Painting Across the Boundaries: Interview with Afanwi Neba
We spoke to Athens-based artist and NGO worker Anfawi Neba about the ongoing ostracisation of refugees in Greece.
In ancient Athenian society perhaps the worst fate one could face was the termination of citizenship. In such cases, individuals were wholly exiled from the political community and stripped of resources and shelter. In contemporary Athens, an entire community lives in exile. Global political and economic crises has made Greece one of the epicentres of the ongoing “Refugee Crisis”, with millions of displaced people arriving at its borders over the past decade. The state has not responded kindly.
In August 2020, it was reported that Greek authorities secretly dumped over one thousand asylum-seekers back into the sea in rubber dingey's.
Tens of thousands more are stranded in refugee camps and face incredibly poor living conditions. Those who are eventually granted asylum are left unsupported by the government, with little opportunity for work and integration into the local community. Many vulnerable people slip through the cracks and are left homeless.
Brainscan travelled to Athens and spoke with Afanwi Neba, an artist and NGO worker, who is trying to carve out a path for himself and his community despite his own refugee status. Neba was forced to leave his native Cameroon due to the ongoing Anglophone Issue, which, in September 2017, became the Anglophone Crisis. Like many African nations, the legacy of colonial rule has led to destabilisation and ongoing conflict in Cameroon.
At present, there are over 60,000 Cameroonian refugees in neighbouring Nigeria due to the crisis. Now many, like Afanwi, are turning to Europe in the search for security and a new life.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how your experiences have informed your practice as an artist.
My name is Afanwi Neba, I come from the English section of Cameroon. I am living in Greece and I have been granted refugee status. I currently live in Athens and I am just living my life. Right now, I am an artist by profession and try to pay my bills and solve my problems through art. I also work with a local NGO, teaching other refugees how to paint. I try to help other migrant families and volunteer with other organisations, so it is a very diverse situation that I find myself living in right now.
Have you always painted and wanted to be an artist?
I grew up in an artistic background, my dad was an art teacher. He was teaching technical drawings. My brothers were all artists, and I was so into art in a way that it was super attached to me when I was young. I grew up drawing cartoons and anime. Everything I saw in the house that looked attractive I would want to draw. I was the best student in school, I would elaborate drawings to classmates and help them. So I really had love for art and I could do it every day. Many people around me saw me doing these things and they got me inspired, they encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing, and now today I still want to show the world my art.
Who do you make your work for?
First, I create my art out of my emotions, out of my thoughts, I sit and think about what I experienced 5 years ago, 10 years ago, how I grew up with my parents, alongside with my mum, my experiences with her, the places we travelled. When I am inspired, these are the things that come to my mind. These are the images that come to my mind. The only way I share this with people is through the canvas or through the cardboard, so I basically don’t create my art for anybody but out of love and to share with people my inspirations through life. It’s a means of communication. I use it to communicate my story and my experiences that I’ve been through. This is it.
Can you tell me about your illustrative book Ambe and the Small Village? What made you want to create the book?
I got a lot of inspiration from my journey from Cameroon, up to where I am today (Greece) and the difficulties that I went through, as well as the experience of my journey. What really pushed me to do this book was the experiences of migrants in a foreign land and the people who own this land don’t really know who you are and don’t treat you right. They don’t treat you normally or even treat you like a human in certain aspects. They don’t give you rights. I was going through a lot of things on my journey being where I am today.
What I realised is that many people didn’t really know who I am or what I’ve been through. Though in part I made the book for myself, to process my emotions, if you want a firm answer it is to show our experiences. So many people don’t know what we refugees have been through, they just see us and say “oh he’s Migrant, oh he’s refugee.. he should stay far away”. I took a bold step and I started talking to people who are running away from us or keeping their distance, and I asked them:
“do you want to know my story?”
If they listened, they realised why I was here and what I went through. They then began to invite me to dinner or for coffee and we started building relationships that we didn’t have before. A lot of the owners from these countries don’t realise why we are refugees or why we are in their country at all.
So, this is the inspiration for Ambe and the Small Village. The story is about a small boy who leaves his village and ends up in a foreign land, looking for people like him where he can rebuild a home.
How important has art and creativity been to overcoming the issues you have faced in life?
Creating art has really helped me. I feel like lucky to have been an artist from childhood. Today I live through art, I don’t have other support or ways to make money. I just sell my art.
Everyday, I create and I try to sell my works in order to have money for rent or for food, to keep my life going. Art has been a tool which has made me able to connect with you today. I believe that if I didn’t have a gift like this, I would be in a much worse condition. I know others like me in this country who are really suffering right now, it never really was like this for me. I believe that hard work and creativity and talent and your handy work can also pay. I am so overwhelmed and grateful about my talent.
In your opinion, how important is space for creative expression for refugees?
I will tell you that a lot of refugees are having so many talents. They are so many talented out there. The situation of being a refugee puts this whole talent into a cage, their talents are like behind bars and they can’t move forward because this person is stuck somewhere, everything else is stuck. I believe that if I was not in a situation like this, I think I would be an even better painter. I have spent three years being here in Greece and not having freedom or liberty to do what I really want to. I believe my situation is a little bit better than many other people because I am the type of person that tries to go get it, I try to go meet people, I have drive. A lot of people are not like that. If they experience racism on a few occasions, they just don’t want to meet any person anymore. Because they experience this from their white counterparts, its painful to them and they don’t want to keep going outside. They have a lot of talents that they can’t show.
