Decolonising the City: Co-designing a participatory arts-based research toolkit with migrant communities in Athens, Greece

Blog 19th July 2023

In this guest post Dr Anna Papoutsi, Dr Penny Travlou and Dr Antonis Vradis write about their participatory arts-based research with migrant communities in Athens, Greece. Their work has been supported by the USF Decolonising the City (DtC) Knowledge Mobilisation Award.

Decolonising the City (DtC) was a Knowledge Mobilisation Award funded by the Urban Studies Foundation. DtC followed on from our 2019 USF seminar series (Copenhagen, Barcelona, Athens), which brought together academics and practitioners to examine existing migrant welcoming practices and reached two findings. First: academic knowledge needs to be co-produced with the communities it addresses, in ways that are inclusive, relevant and useful to them. Second: this very idea of “urban belonging” is rapidly changing. In this moment of dual transition, migrants settle in European cities (often not their preferred destination) while receiving societies are faced with the legacies of their colonial past.

A group of people are sitting on chairs facing inwards, as someone speaks to the group on a microphone
(2nd Festival ‘I HAVE A DREAM: UNITED SECOND GENERATION’ in May, 2023 (Kypseli, Greece). Source: Art C.O.D.E. Productions)

What follows below is an initial reflection that the three main researchers (Dr Anna Papoutsi, Birmingham; Dr Penny Travlou, Edinburgh and Dr Antonis Vradis, St Andrews) have pieced together. We felt the need to reflect on what the experience of our time in Athens has meant collectively, to be transparent about the unexpected occurrences and the challenges. We reflect, also, on the most rewarding moments that we encountered along the way, and set out a few humble conclusions we might be able to draw as a result of our work together.

A small group of people sit in a room with pink lighting facing a screen on which is projected another group of people and a solo speaker
(2nd Festival ‘I HAVE A DREAM: UNITED SECOND GENERATION’ in May, 2023 (Kypseli, Greece). Source: Art C.O.D.E. Productions)

We set off on our USF project armed with a number of certainties: we are pleased to report that each one of these has been shattered along the way. Here, we wish to briefly discuss three of the main lessons learnt during this year of periodical and fragmented work with various African communities in the city of Athens.

First, we thought we knew our city, and of course to some extent, we do. We are three Greek academics in the UK who have either grown up in, or spent considerable time in Athens – the kind of amount that allows you to say you are from the city, you are familiar enough with it, that you know your bearings. Our involvement in the project, from the outset, revealed a part of the city that we knew very little about: the African diaspora communities organising in Kypseli and Patisia, and showcasing their work in festivals that some of us had not encountered before. We discovered that as much as we are Athenians, there are other Athenians doing exhilarating work that was, up to this point, largely unknown to us. Unknown, perhaps, because our privilege as white middle class Greeks belonging to the majority group in the city can make us easily inattentive to marginalised, and less visible ways of being in and of the city. These are the Athenians who are denied representation – whose claim and right to the city are often overlooked, who are not entitled to formal citizenship even when born here.

Two performers facing each other on stage holding microphones in front of a crowd
(2nd Festival ‘I HAVE A DREAM: UNITED SECOND GENERATION’ in May, 2023 (Kypseli, Greece). Source: Art C.O.D.E. Productions)

Second, we set off with a broad, but fairly established (we thought!), sense of what it means to be decolonial in your praxis: a rough but guided sense of what it means to try and consciously dismantle the institutions, logics and processes that still cast the colonial spell over the ways in which we (co)exist in our cities today. To do this in a place like Greece, in a city like Athens, leads to all sorts of enticing contradictions: the kind of fertile grey zones and zones of ambiguity where the decolonial notion is tested to the limit – is Greece a colonising force? In a sense, of course it is – the kind of peripheral-coloniser, the smaller force tied into the orbit of the larger colonisers through its recent history. But at the same time, it is also a country that shares legacies and struggles with the colonised: Haiti was the first country to recognise Greek independence. At a personal level, as Greeks working in the UK, we have sometimes felt the prejudice of being read as ‘less white’ in ‘more white’ countries, and even so, our experiences do not even begin to compare with the levels of institutional and everyday discrimination and racism faced by our community partners in Athens. So, a grey zone – but one where the stakes and the limits are still discernible, and where we can read and recognise these divides clearly enough.

An adult leads a line of children with blurred-out faces down a hopscotch line running from a canopy to a garden
(2nd Festival ‘I HAVE A DREAM: UNITED SECOND GENERATION’ in May, 2023 (Kypseli, Greece). Source: Art C.O.D.E. Productions)

Third, we had expected that our final output, ambitious as it is (organising a festival across six different venues is as much a logistical challenge as it sounds), could work out fairly unambiguously and at ease in terms of the decisions that this kind of event entails – the sponsors and the venues, the alliances and the organising principles that make it happen. But what each of us decides when acting in the urban terrain, what kind of alliances and solidarities we are willing, able or aspiring to build, very much depends on our context and background – an obvious enough statement that is never quite so before one jumps into the murky world of field trip. We have managed to navigate these contradictions, we are delighted to say, in a collective and collegial spirit that has strengthened our resolve, not weakened it. It has allowed us ample time to reflect, individually, on the kind of ways in which we come to participate in research and that we come to exist and to act in the urban, as researchers, and as the social and political actors that we each are.