ATHENS, Greece — In the summer of 2005, a group of 18 Greek artists, challenging the pervasive commercialization of art and the degradation of cultural values in today’s society, set out to ground their artwork in the daily reality and struggles of the working class.
The artists approached the metalworkers union at the Perama shipyard near the port of Pireas, adjoining Athens, and initiated a project whereby they began visiting the yard on a regular basis to witness the harsh conditions under which the workers there labor.
They had chosen the shipyard because the workers there, who build and repair large seafaring vessels, are subject to some of the sharpest forms of exploitation in the country. They also selected the yard because the workers are represented by one of the most militant labor organizations in Greece, the 7,000-member-strong metalworkers union.
In 2005, the union held a monthlong strike. With the support and mass mobilization of all the trades, it won a strong collective bargaining agreement that set a new standard for Greek unions.
Despite that victory, the workers still face great hardships. The artists learned just how difficult it still is for the shipyard workers to make a living and raise a family.
The shipowners pressure the workers to get the boats “off the docks” as soon as possible, so as not to lose their daily freight revenue for each ship, estimated at $100,000 a day.
Accidents are frequent, as even the most minimal safety requirements are not enforced. Two workers were killed in an explosion in July, bringing the total death toll at Perama since 2000 up to 15.
While the shipyard at Perama was once the hub of the shipbuilding/repair industry in Athens, cranes now stand rusty from disuse. Greek shipowners have been gradually contracting out shipbuilding to China and South Korea, and ship repairs now typically get done in Eastern Europe.
While there are orders for 300 new ships to be built, very few will be built by Greek workers. Unemployment has skyrocketed, at almost 60 percent, putting even more pressure on shipyard workers to accept the terms and conditions demanded by the shipowners.
After spending weeks on site, artists returned to their studios and started work. They produced paintings, sculpture, photos, engravings, videos and artistic installations, all inspired by what they witnessed — unemployment, accidents, death and employer greed, but above all, militant struggle and hope.
Their work culminated in the first exhibit organized jointly by the union and the artists in 2005. In 2006, 80 artists participated in the second exhibit dubbed “People, Color and Iron.” Spring 2007 marked the third exhibit, which has now become an institution down at the shipyard.
The exhibitions are held in the abandoned Nafsi shipbuilding/repair warehouse, which just three years ago employed over 500 people. Inside the warehouse, the workers’ absence is now strongly evident. The tools, gloves and even half-burnt cigarette butts which workers left behind have been incorporated into the exhibit, as the artists have taken care not to alter the worksite.
The remarkable thing about the exhibit is that the pieces of art are completely melded into the shipbuilding environment. Metalworking machines display paintings, welding machines become human faces, cranes support sculptures.
The unions and the artists work hand in hand to organize the exhibit. Union members stay up all night to guard the exhibit after ending an exhausting day on the job. Lively discussions and concerts take place every night during the weeks the works are on display. This year, speakers addressed the issues of drug abuse, unemployment, education, people’s culture and the struggle for a 35-hour workweek.
The artists and the union working together demonstrated how art belongs to all the people and what an important role it can play in daily life.
Eva Mela, a painter, engraver and one of the original 18 founding artists, told the World, “Art is a tool that can help change society. Our goal is for these exhibits to become an inspiration for the creation of art by the workers themselves.”
This year, three shipyard workers participated in the exhibit by contributing a painting, photographs and sculpture. Next year, an art studio will be established at the shipyard where artists and workers can work together to produce art by and for the people.