A tribute to Karaghiozis in Gazi

The word «Karaghiozis» may be used sometimes derogatorily to suggest that somebody is a clown, but originally it was the name of one of the most beloved fictional figures of Greek folk culture and the protagonist of the most famous Greek shadow theater. In fact, Karaghiozis is much more than an amusing character. His persona sums up Greek history during one of its most difficult periods, that of the Ottoman rule, and was a means for sustaining the national identity of the Greeks for decades. Karaghiozis is a poor man, benevolent and kind-hearted yet cunning. He uses his imagination to survive among the Turkish rulers and to gain their favor but without ever compromising his self-respect. His hunchback symbolizes the oppression of the Greek people, his long arm his cleverness and his adventures the hardship of the country. Today, it seems unlikely that the average Greek would identify himself with the character of Karaghiozis. But the Karaghiozis puppet theater is still alive and the cultural significance of the character felt to be strong. This is largely owed to the work of the late Sotiris Spatharis, one of the most famous Karaghiozis theater players, and his son Evgenios Spatharis, who although now in his early 80s carries on his lifelong commitment to the Karaghiozis theater. The contribution of father and son in keeping this character alive and, in the case of Evgenios, adapting him to contemporary life, is the subject of an impressive exhibition currently on at the Technopolis arts complex in Gazi. Curated by Nikos Stathoulis and co-organized with the Municipality of Athens, the exhibition presents the work of father and son together for the first time and includes 180 works. Ten hand-painted large set designs on canvas that Sotiris Spatharis made in 1950 are being shown to the public for the first time. Evgenios discovered the works only around a month ago in a trunk at his home. Each is a meter high and a bit larger in width and depict the hut of Karaghiozis or the sarayia of the Pasha. The rest of the works on display are by Evgenios Spatharis. Most of them are paintings depicting scenes from the adventures of Karaghiozis, but there are also large set designs. Dozens of cut-out figures of different scale showing Karaghiozis and other characters from the Karaghiozis theater (Barba Yiorgos, who is the uncle of Karaghiozis, Hatziavatis, the Pasha, and Dionysius) are beautifully displayed as a frieze across the walls of a large hall. The viewer will find himself surrounded by a rich range of colors and images of naif art that hark back to old Athens and the modern history of Greece. The paintings of Evgenios Spatharis are indicative of the broad repertory of the Karaghiozis puppet theater. They are filled with humor but with bitterness as well. They are also paintings made with skill and imagination. Evgenios Spatharis actually began his career by painting the advertising posters and sign-boards for the puppet theater performances that his father gave. He wished to become an architect but turned to the world of theater instead, working as a costume and set designer briefly but from early on committing himself to the puppet theater that he had grown up with. Besides being a shadow theater player, Spatharis also designed the entirety of each play: the script, story, set design and the puppets. He is credited not only for expanding the repertoire of the Karaghiozis theater but also for experimenting with different techniques and using new materials for making the set designs and figures. The exhibition at Gazi provides a rare insight into the work of this talented man and pays tribute to the work of his father, a legendary puppet theater player who left his distinct mark on the tradition of Karaghiozis. Refering to his work, the poet Angelos Sikelianos wrote: «Your art reflects the soul and spirit of our people and deserves to be treated with respect and seriousness. In it we find not only the purified essence of our people’s philosophical and light-hearted approach to the troubles of this world, but their reserves of strength in combating those adversities. In your work we see the God-given intelligence of a people that reaches the heights of heroism and incomparable courage, while never losing its attributes of humanity and truly civilized standards. It is these qualities which your art reflects so resoundingly. And that is why I believe it is a truly great art.» Some may regard the Karaghiozis puppet theater as having lost some of its currency. But it is an important part of Greek culture that has a lot to teach one about the country’s history and collective psyche. In that sense, an exhibition on Karaghiozis carries a symbolism that is hard not to appreciate. An album of Evgenios Spatharis’s work is under preparation for publication by Skai radio, 100.3. At Technopolis, Gazi (100 Pireos, 210.346.1589), to July 12. Open daily 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 6-9 p.m.

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