By Margarita Markoviti
When I first heard about Tassos Vrettos’ photographic exhibition on the worship places across Athens, though certainly intrigued, I was not expecting to see anything I had not already seen – or at least heard of – through my research on religious communities in Athens in the context of Grassrootsmobilise. As friends and colleagues were advising me not to miss this exhibition, I started to realize that there was much to be gained from a visit to the Benaki Museum, which hosted the exhibition between November 20, 2015 and January 10, 2016 (with an eventual extension till the end of January 2016).
As Vrettos told me, his interest in the topic began a few years ago when he read in the news about this beautiful Resurrection service on Easter Sunday at an Ethiopian Church. He picked up his camera, told his family “we won’t be spending Easter Sunday together this year!” and went to visit this Ethiopian Church, which was allegedly somewhere on Liosion street. It turned out that there was no such Church on Liosion, but after many exceptional circumstances, Vrettos was lucky enough to find out (with the help of a policeman who happened to pass by and who was willing to help) that the Ethiopian Church was actually in an entirely different district called Polygono. And this was the first time when Vrettos, using his discreet and soundless camera, was allowed to enter the Church in Polygono and capture instances of this service. In Vrettos’ own words:
“My entire photographic journey has been driven by a deep curiosity to see, as if I were opening a curtain and going inside. My ‘voyeuristic’ inclination was what got me started on this adventure in the first place. Looking back, I can see that my curiosity has been stigmatized by a single experience.”
From that moment on, he embarked upon a three-year photographic research into the worship places of Athens. Much like with his first experience with the Ethiopian Church, this research turned out to be an exploration, an ongoing journey for Vrettos to literally uncover where these places were, what they looked like and how believers organized their services and ceremonies.
Indeed, the world that Vrettos so beautifully and respectfully presents in his work has little to do with the idea of religious pluralism as we imagine it, hear about it in the news or even see it in the streets of Athens. And this is because Vrettos brings to light the many hidden communities of immigrants and refugees who, in their everyday struggle to survive and to organize their lives, also seek to create their very own places and ways of worship in the capital of Greece. And this is found in the most unimaginable places and, of course, unofficial spots across the city: from the dark basements of abandoned buildings and warehouses, which Vrettos hesitantly approached when he heard chanting coming from within, to fields and garages, including a building on the central Aiolou street, where different communities have created their own worship place on each floor. Though some of these spots, such as Churches or unofficial mosques, are visible to the public eye, residents of the areas and passersby do not even notice most of them. The discovery of this invisible complex of worship places, most of which function outside the limits set by Greek law, is exceptionally significant in the light of the ongoing struggle for the establishment of the first official mosque in Athens as well as of the recurrent public debates on the presence and rights of minority religious communities in the country.Read more