Saturday, October 23, 2021


 «καὶ ἐμοσχοποίησαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις καὶ ἀνήγαγον θυσίαν τῷ εἰδώλῳ, καὶ εὐφραίνοντο ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τῶν χειρῶν αὐτῶν».       Acts 7:41 


Standing on Dionysou Areopagitou Street, close to the Odeon of Herod Atticus, at the foothills of the Acropolis, shines a newly erected statue in bronze, of legendary opera diva Maria Callas. Truly luminous, the statue has been created by sculptor Aphrodite Liti, who has previously worked as museum sculptor at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. 

The relationship between sculpture and archaeology in Aphrodite Liti’s profession, within the Greek context, bears further analysis. Sculpture is a creative process, an interpretation of the object being portrayed. Archaeology on the other hand, which entails the interpretation of found objects already made, is also a creative process, in which the past is reconstructed, invariably to confirm to prevailing political, social or cultural ideologies. To be a sculptor in a museum that ostensibly displays the detritus of the past automatically entails sculpting if not the past itself, then at least, its detritus. 

The concept of setting up statues of famous or worthy citizens has deep Hellenic roots. In many cities of ancient Greece, citizens would vote for the erection of likenesses of exemplary inhabitants, as objects of admiration and emulation, fitting in with the state’s ethos and of course whenever necessary, for the destruction of these for political reasons. The statue of intersex sophist Favorinus for example, was pulled down by the anxious Athenians when they learned that he had displeased the Emperor Hadrian. The Corinthians also dismantled their statue of Favorinus, outside the city’s library and he, incensed, took the Corinthians to task for this, in writing. 

In doing so, Favorinus refers to his likeness as an εἰκών, (icon) which in the early Greek social context, referred to “portrait statues.” His statue was erected in front of the library of Corinth, Favorinus explains, for the specific purpose of inspiring people to pursue his noble profession. His statue and the library act together. The library reminds viewers of all that Favorinus embodies (his Greek education) and his statue directs them to the library so that they might achieve a similar station. His statue’s identity, therefore, is contingent on his icon’s placement and on the orientation of the people who move around or in front of it. 

Maria Callas is for western culture undoubtedly an icon. She is also a diva, a word which is used to describe an opera singer and which also connotes a self-important person who is temperamental and difficult to please. The term however, ultimately derives from the Latin word for goddess. By commissioning a statue in the likeness of Maria Callas, is the Maria Callas Greek Society, the instigator of this initiative, not merely honouring an outstanding citizen, in order to inspire others to emulate her remarkable achievements, but rather, assembling its own secular deity, for worship? 

The statue has already received a barrage of criticism both in Greece and abroad, with local wags considering that its glowing brass patina constitutes it a fitting counterpart to Star Wars’ 3-CPO. Indeed, such an observation is inspired, as one is compared to juxtapose a humanoid manipulated by an exterior will against the manipulation of the likeness of a departed human. Some find fault in the fact that the statue, austere, sleek, fluid and ambiguous does not in fact adequately resemble the received canon of likenesses of Maria Callas in all of her glamour and splendour, thus negating its original purpose of being a public εἰκώνAnother criticism pertains to the statue’s orientation, positioned in a lonely, isolated spot, within an archeologically significant area that bears scant relevance to her own life and contribution, and which relegates her to the status of a rarefied archaeological artefact rather than a human being whose experiences and talent can be analysed and evaluated.  

Others still pertinently pose questions as to the suitability of Maria Callas as an object of veneration in the context of Modern Greek culture in the first place. According to this view, Maria Callas although of Greek descent, was born outside of Greece, lived in Greece only for a decade, was an exponent of an art form that is western in origin, achieved fame outside Greece and neither contributed materially to the development of modern Greek culture or influenced it in any significant way, nor did she intend or manage to infuse her art with any discernible “Greek” perspective. Consequently, while her own undoubted artistic achievements, talent and association with an influential diasporic Greek capitalist caused the western world, to vicariously link her to her motherland, granting some type of positive media exposure to Greece during a turbulent period in its history, there is much within that discourse that is racist and neo-colonialist. Argued from this perspective, the erection of Maria Callas’ statue could be deemed as revelatory of an ontopathology of Modern Greek insecurity whereby a person is held to be of importance because they can achieve the acknowledgment and admiration of the dominant ruling class, by emulating their mores and tropes, thus legitimising “Modern Greece” in the estimation of the West, rather than for successfully articulating “Greek” ones, whatever these may be.  

Further, it is unknown as to whether the statue reinforces the violence of the western discourse on antiquity and culture by evoking its periphery’s local or particular engagement with concepts of that culture. The fact that one of the key public objections to the statue is that it is not in the prescribed classical form (bleached marble, chiselled features) that is ubiquitously employed to render Greek national heroes in innumerable statues throughout Greece and diasporan communities, an aesthetic replicated from the West as part of its appropriation of ancient Greek culture, is indicative of the extent to which the Modern Greek statuary aesthetic depends on the arbitration and approval of its cultural colonisers. 


To my mind, the statue of the brilliant and tragically flawed Maria Callas poignantly resembles a Logie or an Oscar, its brass luminosity an inspired interpretation of the often blinding sheen of fame, of its fleetingness, of the hollowness of public adoration, of its capacity to distort and of the incredible loneliness that it can engender.  "No, it's a very terrible thing to be Maria Callas, because it's a question of trying to understand something you can never really understand," the diva once candidly revealed.  The way the sculpture is already rusting onto the marble pediment is also supremely poetic, suggesting the corrosiveness of idolisation and subversively implying in the process, a particularly Greek götterdämmerung. 


An accomplished piece of art is not merely an εἰκώνa faithfull likeness. Instead, it is one that interprets the figure it portrays and creates a conversation about who that person is and what they actually signify, in all of their polyvalencies. By producing a care-worn, but no less stark and imposing version of Maria Callas, her sculptor is eminently successful in this. As a private initiative, there is need to distinguish art from the iconography of a official public monument which is in fact an idol. Aphroditi Litis’ sculpture is by no means an idol. It is an evocative visual poem about the process entailed in understanding the true face of those who we seek to deify. Most importantly, it facilitates a discussion that places the esteem we hold revered figures such as Maria Callas in much needed perspective. It is this discourse, that ensues immortality, as Favorinus well knew: 


“I will set you up by the god, where nothing will take you down, neither earthquake, nor wind, nor snow nor rain, nor envy nor hatred; but even now I find you standing. Already oblivion/forgetfulness has tripped some others and fooled them, but γνώμη fools no good man, by which you stand upright as befits a man.” 



First published in NKEE on 23 October 2021