“Tradition is a living thing, not a museum genre.” How many times has Ekaterini Polymerou-Kamilaki repeated this phrase over her 40-year career? Hundreds, probably, given that the acclaimed academic has served at the Academy of Athens’ Hellenic Folklore Research Center since 1974, initially as a research fellow and then as director, with the single-minded aim of promoting the idea that the country’s customs and traditions “should not be locked away in museums,” but put into the service of growth.
“It’s a mistake not to play with folk traditions. We need to be inspired by them, use them as springboards to something new. Recording it is, of course, important because it is a database about us, our treasures. But we have squirreled this treasure away for long enough; now it’s time to use it,” says Kamilaki, who was recently appointed to head a special committee formed by the Ministry of Development to promote and strengthen the Greek traditional arts and crafts sector. The body was set up to work in tandem with the Greece 2021 committee (of which Kamilaki is also a member), which is tasked with organizing the program of events and celebrations for the bicentennial of the 1821 Greek Revolution.
“As a member of the 2021 committee, I want to ensure that the country’s traditional cultural legacy is used in the service of local development, with the application of modern technology. I have already recommended gastronomy and handicrafts as key elements of our cultural heritage. I always try to showcase elements that make folk culture useful,” she tells Kathimerini.
Kamilaki laments the fact that while Greece may boast the richest cultural heritage in the Western world, it appears to appreciate it only during a crisis and sees it as a form of moral support rather than incredibly useful resources that could contribute to the economy.
Traditional arts and crafts are an important part of this legacy, which, Kamilaki says, have been completely derailed. “Most of the souvenirs sold in tourist shops are made in factories in India, Korea and Hong Kong,” she says.
Up until a few years ago, Greece had 28,000 small and medium-sized businesses producing and/or selling silver and gold jewelry and objects, wood carvings, icons, marble sculptures, woven textiles, glassware and other such products of craftsmanship. Instead of giving them support and developing growth and promotion strategies that would help them contribute to a campaign for promoting Greece’s traditional heritage, their business association, EOMEXX, was shut down in 2011 and absorbed into a bigger group, with devastating consequences for the sector.
“Greece, which had been exporting clay vases, pots etc since ancient times, today needs to import clay for most of the few pottery workshops that still survive,” says Kamilaki. “We are the only country without a higher education institute of applied arts where someone can study ceramics as a science. Ceramics is not just making something with mud, it’s chemistry, technology and artistry.”
Tradition is so much more than the foustanella skirts and tsarouchi clogs worn by the Presidential Guard. “It’s that too, but also something so much deeper, a philosophy of folk culture that could be grafted with contemporary art. The applied arts, for example, could make use of new technologies like robotics to replace hard-to-use traditional tools. Technology could be used in the production and reproduction of motifs. After all, know-how was always an important part of craftsmanship,” says Kamilaki.
What Greece needs, she says, is to develop a new “handicrafts/agricultural crafts and innovation ecosystem” in which folk tradition could provide the wisdom and science the technical ability for the development of new goods and products with high export and growth potential. The sectors of the economy that could benefit from a marriage with tradition to gain a competitive advantage are creative industries and food, she explains.
“As we have seen with the pandemic, we are powerless against nature. The global experience points to the importance that the misunderstood notion of locality can potentially acquire. It is time to love our country and everything that it has given us, making sure that it is still there for future generations,” says Kamilaki.