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From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural Foundations Through Artefacts

What do a bunch of old clothes and old fashioned bling from an obscure region in the Balkans have to do with Victoria?

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Epirus, Greece. Photo: The Lonely Traveler/ Mirela Felicia Catalinoiu

26 October 2017

When the dynamic Hellenic Women's Cultural Association 'Estia', approached me with the suggestion that we collaborate in creating an exhibition of women's traditional costumes and jewellery from Epirus at Melbourne's Parliament House, I asked myself the question: What do a bunch of old clothes and old-fashioned bling from an obscure region in the Balkans have anything to do with Melbourne, Victoria, and indeed the magnificent edifice that dominates Spring Street?

By way of addressing this is, I now poke you gently and with discretion in the direction of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who, while her husband was out gallivanting with one-eyed monsters and particularly nubile demigods, sat at her loom, weaving imaginary scenes of her husband's infidelities and misadventures.

Three thousand years later, and in roughly the same geographical position, the women of Epirus sat at their looms, waiting for their husbands, migrants to various parts of the world, to return home. Loss and longing formed the warp and the weft of their experience and they wove upon it, motifs that had barely changed over millennia. Those motifs can be discerned woven or embroidered upon the fabrics that will be displayed at the: 'From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural Foundations through Artefacts', exhibition.

At that time the loom was one of the central implements in a Greek woman's daily reality, which is why many Greek migrants to Melbourne, my own great-grandmother included, packed her loom, a most bulky item to transport, and brought it to Melbourne with her; on a great Odyssey-like sea voyage.
Our family no longer has its loom. It appears that in order to fit the stereotype, the loom was only relevant if it was used in a Penelope-like fashion: the man of the house being abroad, and the woman of the house waiting patiently for his return. Now, through Antipodean metastasis, the whole paradigm was inverted, or if one pardons the cliché, turned 'down under'. It was the woman who had embarked upon the Odyssean voyage, the woman who was to tackle the monsters and the pleasures of that voyage and, considering that there was no gender stereotype waiting for a return, or at least able to imagine the adventures of those migrant women, nothing could be, or was, woven. The loom, in the new country, was made redundant. Ours was secreted in a basement, where, unused, it proceeded to rot away.

The fruit of the loom, which is what 'From Epirus to the Antipodes' primarily concerns itself with, is thus a powerful symbol of the backstory of multiculturalism. The patterns, the motifs, the very fabric, transplanted here, to these Antipodean climes, forms the framework through which a significant number of Melburnians have, in the past and still do, view the world around them. The application of age-old tropes, connotations and ancient meanings which have their origin at Penelope's loom, to an interpretation of Melbourne society describes the process of Greek acculturation here in Australia. This is a significant, and yet unstudied, aspect of the multicultural experience. Belabouredly pushing the paradigm further than any paradigm should plausibly go, it is these motifs, the memories of these fabrics that form a new warp and weft for a new psychological loom, one upon which the travails of everyday life here are interwoven.

Nineteenth century gold embroidered pirpiri from Epirus. Photos: Supplied

Of course the provenance of these costumes and artefacts is traced to Epirus in north western Greece, the place of origin of my mother and before her, a particularly significant line of strong family matriarchs. Long before multiculturalism, globalisation, and immigration became buzzwords with which to tax the tabloids, Ioannina, the capital of Epirus was a trading and cultural entrepot whose reach was surprisingly long. Thus, one will see among the exhibits, a silver butterfly belt made in Ioannina, exclusively for the Bosnian export market, an ornate costume made in Ioannina but exported to and worn primarily in Cappadocia, central Turkey. One will also see a typical shepherdess' costume that can be found all along the northern Greek transhumant pastoralist continuum to Thrace, Bulgaria and beyond, in only small variations: the Sarakatsan costume. The motifs on the aprons to that costume are fascinating in that they are, by sheer coincidence, strikingly reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal art.

Reflecting the diverse nature of the social fabric of Epirus, long before words like mosaic or melting pot became popular for a brief period here in the 80s and 90s, the jewellery display will feature almost identical wedding crowns for Christians and Muslims, distinguished only by extremely slight details such as the presence of a crescent moon and, amazingly, a votive reliquary with the undeniably Christian symbol of St George on the obverse, while on the reverse, paradoxically, or maybe not so, the Jewish Star of David appears, attesting to the presence of the vitally important Jewish community in Ioannina. Long before our arrival on these shores then, Greek women understood not only diversity, but also synchretism and the enriching experience of culture-sharing. This exhibition will argue that they packed their looms for the journey here, with a predisposition for pluralism.

These days, social media facilitates us wearing our hearts on our sleeves, or on our Instagram, our Pinterest and all the other social media forms of which I am blissfully unaware owing to an innate inability not to understand what purports to be modern technology. At the time when the costumes on display were worn, and many of them were still being worn in Epirus, at least on feast days, at the time of Greek mass migration to Australia, what set one apart was bling. That bling was, in less words than a tweet, the entire articulation of a personality, including one's standing in one's family and community.

Nineteenth century silver with gold overlay belt buckle from Epirus.

An entire exposition of class relations can therefore be extrapolated from the costumes on display. From urban formal wear, with sumptuous silks and intricate brocades, styled in the latest Ottoman fashions in the capital, to rural formal wear, slightly heavier and rustic, but no less ornate, to urban streetwear for the more active woman, and there were few that were not, to rural streetwear, formidable, durable, uncompromising and ready for action, kind of like most of the Greek community actually, the exhibition aims to provide a snapshot of the cultural diversity existing in one of Greece's smallest and poorest regions.

The costume of Konitsa displayed, worn by women who spoke Vlach, a Latin-based tongue, is a testament to that diversity.

Of course, counterparts of the costumes on display were brought to Australia and adapted to Australian conditions in the 60s and 70s. I have heard of fashionable young migrants applying scissors and shears to brocade and embroidery; stories that will make the skin of even the most indifferent crawl. But then again, if it is deemed acceptable for Valentino's 2016 collection in which bodices that look almost identical to the Attic singounia are featured, it should be okay for us.

Sadly I did not have the heart to seek to display the miniskirt made out of an ornate 19th century kaftan a particularly enterprising acquaintance of mine created in an act of unspeakable desecration during the late 60s. Yet this act itself is one of supreme acculturation.

In keeping with our narrative of globalisation, a large portion of the silver works made in Ioannina, traditionally the silversmithing capital of Greece, are now made in Taiwan. Nonetheless what will be displayed at the exhibition, are not the dinosaur bones of that tradition nor its ossification, but, again, the warp and the weft of an aesthetic tradition that thrives today, within Melbourne, as can be discerned by a cursory visit to some of the jewellery shops in Oakleigh.

Many of the pieces on display lent their wearer immense dignity, and a distinctive gait, a method of deportment which is common among many of the older ladies among the first generation Greek migrants, no matter their stature, who tended to walk in a particularly erect, and proud manner. Their deportment was conditioned by generations of wearing of items such as those on display.

Caroline Crummer, the first Greek woman to arrive in Australia in 1835 from Ioannina, to whose memory the exhibition is dedicated, wore such pieces during the formative years of the creation of Australia.

To point to artefacts of whatever nature, and to expect that they symbolise or encapsulate the breadth of any human experience is a task fraught with danger. This exhibition merely hopes to draw attention to the complexities and also the commonalities of that experience within the Victorian multicultural context.

'From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural Foundations through Artefacts' will be launched at Parliament House, Spring St, Melbourne by Dean Kalimniou on Tuesday 31 October at 6.30 pm. The exhibition runs from Tuesday 31 October - Thursday 2 November.

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