Before the economic crisis, the only place you’d see the emblematic Greek evzones – the fustanella-clad, pom-pom-toed presidential guards – was in front of the Parliament and at the Presidential Mansion, in the form of statues or touts outside grill houses in the southern suburb of Vari, or in miniature at kitsch souvenir shops.
As Greece sank deeper into a six-year recession and started rethinking its identity, the evzone became quite a different subject, inspiring artists, designers and other creative types who breathed new life into the heroic warrior. The evzone began to grace works of art, stencils, T-shirts, coasters, cloth bags, cell phone cases and scarves. Today, many of these creations can be seen at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex, where 50 creators – among them architects, graphic, product, fashion and accessory designers, photographers, visual artists and ceramists – have turned folksy stereotypes on their head in an attempt to redefine the Greek souvenir, and particularly the evzone. Why is the new generation fascinated by this elite ceremonial unit? What do its members symbolize? Why do the artists believe that the evzone can define the present while also expressing the desire to know and come to terms with our past? Some of the people who brought the evzone into the modern age answer these queries.
“The evzone as a symbol is in postmodern fashion. In my photograph of the evzone floating at sea, I intended to poke fun and ridicule our sense of nation,” notes Panos Kokkinias, one of Greece’s most respected photographers. “No one knows whether the evzone is alive or dead, whether he’s just chilling out or is being carried by the waves.”
The evzone at sea is Yiorgis Yerolymbos, also a photographer, who offered to pose for Kokkinias in the signature costume. It was no easy feat to stay afloat in the heavy fustanella skirt and the wooden tsarouchi shoes.
“The most poignant and pressing question right now during the crisis is about who we are and where we’re going,” says Kokkinias. “It is only natural for the evzone to make a comeback, the traditional costume that I have always regarded as either tacky or funny. Our generation has no guilt about the past and can use national symbols with freedom and ingenuity.”
Artists, curators and brothers Dimitris and Giorgos Georgakopoulos are the founders of Cheap Art. They have created an interesting poster, on display at the Benaki, which was originally for an exhibition of contemporary Greek art titled “Boiling Point” in Austria and Athens, showing an evzone dangling from a pair of metal tongs over a pot of boiling water.
“It’s a comment on the nationalist trends that are being fortified on the political stage as well as about the exaggerated concept of ‘Greekness,’” explains Dimitris. “We decided to resort to this symbol in a spirit of self-deprecation and in order to avoid cheesy populism, at a time when the country has reached boiling point. Anyway, the evzone and the Acropolis are images that are also very familiar to foreigners.”
Set designer and architect Dimitris Polychroniadis used a shot by photographer Nikos Stournaras as a starting point for the recent group exhibition “1821 Meters,” which he curated. The image is from a 1970s postcard showing two evzones on the Acropolis with Mount Lycabettus in the background.
“Maybe the evzone’s comeback is about nostalgia for an innocence lost. Maybe we all see in him a piece of our past that is lost forever,” says Polychroniadis. “Furthermore, the evzone was used as a vehicle of ideology by the junta regime, which is why that generation is allergic to it. Maybe we can look at him today without that kind of baggage and love him for what he is: a part of our tradition. For me personally, the evzone symbolizes our cultural incompatibility with Western Europe. I sometimes feel like I live in a country of evzones disguised in European dress.”
Beside the artists, designers have also created an army of evzones.
“We chose to play with the figure of the evzone in a series of souvenirs we’re doing for Athens because it is associated with the city and is a kind of sentimental reference for residents and tourists alike,” says Angelika Niarchou of the Ploos Design firm. Together with Georgia Economopoulou, Ploos has designed T-shirts, scarves and other objects. “Evzones used to be kitsch. Now they can be cute and trendy,” says Niarchou.
The designers at DKD have created a series of paper figures of stereotypical Greek characters called “Meet the Greeks.” The evzone is one of their best sellers. “The evzone is a souvenir classic,” says Petros Dimopoulos. “We wanted to give him a new figure, one that’s cute and contemporary. The response has been great.”
Graphic designer and illustrator Marianna Kelali was inspired to create her adorable evzone doll by a guy called Tasos who works as an evzone-tout in Vari but dreams of becoming the real thing.
“The plastic evzone we find at kiosks in Plaka and other tourist areas is one of the most classic souvenirs. I took it, kept the basic characteristics, like the mustache, the hat and the colors, and adapted it to my style. The response, especially from tourists, has been exceptionally warm. You can’t help liking Tasos. Everyone wants to be his friend.”
“It’s All, Oh so Souvenir to Me! Vol 3” opens March 26 and runs through May 10 at 138 Pireos & Andronikou (tel 210.345.3111). Open Thursdays & Sundays 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Fridays & Sundays 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. (During Easter Week Thursday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Friday noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Closed Easter Sunday)