An art museum in the tiny village of Lia in northwest Greece near the Albanian border, the site of vicious fighting during Greece’s civil war after WWII, will open on Aug. 13 before a host of dignitaries, including writer Nick Gage, whose book about his mother’s execution there was turned into a movie bringing renewed attention.
It will feature newly-discovered works by the primitivist painter Theofilos and paintings created especially for the museum by the renowned modern artist Sotiris Sorogas, who traces his roots to the region.
The museum will be housed in a converted school in the village, located on the timberline of the Mourgana mountains in Thesprotia, less than a kilometer below the Albanian border.
After Gage was turned down by a number of prominent foundations to help fund the museum, the money came from Alekos Ifantis, whose family owns the Ifantis food company and is from there.
Ifantis’ brother Haralambos, and other members of his family will attend the inauguration along with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.
The design of the museum was directed by architect Magdalena Pantazi in collaboration with the Byzantine scholar Varvara Papadopoulou.
The gallery will be known as the Ifantis Museum in honor of its donors and will feature permanent exhibitions of the works of Theofilos, who died in 1934 and whose paintings of three icons were found in the village and were said to be among his most important.
The Sorogas contributions are four paintings the artist created especially for the museum in Lia, the birthplace of his paternal grandmother.
In addition to the works of the two artists, displayed in two exhibition halls in the museum, the exterior walls of the galleries will feature photographs depicting scenes from the region over the past century, as well as photographs of some of the famous visitors to the village, including former Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Mitsotakis, former Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, film directors Elia Kazan and Peter Yates, and actor John Malkovich, who portrayed Gage in the movie Eleni about his mother and the turbulent time of the civil war that split families.
There will be a wall dedicated to three writers from the area: the poet Mihalis Ghanas, who was born in the nearby village of Tsamantas; the novelist Sotiris Dimitriou, born in Povla (now Ambelona), and Gage, whose family name is Gatzoyiannis, and who is also a renowned journalist and film producer.
All three are expected to attend the opening along with Sorogas.
Spyros Pappas, Mayor of the municipality of Filiates in which Mourgana villages are located, said, “This museum, these art works, the three famous writers these mountains have produced are all evidence that the creative energy of the Greek people can be found everywhere, even in the most remote corners of our country.”
Gage told The National Herald when the Theophilos icons were discovered that, “We wanted to preserve them for other people to see them. I’ve been trying for a long time to do a little museum in the village and showcase the icons.”
It wasn’t so easy, despite his fame as he went to prominent foundations seeking aid. “It was hard to persuade people to spend money on a museum this far from the beaten track …. They all turned us down,” he said.
Then he found Ifantis. “It was an adventure to get it done. When I searched our own village, I found the donors. Another goal in creating this museum was to keep this village life (alive),” he added. “Ifantis was enthusiastic,” he said.
“We have an abandoned school house, there are no children here anymore and creating a museum was a project to accomplish several tasks, preserve and show the icons, preserve the house and show that the spirit of the Greek people exists even in the most remote corners of the country,” he said.
After his book focused attention on the village and the brutality of the civil war, Gage built a small hotel there 35 years ago with 10 rooms and he comes each summer to where he was raised.
“Since then, 50 new houses have been built in the village. If you do things that promote villages it helps keep them alive. What I’d like to see is what the Swiss do, in an area of 15-20 villages, build a factory in the middle somewhere so people can have jobs,” he said.
“We’ve had many famous people come to this village, dozens of Ambassadors all read the book and wanted to see the village where this happened … it’s very satisfying to me because it shows the destruction and hatred the civil war brought did not prevail … the sacrifice of my mother and many other people whose lost their lives in these mountains helped defeat that kind of hatred.”