Lesvos, drawn in the field

From a distance we watch as desperation grows and in awe we witness how people attempt to build new shelters on harsh concrete, prepare food on windy sidewalks and fold pieces of cardboard around their sleeping children. With every cycle of brutal destruction and temporal rebuilding their worlds seem to erode further, and inevitably ours and the things we say we stand for, with it.

This piece was drawn and written after witnessing the growing unrest on the island of Lesvos, Greece, in February this year. Following recent events the already fragile and tense dynamics on the island as sketched in this piece have only intensified. The visual story ends with the question ‘how much more proof of suffering does it take?’ and remains unanswered.

This visual essay, at the intersection of ethnography and visual arts, was first published in the journal Entanglements.

A reflective note

As a visual artist, I am used to drawing ‘in the field’, although I never called it that before studying anthropology. Before anthropology, it meant leaving my studio carrying a sketchbook and pencils, to wander through and participate in the world outside, in search of inspiration. Whenever colors, lines and shadows, but also encounters and interactions grasped my attention I would draw them on paper. After getting acquainted with ethnographic fieldwork my drawing practice gained a new twist and more systematic attention and reflection. I started using it as an innocent but powerful tool for connection and reciprocity, leaving behind portraits as gifts in return for people’s time and stories. But as I witnessed how the precarious situation on Lesvos reached a new level in terms of protests and violence mid-February 2020, drawing ‘in the field’ took on a new form and meaning.

When setting foot on Lesvos there was no way of escaping the complexity of the situation. The precarious living conditions of over 21.000 people in camps had put the entire island under growing pressure and has led to tense dynamics between different groups of locals, humanitarian aid workers, volunteers, refugees and migrants, (local) government, police and army. At the beginning of February, protests by women and children to address their struggles to survive in the Moria camp were met with police violence and teargas. Not much later, the requisition of properties and the arrival of materials for the construction of a new reception center in Karavas led to a series of increasingly violent protests and strikes in which local groups first clashed with riot police and army forces, and later with NGO workers and refugees. As the situation rapidly escalated, I struggled to position myself. And with what suddenly felt like a frontline all around me, I found myself reporting as if I were a journalist, making sketches as an artist while wondering: how should an anthropologist make sense of all this?

Soon I realized that drawing could be much more than a tool to gather inspiration or build connections. First of all, as stories about attacks on journalists with cameras were going around, drawing became a way to stay fairly unnoticed while still taking note of what was happening. The first days of the protests I tagged along with a group of older Greeks who participated in a choir with refugees. Although I hardly knew them they quickly became the point of reference in the crowds, telling me when and where to hide, how to cover my face with a mix of Maalox and water to protect me from the teargas chemicals and offering me cheese sandwiches in between runs. Whenever I could, I stopped to draw quick outlines in a small sketchbook. In these chaotic circumstances and in the days that followed when violence turned against NGO personnel and I had to lay low, drawing gave me something to do when my role was unclear and a sense of purpose when there was no way yet to oversee and fully understand what was going on around me. The openness of the quick sketches bought me time as it allowed me to grasp moments, gestures, compositions or details without pinning anything down. As Taussig describes so accurately, I too felt that my textual fieldnotes often fell short. Especially when things were moving fast, it was as if words only decreased the totality of the experience instead of doing it justice. In retrospect, these (sometimes quite abstract) drawings I made in the field managed to contain an embodied experience that could later be unpacked.

The idea to pour my observations into a series of drawings emerged as I was standing on the back of the ferry when being evacuated from the island. From that viewpoint, everything that had happened was forced into a single frame far beyond my imagination: stranded arrivals on the parking lot, police chasing people up the hill in the background, bulldozers driving into the belly of the boat beneath me, volunteers with their backpacks taking notes in their diaries and young soldiers leaning over the rail next to me. We all stood there quietly and observed this unlikely scene. Everything felt tangled, interlaced and compressed. I had to find a way to unpack this moment, but without losing its sense of urgency. Of showing a crisis reaching a climax, but continuing nonetheless. Of showing a catastrophic landscape that, not too long ago, had felt relatively calm and peaceful during my morning walks. But should I do it as an anthropologist or as an artist? Or could there be a way to do both?

Upon arrival back home, in the Netherlands, my sketchbooks quickly covered the table and floor. I felt crushed and calm at once as I relived the events day by day and worked my way through them, redrawing and rearranging scenes, caught up in a creative flow. I started to stitch my drawings together with words to explain in detail what had taken place. However, at some point the drawings seemed to be reduced to mere illustrations of this text. Both drawings and words had to be cut back in order to find a balance
where they would intersect instead of compete. It wasn’t until someone suggested that I pull images and words apart completely, that I began to realize the power of blank spaces and how emptiness on a page allows the reader to digest and breath. Intuitively I mixed thoughts, feelings, facts, observations and senses and let go of what I thought both art or ethnography should look like. There was no rigid, preset method for this. There were no rules to follow, only my own intuition. In my art practice I had always
relied on this intuition and now I wondered how to put it to work in my newly acquired ethnographic practice. Could ethnography embrace the embodied and tacit ways of doing and knowing, the emotional and spontaneous, that I experienced both in the field and afterwards? Or would methodological and theoretical concerns break the power of this intuition?

The visual ethnography that I present here is a rhythm of drawings, words and blank spaces, fragmented and articulated. As with the drawings made ‘in the field’, I have sought to produce a similar openness in the final story, hoping that it allows the reader to unpack it further and makes the urgency of the situation tangible. Drawing us in.

Kyra Sacks studied Art and Education at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands and obtained a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam in 2019. Kyra works on a variety of multi-disciplinary projects combining art, anthropology and education.

One Comment on “Lesvos, drawn in the field”

  1. Dear Kyra,

    This is an amazing contribution to Standplaatswereld. The drawings are so powerful! It is good to see that in anthropology we explore other ways of telling our stories than standard forms of writing, tables, etcetera.
    Many thanks!
    Freek

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