Apr 5th, 2018, 07:35 PM

"We Are City Plaza" Exhibit Showing in Paris

By Forrest Crellin
Two solidarians hold a banner in Elliniko camp during a protest calling for open borders. Image Credit: Felix Jack Jantuah
Come to see artwork created in City Plaza Squat in Athens.

We are City Plaza is an exhibit designed by Claude Somot and Xiaofu Wang, two passionate photographers that loaned out cameras for two weeks to residents of the City Plaza squat in Athens to help capture daily life there. 18 residents took part in the project, along with the two organizers, with ages ranging from 8 to 38. The project will be on display at 36 Quai de la Rapée until May free of charge, and Claude will be there all day on 14 April to explain the exhibit and answer questions.

Explaining his reasons for developing the project, Claude said, "After a trip in the winter of 2014 in Serbia, I found myself facing the refugee crisis. I wanted to help and show what was happening in a different way from the mass media. I wanted to show another image of the one we usually see, show refugees as humans with dignity. At the end of 2015, I went to Greece and I discovered City Plaza. I saw a sign in the bar saying 'any ideas for workshops with kids are welcome'. I got the idea there, in the bar, at this moment."

One of the children who took part in the project, Rida, looks out over the city of Athens from a 7th-floor balcony at City Plaza. Image Credit: Claude Somot

City Plaza is an occupied hotel built for the Olympics in Athens in 2004. After the financial crisis and austerity measures gripped Greece, the hotel lay abandoned and unused for several years. A group of anarchists and refugees moved in and set the building up as a home for over 400 residents from all walks of life, creating an integrated living community for refugees and solidarians. A solidarian is the preferred term here, rather than volunteer, as volunteer denotes a power difference, a need for aid and a giving of aid, whereas the residents of City Plaza believe in an equal, non-hierarchical structure.

"City Plaza shows that it is possible to solve problems by ourselves and to make dignity possible for everyone," Felix Borger, a solidarian from Germany that has a nursing degree and helped out in the clinic installed on the first floor. "When the state fails, civil society must jump in. For me, personally, that is the most important message of City Plaza and it is a true message even for my home country."

Two kids who live in City Plaza squat holding their room key near the communal kitchen. Image Credit: Felix Borger

The cafe of City Plaza is truly a global forum. The languages here range from French to Kurdish to English, with solidarity being the unifying statement. Sometimes hand gestures and smiles are necessary to communicate with one another. It is a space where you can play checkers or backgammon with friends, get cheap coffee or orange juice, and unwind from a long day. The art on the walls was supplied by traveling painters and photographers who passed through the squat, leaving their artwork behind as a stamp of their presence in the community.

"I don’t speak all of the languages spoken in Plaza. Far from it, in fact, like most of the people who live here we communicate using few words," said Zoé, a French solidarian that lived in City Plaza last year. "At the same time, we share a common dictionary, the beginnings of a Lingua Franca. We all sprinkle our sentences with some shukran, room, musallah, arè, mushkit, and my friend!"

Salah, a resident of City Plaza at the time of the project, practices his linguistic skills. Image Credit: Zoe Dardell

When asked about his favorite part of the project, Claude said, "I think it was the moment when they received the camera. It makes them really happy!"

Claude is currently working on editing the material from the project to turn it into a book. Along with his normal routine, this is taking up all of his time, so he has no future projects currently planned.

If you are interested in learning more about City Plaza, BBC World Service recently released a podcast on the subject. It can be listened to here.

Come to 36 Quai de la Rapée before April 30 to see the photography created by the City Plaza squat for free. If you come on April 14, you can talk to Claude in person to get a better understanding of the City Plaza community and what the photography was about.