An Artist Explores Memory with Syrian Refugee Children Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos’ powerful work with refugees in Lebanon.
Twyla artist Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos recently returned from a two-month artist residency in Lebanon that involved teaching and making art with Syrian refugee children. Esmeralda worked with NGOs at three different camps (one less than two miles from the Syrian border), leading the children in art projects and instruction. The residency culminated in a emotionally-charged exhibition, which explored exile, memory and the meaning of home. Read on and find out more about Esmeralda’s inspiring project.
Meet Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos
Esmeralda is a self-taught multimedia artist who often investigates themes of language and identity. Originally from Greece, she was raised in Paris and is now based in New York City. Esmeralda has done a lot of interesting “in-situ” work internationally, including a 2016 project in Tehran, Iran, as well as this most recent work with Beirut Art Residency. Esmeralda explains that her Greek heritage is part of what draws her to the Middle East: “we have a deep and long history with Middle Eastern countries.”
Inspired by Opera
While at first Esmeralda wasn’t quite sure what she would work on during her residency, she was ultimately inspired by a performance she saw in New York before she left. A lover of opera, Esmeralda attended a production of L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”) at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in December; she became enamoured with Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf, the award-winning novelist who wrote the opera’s lyrics in collaboration with composer Kaija Saariaho. Esmeralda was moved by the opera’s exploration of exile, the history of Lebanese poetry of exile in general and how these ideas resonate with the current Syrian refugee crisis.
“I found their raw stories very compelling. They were telling me the stories and I was holding my tears. You have to be strong.”
Building the Future
When Esmeralda arrived in Lebanon, she connected with three organizations working with Syrian refugees. For her, it was important that she work with organizations “that look to the building the future.” She spent about four days a week in the camps, leading art and creative activities for the children, teaching things like clay projects and drawing, and Photoshop for the older kids. She says she wanted to help the children “react to memory in a positive way” and give them the creative and emotional space that they lack living in the camps.
Memories of Home
In one activity, Esmeralda asked the students to draw their home based on memory. She was struck by their happy drawings, which were full of rainbows, colorful houses and smiling faces, despite the fact that most of them likely experienced considerable trauma back in Syria. “What they remember is not what their home is. This is the way our memory works with trauma,” says Esmeralda. The artist later printed these drawings on tracing paper and overlaid them on photographs of the same locations taken from Google images, calling attention to the disconnect and tension between our memories and reality.
For another activity, Esmeralda asked the children to bring in their favorite object. She photographed each in straightforward, white setting, separating the objects from their young owner and the emotionally-charged context. Seen in these stark scenarios, the objects—”ordinary” teddy bears, necklaces and books—reflect a reverence and symbolize the prominence they hold for the child. For Esmeralda, these photographs are a poetic way to “tell the story without showing the war.” Despite the sadness and trauma inherent in these images, there is also much hope. As Esmeralda says, the children show us that “life goes on, in a beautiful way.”
“Conflict and adversity bring out the most human side of yourself.”
Love From Afar
Esmeralda’s residency culminated in a presentation which she titled “L’amour de loin.” It brought together works of all kinds—neon, sculpture, sound work and the works she made with the children. The art examined the notion of homecoming from many angles; what does it mean today in light of our political climate and how does this connect with ideas of exile that have been explored as far back as Homer’s Odyssey? Why do we leave our homes? What are we searching for? How are we greeted in the places that we travel to? Esmeralda says about the work: “It’s not about the conflict, it’s not political. It’s not about taking sides. It’s about how I experience things. What does home mean?”