For me, the function of the artist and the function of the art historian complement one another, often without any effort on my part

Eleana Stoikou

Art beyond borders

Text: Chryssa Nanou || Photographs: Eleana Stoikou's Archive
Eleana Stoikou
Eleana Stoikou

 “You can’t be both an artist and an art historian. You need to choose one path,” a professor once said to Eleana Stoikou, when she was studying at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh). She listened to his advice attentively, and proceeded to do the exact opposite: She chose both, becoming a painter and an art historian.

Born in Thessaloniki, she studied History and Archaeology, moving on to do a postgraduate degree in Art History at AUTh, also getting accepted into the School of Visual and Applied Arts of the Faculty of Fine Arts, under Kyriakos Mortarakos. In 2020, she acquired her PhD from the Department of Architecture of AUTh, titled “Greek Artists in Berlin between 1961 and 1989: Political and Social Aspects of Their Work”. In recent years, she has been based in Berlin. Eleana has taken part in exhibitions in Greece and abroad and received numerous awards, including the AUTh’s Ilias Karantonis Prize and scholarships from Freie Universität Berlin, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Greek State Scholarships Foundation (IKY), and the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation.

“For me, the function of the artist and the function of the art historian complement one another, often without any effort on my part. I have always found it a useful, if not a necessary combination to help one understand artists and interpret their work – and on the other hand to be able to place it within the context of art history, which helps you as an artist to understand what you are doing and how you are progressing. There have been times when I had to focus more on one of these two functions, such as when doing my thesis in art history. But even then, being an artist helped me to research, to approach different issues of art and to conduct analysis that touches upon both sides – artist and art historian. Although I focused on research during that period, my artistic side kept coming back spontaneously on a practical level, throughout. I felt the need to create and tried to respond to it, occasionally. Although I didn’t paint regularly, I made some artwork without even realizing, which I presented at an exhibition in Zurich. There are also periods where I focus more on painting, but art history comes in once again to complete this more practical pursuit.”

Eleana Stoikou started making art at a very young age. “I used to go to my mother’s workshop and paint her ceramics. In high school, I began to experiment with various materials and doing oil paintings on my own, in my room. I still remember that smell, which went on to accompany me in my studies at the School of Fine Arts. It was back then, in my student years, that I realized I wanted to work in art, to learn as much as I could about it, as well as to learn to manipulate different materials to express myself more directly through it. I didn’t know where all my interest would lead me, but my studies both in art history and painting made me feel fulfilled.”

She mostly works with Indian inks, acrylics, graphite and dry pastels. “I like to mix materials to create abstract landscapes or solid forms emerging from the space, often venturing into color field painting; strict forms who converse with their neighbors or battle it out. To them, I add lines and gesture elements that attempt to connect the forms and break the coldness of the autonomous volumes. They look like borders and borderlands which sometimes clash, in an attempt to dominate over one another, and sometimes coexist. After all, the concept of the border and specifically my historical research into the Berlin Wall and borders in general was my springboard to create these pieces. Tones of gray, black and white escalate the emotive atmosphere I want to create and breathe into my work.”

By her own admission, there have been three milestones in her path: the workshop where she prepared for the entrance exam for the School of Fine Arts; her studies at the School of Fine Arts at AUTh, under Kyriakos Mortarakos; and Berlin. “All three contributed to my trajectory and evolution. At the workshop, I learned what dedication to drawing and painting meant; I appreciated concepts of space, volume, design, color; I started to realize how difficult and how demanding the artist’s work is. At the School of Fine Arts, my teacher showed me how to see through an artist’s eyes; how to understand the artist’s language. Looking at my pieces those first few years, he’d say ‘it should emerge from the space, while also being part of it.’ It was difficult for me to grasp what he meant. I couldn’t see it. What did ‘emerge from the space’ mean? He never explained, and I never asked. After a lot of work, I finally understood. This period was very important to me because I felt that I was starting to build on the foundations put in place during my workshop years – during my preparation. I could sense that progress had taken place, and then came several awards, exhibitions and scholarships. Soon followed the third milestone, Berlin, where I’ve been living lately. I felt I was at the right place to allow me to share all I had conquered in previous years and earn new experiences, stimuli, collaborations. This period is equally important to me because it coincided with the years of my field research for my PhD thesis.”

Her research interests revolve around the history of modern and contemporary art, European and Greek, art in border regions, the relationship between art and social and political history, and issues of immigration. “While doing my PhD research, which concerned international art near border regions and in particular near the Berlin Wall, questions arose to do with the role and stance of Greek artists who had settled in Berlin during the Cold War and primarily during the Greek Junta dictatorship. These questions addressed how their sociopolitical reality reflected in their artwork, their interaction with it, their osmosis with the international art stage, and their contribution to the evolution of art practices in Germany and in Greece upon their return,” she explains.

In the course of her research, she found that there had been little exploration and analysis of the work of Greek artists living in Berlin in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the context of the sociopolitical conditions of the German city at the time. “I was so enthusiastic about the topic and tried to go to Berlin in every way. I received three scholarships from Greece and Germany and left Thessaloniki to start my research work. I traveled along with the artists who were my study subjects through their own accounts, through their work and through discussions with their relatives, friends and art historians in Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Prague, Paris, Athens and Crete. I remain especially interested in this field, but it is no longer just about Berlin. Other border regions have been brought in, specifically those of the Middle East – Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva. Just like with Berlin and its Wall, which influenced my art and my research, my newfound interest in the Middle East region affects both my art and my research. They are two projects in progress which I hope to be able to tell you about in the future, once I’ve completed them.”