New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Photos: Dimitrios Panagos
The spirit of Antigone, the legendary princess of Thebes and heroine of Sophocles’ tragedy by the same name (written ca 441 BC), who struggles against authority to provide a sanctified burial for the body of her rebel brother, Polyneices, thus becoming a rebel herself, provided a strong framework for “Antigone Now”, the 2016 presentation of the Onassis Cultural Center’s (OCC) new, four-day Festival of Arts and Letters, initiated in 2015 with “Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined”.
Describing “Antigone Now” to the GN, Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation said, “This annual festival will present a totally different profile of art as social activism. We are not taking sides politically, but we live in society, and we have to be aware of the social issues, “We are not giving answers; we are raising awareness of the issues then letting every person choose his own answer.”
“Let us talk about this ancient Greek tragedy, and let the conversation instruct us on how future tragedy can be prevented,” said Amalia Cosmetatou, Executive Director and Cultural Director of the Onassis Foundation USA.
“Antigone Now” opened with a full-house reception on October 13 that featured “Past Tense”, a work created by Carrie Mae Weems especially for “Antigone Now”. With music, text, projection, and video and featuring singers Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri, and musicians HamietBluiett, Graham Haynes, Yayoi Ikawa, and Juliette Jones, the performance probed the enduring significance of the iconic Antigone and her profound relevance to our contemporary moment. The performance ended with an affecting memorial stating the names of African-American and other victims of police brutality, terrorism and other crimes, drawing a strong connection between the story of Antigone, wherein, says Weems’, “an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied.”
While “Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined”, can be viewed as having been prophetic in terms of today’s political developments, the particular power of “Antigone Now” is that its presentations relate to even more specific contemporary realities, speaking to and about today’s youth.
“The original concept of the Festival of Arts and Letters was to select themes with a contemporary angle,” Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, told the GN. “We selected the theme and then began the process of selecting the curators, etc. At the end of the day you rely on your judgement to make decisions. Of course, what will be the result of a product cannot be predicted, but I think the response tonight was excellent, and it serves exactly the purpose we had in mind, which was to reach a completely different audience; some people may not see the link between Antigone and tonight’s performance, but I would urge them to look deeper—not just into the ancient text, but also into Carrie’s performance, and I think that they will find the link, which is obvious: it is natural law versus order versus the state, versus the need for the rule of law and what we can do to improve it. It’s a dilemma which goes back twenty-five hundred years, and even more. There is no clear answer to that dilemma. I think that tonight’s the performance said that the answer lies in everybody’s heart.”
Responding to the suggestion that the performances of “Antigone Now” can be seen as radical, Papadimitriou said that the Onassis Foundation is “not afraid of being radical”. “We are not taking sides politically, but we live in society and have to be aware of the social issues that exist. This annual festival will present a totally different profile of art as social activism. We cannot ignore social issues. We are not taking sides politically, but we live in society, and we have to be aware of the issues. We are not giving answers; we are raising the questions.”
The Onassis Foundation USA has begun the #iSTANDfor campaign, a global initiative to inspire and engage young people to stand up for what they believe in and be catalysts for change.
Young individuals from all walks of life are sending in send their stories, inspired by the story of the young Antigone (istandfor.net, #istandfor and #antigonenow).
#iSTANDfor is a global call to young people to engage with each other to support common causes, and to share stories of inspiration and change with the unifying thought that, “We are all inspired to make the world a better place” in order to solve the problems our world societies face. More importantly, says the Onassis Foundation, the #iSTANDfor campaign spotlights and celebrates the young women and men whose individual and collective acts are already changing the world for the better. On October 15, The “I STAND FOR STAGE”, presented 45-minute lecture presentations on topics of gender, the environment, education, women in war and peace, and violence.
Perhaps Antigone’s statement, “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature”, can be the rallying cry of this campaign.
Also featured on the opening night were two presentations in the recently renovated gallery on the lower level of the Olympic Atrium, “Laboratory Antigone”, “We Antigone”, and on view in the Atrium, “Repoussoir for a new perspective”.
“Laboratory Antigone”, an installation with video and sculpture-artifacts by Maria Papadimitriou and commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center in conjunction with “Antigone Now”. Inspired by an abandoned house on the Theban plain, Papadimitriou contemplates “the history of the Theban landscape and its mythical personae, Oedipus, and his sister and daughter, Antigone, and explores aspects of the old Volos tannery through sculptural artifacts such as large leather hides with the names of the characters in “Antigone” and a dramatic wall video showing the water milling process involved in tanning hides.
The 35mm film, “We Antigone”, by StefanosTsivopoulos, combines visually poetic images and interviews with its subject, Rakeem Edwards, a 25-year-old African American actor born in Georgia and raised in Alaska, inspired by Antigone’s statement, “I have been a stranger here in my own land: All my life.”
“Repoussoir for a new perspective”, by Alexandra Kehayoglou, a hand-woven tapestry made of discarded thread from her family’s carpet factory in Buenos Aires, is a sculptural form that represents the outcroppings and patterns of cave formations and volcanic activity in the landscape of the Greek island of Milos. It is on view daily in the Olympic Tower Atrium.
In answer to the question of why Sophocles’ play Antigone was chosen as the theme of this year’s Festival of Arts and Letters, Amalia Cosmetatou said, “As I learned from Helene Foley, our academic consultant for this festival, Antigone is the only play, classical or modern, that has been performed all over the world. This is no coincidence; it is a politically charged play and it is easy to imagine how each era may have adapted it to its needs and spirit.”
“It was the narrative of our times that led us back to back to Antigone: women like Malala Yusafzai, Mona Eltahawy, Masih Alinejad, and many more keep the spirit of Antigone alive today. But this ancient text also sounds as a warning about what can happen when people refuse to listen to each other. It was as true then as it is now. Perhaps now, more than ever before, we need to be building more bridges through dialogue. This is the heart of our mission.
“The Onassis Foundation has always stood for social solidarity, culture, public health and education for all. We hope that with this festival what we communicate, above all, is a message of unity. So, let us talk about this ancient Greek tragedy, and let the conversation instruct us on how future tragedy can be prevented.”
Go to: onassisfestivalny.org@occny#AntigoneNow. To read the #iSTANDfor stories, the entire rich program of “Antigone Now” and follow the festivals many continuing off-site programs.