrontational “Other”. Interestingly enough Picasso’s only portrayal of a western woman is that of Germaine, the woman “responsible” for the death of his very close friend and possibly lover, Casagemas, who committed suicide in 1901 because being impotent Germaine denied to marry him. Picasso, according to Dora Maar, who “devoured” women and changed styles with every next lover, was a repressed homosexual. Interestingly enough this painting which, is probably dealing with Death and the sexual instinct for Life, intertwines genders, social stereotypes, colonialism, diverse cultures and artistic styles in thickly interrelated levels and cannot be truncated into easily digested chunks. However, although “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is considered a seminal painting to western contemporary art, we tend to remain at the surface of stylistic introduction to other cultures, (the African masks etc.) while the art market has not allowed a reading on manhood which would destroy the myth of Picasso as the ultimate male and surely reflect upon the value of his paintings.

But I should have first just mentioned the obvious: the ongoing (!) dispute over the Parthenon Marbles known as “the Elgin marbles”, removed between the years 1801 to 1812(!), from the Acropolis, by the Earl of Elgin, and now displayed in the British Museum. Even Lord Byron, his compatriot and contemporary, could see that this was an act of vandalism and looting and wrote about Elgin: “Loathed in Life nor pardoned in the dust…” Let us therefore be reminded that which lies beneath “contested heritage” is always connected with profit. Even though the parties involved may feel as  the protagonists, they may only be the leverage for pushing towards facilitating profit for parties that lay in the dark. In our region, the Balkans, the pressure to “reconfigure” the land has been a plight with no ending. Nowadays, among other things, we read about the energy market and we are entangled in its plot.

In a context of uncertainties and dystopias, what is the role of cultural heritage?

Aemilia: Culture, (which is based on cultural heritage but does not coincide with it) keeps people together as an infrastructure of sorts. It is a signifying system, a way of life that forms both the individual but also the collective and its connectivity.  A sense of identity stems from it while the need for meaning is possibly more important than survival itself. Blood has been shed for centuries by people fighting for what they believe in, yet we remain rather naïve. After all, in our times, technology, Internet and dense interconnectedness of all sorts changes who we are, both on the level of Selfhood but also on the level of Collectiveness.  It is therefore rather redundant to keep talking in terms of “cultural heritage” when Covid-19 has forced us all to realise not only the fragility of Life but how important art and culture, as an ongoing phenomenon, is for our survival.

One of the challenges for researchers and practitioners in the field of cultural heritage is to develop more inclusive approaches to share heritage in order to transgress social and national boundaries. Any idea of how you would implement this into your particular field of interest?

Aemilia: The “inclusive approach”, “transgressing social and national boundaries”, is not a good idea because it ends up being against diversity and variability while subduing conflict and controversy.

Obviously, we tend to undermine what Heraclitus taught us; that “all stems out of war”, meaning that we have to appreciate that in order to move forward we must undergo the dialectic of opposing forces, the Hegelian “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”, and accept the ever-changing flow of becoming. Furthermore, we tend to forget that People incorporate something cultural, which they feel drawn to, because it creates meaning for them. Once they do, they claim it as their own and protect it because it shapes who they are. It is human nature to the extent that even what is recognised as Selfhood is a construct not only on a social level but also on a neurophysiologic level. In this light we should invest in the future, creatively!

“Culture as an ongoing process which incorporates all kinds of twists and turns, yet it keeps reinstituting itself incessantly”

What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?

Aemilia: I disagree. Cultural heritage is as much a thing of the past as well as a living corpus that gets to be investigated, or not, by the extent of how we value and understand what has been, in the way we act Here, Now, Today.

Let us not be willing to erase memory, because it is only through dealing with the past that we can possibly evolve into something better in the future. Cultural heritage therefore cannot be considered fixed, but an ongoing process that interprets the past, also through the actions of the present.

Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?

Aemilia: Amused by generalisations of this kind I’m at the same time appalled by where they could lead us. We cannot leap “from the particular to the universal” if we do not understand that what we perceive as a particular given, humanism for example, is not a shared understanding nor a given! For example, human life is not valued by terrorists. “Martyrs” who are not only willing to sacrifice their lives to bring havoc, but are actually proud to spread death, have also an idea of a “universal” that needs to be spread around, this way or the other! Nor are human rights a given, even in societies that have bled in order to defend them.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Aemilia: No, this is not possible either. Meaning that which informs the present is, partly, that which has already been established in the past. We need to understand that we should invest more in the present and creative processes, and yet at the same time be careful not to popularise the “past” in order to make it agreeable to the wide public or the market. The “past” indeed requires invested time and knowledge and we should be equally unwilling to deconstruct it so as to make it a commodity of sorts, nor think that it can remain dormant and let it “rest in peace”.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Aemilia: No. Words are only words. It is the way that words are used that makes a difference and it is only through communication that we can create common ground. Talking about “audiences” therefore, as is being suggested by the question, implies that “audiences” are rather passive listeners, and take in what is suggested by the “speakers”. However, this is never the case. “Audiences” do not exist passively because they are in reality partly co-authoring what is being put on the table. I, therefore, cannot but wonder: is what is being suggested here some propaganda of sorts?! If that is the case it will instigate further conflict.

When dealing with shared history and heritage international cooperation has the potential to foster more understanding within and between cultures. Do you agree with this? What is your personal experience?

Aemilia: Yes, I agree provided that this is possible. If the cultures involved value dialogue, communication, and the individual as an agent of change, then it “could foster more understanding within and between cultures”. The Galichnik residency in North Macedonia, is such a positive and successful case that I experienced personally. We should however note that heritage or cultural issues are/were not the goal of the residency, although they tended to surface. Making art is/was the goal of the residency; within the western paradigm of what art is about, which already established freedom of expression as a given (a common ground we should not take for granted). However not all cultures are open to that kind of dialogue and exchange.

In this light another incident, that I experienced personally, comes to my mind. I was invited to participate in a workshop in Greece, supposedly aimed at making art interactively. For this workshop, which involved only women Greek and refugees, the Greek women were not only advised by the organisers to be dressed “modestly” (they demanded no sleeveless dresses-it was Summer), but also that we would have to accept to undergo inspection by the refugees’ husbands, or their men kin (brother or whomever was considered “responsible” for them), in order to be allowed to finally interact among us. I declined participating.


The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers.  The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.