There still exist people within our community, who still feel the traumatic effects of OXI (pronounced ‘Ohi’, meaning ‘no’) and its aftermath, as do, in ways psychological, their descendants. The violence, the terror, the destruction, the despair and the heroism of that terrible time, form the backstory behind our entire post-war migration narrative. For many of us, our identity as Greek Australians, has as its starting point, the 28th of October 1940.
In Greece, the event is marked with exhibitions of martial valour, military parades and allusions to the diachronic Greek warrior tradition. Far away in Australia, however, a country whose soldiers fought with selfless heroism in Greece, the manner in which the event is viewed and commemorated diverges from its Helladic counterpart in interesting and significant ways.
Take, for instance, the artwork accompanying these words, which serves to highlight a local Ohi Day event that recently took place. At the top of the page, framing a gigantic love-heart are the words: “28th October 1940 Commemoration, Church Service and Doxology. Wreath Laying Ceremony.” Simple and to the point, leaving nothing to the imagination. Transfixing the immense love-heart, which dominates the page, however, are the words, in large, stylised Greek capital letters: “FESTIVAL & PANIGIRI.”
Rather than being an event about hatred and killing, (in whose spirit artist could have included a few of the traditional lithographs depicting Greek soldiers fighting in the Pindus Mountains), the artist chooses to portray a revolutionary, novel alternate narrative of Ohi, by means of the love-heart, as an historical event, imbued with love. This appears paradoxical, until one recalls the words in the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This is exactly what the heroes of 1940 did. They lay down their lives, fighting a better equipped foe, in parlous conditions, in order to protect and preserve the country and the people they loved. Viewed from this perspective, physical prowess, national pride and solidarity, sacrifice and heroism, all these are placed within the crucible and reduced to their common denominator, the fundamental element that underlies them and, according to the artist, should inform our understanding of this seminal event: Love.
Given that the artwork was originally created to promote an Ohi event organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, religious connotations of this nature are to be expected. What is surprising and refreshing is their subtlety. This is further underlined by the litany of images enclosed within the love-heart. We are given to understand that these constitute a symbolic liturgy of concepts that are at the heart of our existence and of our identity and thus we hold them dear. Pride of place is afforded to the blue domed island church, another subtle reminder of the artist’s conception of the centrality of the Orthodox religious tradition to the Greek identity and Ohi. High in the heavens, the Intelligible Sun shines, referring both to God, protector of the Greek people during their trial, but also, to Nobel Prize Winning Poet Odysseas Elytis’ poem “The Intelligible Sun of Justice,” part of a series penned about the Greek experience of the Second World War, entitled “Axion Estin.” Considering that the Ohi commemoration promoted took place at ‘Axion Estin’ Monastery in Northcote, the parallels are breathtakingly erudite and clever.
Delving deeper, more religious symbolism can be gleaned from the images. A fish swims in the primordial sea below the church. This is the ΙΧΘΥΣ, (fish in ancient Greek), a potent early Christian symbol of Jesus, since each letter of that word spells out His name. The suggestion is clear. It is He who bears our entire understanding of who we are upon His back. A bouzouki next to the Sun, connotes the injunction contained in the Psalms of David: “Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet, praise him with psaltery and guitar.” This is an injunction to give thanks for our survival. The vessel, complete with Grecian key design beneath the temple, symbolises the Holy Vessel that served to being forth God as Human into the world, the Theotokos, to whose protection the Greek people traditionally ascribed their survival during the tribulations of the forties, especially in artwork. In the centre of the sea, the boat, a symbol of the Church since its early days, connotes not only the kingdom of Christ and His followers but also the ark of Noah, with God’s people (in this case, the Greeks), floating to safety through the Great Flood – the horror of war. The sea of course, being the element of water, serves to represent the Holy Spirit and Everlasting Life and the olive branch, as brought back to the Ark by the dove, peace and renewal. The fact that the branch is at the centre of the love-heart, should not escape our notice. It is, for the artist, the core meaning of Ohi.
Thus a series of innocuous and at first glance, rather stereotypical representations are steeped within a religious tradition that connects the endurance of the Greek people during Ohi with Divine Protection. The genius of the encoding of the representations with such significance lies in the fact that it can so easily be missed. To the untrained eye, the collection of images could merely serve to depict superficially trite iconic platitudes associated with tourist Greece or indeed, second generation Greek-Australian Greece: Whitewashed Cycladic churches, sun, beaches, ancient temples, ancient vases, olives, bouzouki music and of course boats, in various varieties, ranging from island hopping ferries to the ocean liners that caused our ancestors to abandon war ravaged Greece in Ohi’s aftermath and propel them to these shores. Yet, in this unique representation of all that Ohi means to Greek Australia, there is so much more enclosed beneath the surface, within the heart.
Typically Greek-Australian is the manner in which the strutting of our macho stuff is consciously eschewed. Instead, our survival is considered a matter for celebration, for song and dance, according, not only to Davidic tradition but to Australian custom where every event is a celebration of one’s self and one’s community. In focusing on the love of and for our valorous ancestors, we are called upon by the artist to reaffirm our love not only for our place of origin and its remarkable people but also the community we have created in this city, in their image, informed by the principles they held close to their hearts, espousing the same kind of attitude towards one another, enclosed in a love-heart of infinite proportions. This is no Cavafyesque Poseidonian ersatz festival tinged with ennui, that the artist is purveying. Rather, it is a singularly endearing invitation to melismatic communion. It is the uniqueness, the virtuoso melding of Greek and Australian perspectives of Ohi into something completely imaginatively unconventional and yet ultimately authentic, challenging our cultural and historical preconceptions that makes this interpretation, a work of high genius.