On being Greek

Searching for identity is an issue confronting many in the Greek Diaspora. Visual artist NIKI SPEROU recently returned from Athens where she was confronted with the contemporary realities confronting Greece.

In order to produce an artwork that is significant, the artist often aims to produce work that reflects the times in which one lives. This work may revolve around the latest technologies. For example, the oil painting of the Renaissance for many artists has given way to digital technology and the moving image, and thus appears contemporary. Other artists go beyond concern for medium and choose to document current political situations. There are many recent works depicting the throwing of shoes. Many children of postwar Greek migrants are concerned with notions of identity.

Greek Australians have not only become somewhat integrated into a contemporary Australian society but have through their own cultural, political, social and economic efforts, also contributed to what it means to be Australian. And by this I mean more than the yiros taking its place among other fast foods or that tarama is on the supermarket shelf. The contribution Greeks have made to Australia goes far beyond this.

In order to understand the Greeks’ contribution to Australia I decided to take a journey back to Greece and research the topic of migration to Australia from the perspective of visual culture. What images of Australia encouraged our parents to migrate here?

Today I found that Greece is a multicultural society, something akin to its ancient past. Since the inclusion of Greece onto the European Union it has become a key corridor for migrants. As with ancient times these migrants appear to have less status than the Greek citizen.

Together with my friend and academic Maria Palaktsoglou, I embarked on my sabbatical to Greece to research the past so that I may make sense of the present. The idea was to engage in research both in Greece and Australia so that we both might form a picture of the political and social situation of the time in which mass migration to Australia was taking place. The research would culminate in a text by Maria, and I would produce an exhibition of visual artwork.

I digress a little in order to expose something more about myself. In 28 years I had not returned to Greece. My memories of Greece were those of an Australian born teenager accompanying her mother who was returning to a much-missed homeland to reconnect. I remember the sense of “Greekness” at the time to be mono-cultural, strong and exotic. Now as an adult I found myself feeling a sense of regret that I had neglected to return earlier. However, I found that the long absence had made the differences between the past and present more pronounced.

It seems there is truth to the old saying that “the more things, change the more they remain the same”. Today Greece is a multicultural society, something akin to its ancient past. Since the inclusion of Greece into the European Union, it has become a key corridor for migrants. As with ancient times, these migrants appear to have less status than the Greek citizens. They labour selling knick-knacks, copy fashions and CDs. Migrants, as marginalised members of society scrawl texts on walls calling for better conditions – their graffiti blending in with the political slogans that have become a long time part of Greek tradition.

Thoughts regarding the marginalisation of the migrant worker in contemporary Greece somehow linked back to my thoughts of the Greek migrant in Australia. Some choose to stay and others who find the new environment too different decide to return home. I asked returned migrants to Greece how they came to be in Australia. Islanders came out on their Italian passports as there was a formal migration agreement between Australia and Italy. Some said they came out with government assisted passage as Australia needed workers to build a growing nation. Others relied on loans from family and friends. They came to work as agricultural workers, cane farmers, fishermen and factory workers. Some set up small food businesses. Women came out as Australian brides to avoid the necessity of a dowry. These migrants sent money back to Greece to help those left behind. Many lands and possessions were left unclaimed to be forgotten forever or hopefully to be reclaimed at a later stage.

Maria and I looked through archives for visual representations of migrant issues. However, some things in Greece have remained constant. Greece cannot be hurried. It resists pressures to conform to the values of other Western countries. The necessity for an afternoon sleep meant that the archives closed at 3pm barely leaving enough time for meaningful research. My response to this situation highlighted my reliance on the typically Australian nine to five workday. In contrast to the Greeks laid back attitude to work is that they take their politics extremely seriously. Attempts for political reform have once again taken Greeks to the streets and we needed to be mindful of road closures, disruptions and violent protests.

These things that Greeks take in their stride were alien to me. Regardless of these interruptions I hope to return to Greece and continue my research. I am excited with my findings to date and with the concepts for artwork I have developed from these findings. Although I speak fluent Greek, I cook Greek food, I follow Greek rituals and take part in Greek celebrations, I continue to ponder what it is to be Greek.