About Fotis Flevotomos

Fiskars Diaries: 'Books,' ink on paper, 14 x 38 cm


An autobiographical essay presenting the artist's thoughts around albinism, vision and creativity.

‘Look over there... What do you see?’
‘An apple and a house.’
‘... An apple... and a square...’
‘Wear these glasses and try again.’
‘Circle and square.’
‘Good. Go ahead with the next line. Can you see the pictures?’

I was three or four when my parents suspected there was something wrong with my eyes. The doctor’s diagnosis confirmed their fears: ‘Strabismus, nystagmus, low visual acuity, non-stereoscopic vision, astigmatism, photophobia. Nothing to worry about,’ he added. ‘Your son’s eye problems are associated with a genetic inherited condition called albinism.’

Nothing alarming indeed, as long as - these three words here are of crucial importance - we were attentive to some real threats. The sun was one of them - a physical threat. As we learned later, albinism results from a genetic defect in an enzyme involved in producing melanin - which is why most of us who have this condition have very pale eyes, skin, and hair. Because of the low amounts of melanin, people with albinism are at risk of developing serious skin diseases. They are also very sensitive to bright light and may feel discomfort when too much light enters their eyes. To avoid the negative effects of the sun, albinos - that’s the term used for us - need to take systematic precautions, especially if they live in a Mediterranean country as I do.

Isolation was another. A social threat - a direct consequence of inevitable stigmatization. One of the things rooted deeply in my subconscious was that anybody who hadn't seen me before, and was in a mocking mood, would definitely make a remark about my white appearance. Some went even further, questioning with some joke my race or the ‘authenticity’ of my parents. This was like pre-existing knowledge about peoples' behaviour the confirmation of which was merely a matter of time. And this behaviour could, easily, have led to isolation had I not enough confidence.

I return to my story. From that day onwards (the day of my first eye exam) the ophthalmologist’s name marked at least one page of every new calendar. The pictures on the doctor’s chart became numbers; the numbers became letters. And as always happens with unsettled matters - which transform our course constantly from a straight line to a circle, demanding a final solution - the day came when the letters became pictures again, the day when the doctor’s questions returned: What do you see? Can you see the pictures?

I myself never wondered. Of course I could - to me, the answer was obvious. All I needed was time. Time to walk, to orient myself, to judge. I had to explore for a while the space I was in. I had to find directions, figure out what was close and what was far away. Every object, every face, every little flower or tree, had to be discovered one by one - just like the notes of a musical piece. When I had time, then the veil of mystery was removed. And I could have felt no greater relief about this, than in September 1995 when, after a week of exams for a place at the Athens School of Fine Arts, I saw eventually that I was on the list of successful candidates. ‘Yes, you can see,’ I read behind my name. The teachers of the school seemed more confident than the ophthalmologist.

My studies in painting, but more than that, adulthood, brought me face-to-face with other questions to which answers were not equally obvious. It was true I could see, under specific conditions. But was I able to see things as a painter sees them? What does it mean to see as a painter? What is abstraction? To what extent could its causes be pathological?

It's hard to tell whether the answers I gave had any impact on my painting or on my desire to paint. In fact, I don’t know if there had ever been any answers. Usually the questions led back to questions, rather than answers. How conscious is the creative process? What is the point in an artist trying to understand the origin of his art and his feelings? Sometimes there was no question at all. Just action. For example, when I decided to study the relationship between painting and music - an art that I loved as much, and possessed the same, if not more. Research without questions? I probably ought to have asked myself. Yet the driving force, I see clearly now, was beyond logic. It was based on faith and experience. It had occurred to me that colours and melodies, however different they might appear to us, however tangible or intangible, permanent or transitional, spatial or temporal, had to be composed according to some laws that were universal and existed both in painting and music. Without second thoughts, without any further knowledge of the history of that relationship or the existing literature, I packed my things and went to Essex to conquer the academic world!

Such was also, fifteen years ago, the power that prompted me to fight for a place at art school. Again beyond logic. I was convinced that, behind the foggy surface of things, behind the mystery, lay something real and tangible and beautiful. I trusted to intuition. I did it then. I do it even now. And so, despite my poor eyesight, or perhaps because of this, I can see.

Athens, October 2010