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History Lessons: Reviewing the history of migration through a different lens

September 16, 2019

History Lessons: Reviewing the history of migration through a different lens

September 16, 2019

Graduate Student Profile: Argyro Nicolaou (Comparative Literature) Ph.D. '19

This article was published in collaboration with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. Author: Andrea Volpe; Photos: Molly Akin.

Migration — the movement of people from one place to another—is an undertaking as old as humanity itself. Even while concerns about migration dominate the news cycle and inform political discussion, global nation states as we know them would not exist without the first steps of migrants across what would become a country’s borders. In modern times, narratives of migration and displacement have become intertwined, leading to impassioned debates focused more on present circumstance than the events—and history—that force populations to leave their homes.

For literature scholar and filmmaker Argyro Nicolaou, PhD ’18, stories, images, and film have the power to unlock new understandings of migration. Through her filmmaking efforts and literary studies in comparative literature, which include her doctoral dissertation, she leverages these media to illuminate Europe’s relationship with the Mediterranean and focus on the narrative dimensions of forced displacement.

“I started thinking about my dissertation at a time when historical and cultural amnesia about Europe’s connections to the Mediterranean was fueling a rising xenophobic political discourse around migrants in Europe, amidst a wide-scale migration crisis” she explains. “I consider my work one way of using the humanities to respond to politics.” In her dissertation, she analyzed literary and visual representations of Mediterranean migration involving the Greek world from antiquity to the present, drawing in part from her own experience as the daughter of a Greek Cypriot forced to flee her home in 1974. Nicolaou asks how people who have been forcibly displaced from their homelands represent their experiences in literature, film, and art.

Life in Motion

The answer, according to Nicolaou, begins with recognizing the paradoxical role the Mediterranean plays in shaping Europe’s sense of itself. The sea functions as a political and social border, separating Europe from southern and eastern Mediterranean countries at the same time that Europe invokes the Mediterranean as the source of its cultural heritage. In fact, Mediterranean migrations have shaped Europe for millennia.

“To look at the world from a moving, provisional perspective—as opposed to a secure and settled perspective—is to have a radically different understanding of history and geography,” she says, noting that forced displacement is not just a legal status or a physical experience. “Studying literature and art about displacement, it becomes clear that the condition of being forced to move has an effect on how writers and artists understand the world.” This is reflected in the formal choices they make in their works. Stories of journeys, references to home, and travel “from here to there,” appear frequently, as do the forms of transportation that enable them—boats especially. In form, “many of these works acknowledge the inability to know something completely,” she says. Another common feature is a sense of temporariness. Often authors and artists refuse a linear narrative.

Nicolaou points to The Club, a novel by the Greek Egyptian writer Stratis Tsirkas, which is set in a temporary bed and breakfast for refugees in Jerusalem during World War II. “The novel is narrated from the perspectives of multiple characters, which are never synthesized into a whole,” she explains. “Going against the tradition of the omniscient narrator, Tsirkas offers a refracted and fragmented account of the story.”

Over the course of her dissertation research in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Tunisia, Nicolaou gleaned further insights through fieldwork and archival research. In Cyprus, she interviewed internally displaced poets writing in Turkish, Greek, and English. In Athens, she conducted archival research regarding Greeks displaced to the Middle East during World War II, gaining access to journals that provided new insights into Tsirkas’s trilogy, Drifting Cities.

Rehabilitating Memory

As a graduate student, Nicolaou began writing and producing films and decided to pursue a secondary field in Critical Media Practice (CMP), which gave her the visual tools to prioritize more artistic thinking. For her CMP capstone project, she developed a two-part work titled History Lesson that engages with the same questions that motivated her dissertation but approached them through multimedia installation and performance. History Lesson proposes an alternative history of the island of Cyprus based entirely on film, grappling with what has been remembered and forgotten about the Greek-backed military coup and Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the summer of 1974. The action resulted in a divided island, with Greek Cypriots—like Nicolaou’s mother—moving south and Turkish Cypriots moving north, separated by a United Nations Buffer Zone.

“Nicolaou’s History Lesson is brilliant on many levels, chiefly in the way it provides a novel way to review Cyprus’ well-examined past,” said Elaine Papoulis, executive director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, which partially funded Nicolaou’s dissertation research. “It fosters liberation from preconceived cognitive boundaries and, perhaps most importantly, rehabilitates memory into a wellspring of hope for the future.”

In the piece’s performance component, Nicolaou reveals History Lesson’s autobiographical roots. As a child, she heard stories from her mother about fleeing the northern city of Varosha as a teenager, and she remembers vividly her mother repeatedly watching Attillas ’74, Michael Cacoyannis’s documentary about the aftermath of the Turkish invasion. Her primary education was filled with admonitions to “never forget” pre-1974 Cyprus; even her school exercise books were illustrated with iconic images of northern Cyprus, meant to keep the collective memory of lost territory alive, despite the fact that she was part of a generation without first-hand memory of those places.

The second part of History Lesson recounts the history of Cyprus through films shot on the island before the 1974 division. The viewer is invited to sit at a classroom desk and put on headphones to watch a video composed of film clips, including a British instructional film, the Peter Sellers pirate caper Ghost in the Noonday Sun, and Otto Preminger’s Exodus, starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, while listening to a lesson in geography, cartography, geopolitics, and natural history delivered in a professorial tone. Viewers are invited to take notes in exercise books similar—with one exception—to those from Nicolaou’s childhood: For the booklets she had printed for the installation, Nicolaou replaced government-approved images of pre-1974 Cyprus with film stills of the same iconic sites that appeared on the original exercise books.

Nicolaou sees these films as a counterpoint to officially sanctioned remembrances of and amnesias about pre-1974 Cyprus in the post-1974 Republic of Cyprus. “The fact that the island was captured on camera in its pre-1974 state gave these films a different quality than anything I’d ever seen before,” she said in her performance. While she approaches her materials differently as a scholar and a filmmaker, in both realms she believes that “art and literature have the potential to be important and unexcavated sources of historical information.”

Change of Perspective

After defending her dissertation in September 2018, Nicolaou joined the Department of Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art. There, she is conducting curatorial research in preparation for an exhibition called Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present, scheduled for fall 2022. Just Above Midtown (JAM) was an art gallery in New York founded by artist and activist Linda Goode Bryant that embraced the work of African American artists, artists of color, and self-taught artists. JAM organized ground-breaking exhibitions and first supported many artists now recognized as essential figures of the second half of the 20th century. Although New York’s art scene in the 1970s is a new topic for Nicolaou, her approach to researching this unheralded moment is similar to the method she applied in her dissertation. “It’s about going deep into a moment of time and unearthing a narrative by looking not only at the artists’ work and their archives, but also looking at the social, cultural and political context for their work,” she explains.

Working in a museum setting has given Nicolaou another window into the relationship between her scholarship and filmmaking. “I love that I’m in a space that takes the resources of research and the interdisciplinarity that is a feature of my media work and scholarship and gives it to so many people,” she says. “Having access to film and media work in the museum has also transformed the way I approach my own media practice. Being in the museum has made me want to continue writing and making media as much as I can.”