I can’t make love to you unless I imagine a palm tree.
Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
Since arriving in Athens in September 2015, Navine G. Khan-Dossos has heard a curious story, told and retold in different ways. It is about the removal of the palm trees from the urban landscape of Athens as a way of visually ‘re-orientating’ the city towards Europe rather than the ‘Orient’. This urban legend has been told to her three times: once as happening at the end of the Ottoman Empire’s sway over Greece, the second time at the end of the Second World War, and the last at the time of the Junta. She is still trying to work out if any of these different versions are true.
Imagine A Palm Tree is a work in many parts. It is a performance of painting (the process has been open for visitors of the museum to watch and interact with since January 2016, as well as being a floor-to-ceiling mural on the top floor café at the Benaki Museum’s Islamic Art Collection. In the Spring and Summer of 2016 it will also be a series of events hosted in the space.
But foremost it will be a place in which the palm tree can exist in paint, away from the disastrous Rhynchophorus ferrugineus that is munching its way through thousands of its brothers and sisters in the city below. It will no longer be a symbol of overspending in the Olympic Games of 2004 (imports of palm trees rocketed as a way to provide shade and a look of luxury. It also brought the aforementioned red beetle). It won’t be uprooted in favour of metro ventilation shafts (as was the case in Omonoia Square in 1927) or pulled apart for local holy days that feature palm leaves. It will no longer be a symbol of East, or West.
Instead it will reflect upon other aspects of its representation, in western decorative art (such as Owen Jones and Thomas Hope), Islamic architecture (the first mosque in Medina was held up by its delicate column trunks) and perhaps most contemporary its modern life in the city.
The final work looks both backwards into the history of the palm in Athens, but also at its present state. The palm becomes a symbol of the vertical axis of the city. Where its leaves spread above, so do the networks of CCTV, Wifi and telephone signals. And below, the tree’s roots become the city’s metro system and complex cable networks. All of these technologies are represented in the wall painting, juxtaposed with Islamic-inspired pattern and abstract organic form to create many layers of aesthetic and conceptual content, there for the viewer to decipher.