“So many people want to go to work, engage, participate in the community but they don’t have the chance because they are people of colour”
Someone like me, I really don’t care, if there is something out there, I just want to go and get it, whatever obstacle it is, I just don’t care. So yeah I am a little bit different, I try to go for it, I try to connect with people, I try to explore and to really know where am. You know you have to really connect to the place that you are living. Even if the people don’t like you at first, you have to try and connect with them. This is the way I try to get myself going out there.
It must take a big toll being ostracised consistently though?
Yes, it really does. In Greece it is so difficult for refugees. People of Colour and refugees do not have any opportunities which is really difficult. So many people want to go to work, engage, participate in the community but they don’t have the chance because they are people of colour.
When I went to Germany [for a recent exhibition], it was a completely different experience than what I experienced here in Greece. Everyone is everyone, you don’t know who is who. You meet people from different backgrounds, but they are all speaking German and living together. Everyone is free, you can’t tell who is a refugee and who is not - it doesn’t matter if you’re a white man or a black man.
“Every single refugee in Greece wants to leave, but I feel like I still have responsibilities.”
There is a big cultural difference in Western European countries to where we are right now, right here I am stuck. There is a much heavier divide, it is really clear.
Every single refugee in Greece wants to leave, but I feel like I still have responsibilities. Believe me I am a person that walks with my feelings, I am an artist. I have instincts, I help a lot of brothers, I help a lot of sisters. I go out there, we find people sleeping in the parks and we find them accommodation. We see pregnant women that are getting ready to give birth and they are living in the street. We put them into houses. We try to take care of homeless people who are sick. I think this is an important responsibility I have here, to carry this out for a few more years.
Can you tell me more about your work with NGOs?
I began in an NGO as a volunteer called ‘The Imagine Project’ this NGO was teaching languages to refugees like German, French, English. I actually started as a student to learn the Greek language. But I found that there was something missing within this organisation: Art. So I walked up to the proprietor of the organisation and told them I wanted to volunteer. They were like “What, how can you volunteer, you are a refugee. We have volunteers from Germany, England, France, U.S.A. You are a refugee you can’t volunteer”
And I was like...
...“Yeah, I want to volunteer.”
When I told him I wanted to teach art he requested that I show my skills and abilities. So he gave me a piece of canvas and some materials. I went back to my tent (back then I was living in a small tent all by myself) and drew some pictures and brought them to him. He was very impressed with the paintings I brought back and immediately wanted to schedule some classes for me to teach. I started with a lot of students. Everyone wanted to do art, it was so encouraging. Soon afterwards I was introduced to Kayra, the founder of ‘Love Without Borders’. She welcomed me so much and we were quickly working as a team. She paid me back for this work in the way that she could, by taking some of my art and selling it for me in the U.S.A. So that was a good opportunity for me. I have been working for ‘Love Without Borders’ for my whole stay in Greece, which is three years today!
Because I was a volunteer for ‘Love Without Borders’, they were not able to pay me. But they found a vacancy for an art teacher in another organisation called ‘Action for Education’. I am now working there as an art teacher. We work specifically with families and I teach young children how to paint.
Tell me about your work as an art teacher.
I don’t teach the kids how to draw a ball or a cup, I teach them how to reflect and express what’s on their mind on a piece of paper of canvas and try to do it on their own way. There are kids that paint clouds, for some kids the sun is yellow for some kids the sun is blue -- and that’s OK. Art is what’s coming out of their minds and this is self-taught. No one is telling them you’ve got to do this or you’ve got to do that. I’m just there to guide them.
I teach people how to create art all by themselves and to reflect on things within themselves, because I am an example of this type of artist. I am self-taught, I didn’t know about colours but one day, I started creating beautiful art through trial and error.
I believe self-taught art is one of the best that’s coming up in the world today.
You also help a lot within your community, can you tell us a bit more about that?
I am a very emotional person, but I have trained myself to become stronger so I can withstand certain situations. There are certain situations that I might be able to handle but others cannot, so I really feel for them.
Back in the refugee camp there were a lot of families. They would sometimes have 5 very young kids living in the same situation I was living it. If it was not good for me then it certainly was not good for young children, pregnant women or people who are depressed. They have no income coming in, they are just given food and some pocket money and if you are granted refugee status, the money stops. Greece is a very difficult place for jobs anyway -- even more if you are a refugee.
I see these families suffering without food, without money, without clothes, with little babies living in very critical situations.
I introduce these families to ‘Love Without Borders’ because I know they are going to get help from them. We teach them how to hold pencils, paintbrushes, how to use colours. From there they paint whatever is in their heart and create amazing art. Then the work is sold in the USA and the money is returned to them 100%.
This is my way of helping. I go out to the street and try and look for homeless people and look for a means in which they can get money for food and shelter. I bring them to ‘Love Without Borders’. This organisation is also helping to house refugees in difficult situations. I think they are doing very important work and I also think I play and important part.
“I feel so responsible for them, although I am one of them, I feel like it is my job to help.”
I feel so responsible to my community. When I finally got my documents, I could leave like any other refugee maybe to Germany, Finland or Denmark, but I still feel like a have a connection or a duty that I’m supposed to play that I haven’t finished here. I have to remain in Greece to keep doing what I’m doing: to create art, to teach people, to guide them to organisations that could help them... Even if I help just one person I think it’s a lot, because its human to human connection, it’s their life. There are thousands of refugees living here in Athens, but I think if I play a role just for one person, I have accomplished my work for one day. I feel so responsible for them, although I am one of them, I feel like it is my job to help.
Afanwi is now working towards launching ‘Rise Again’, a housing NGO that specifically helps migrants from the Black community.
Many housing NGOs in Athens work directly with targeted groups of refugees that are the greatest in number, such as Syrians. This has unintentionally left many Black refugees in lieu of support. Afanwi hopes that ‘Rise Again’ will contribute to solving this issue.