In her painting, “New Beginnings – Hope,” Mary Raphael perhaps captures in the most profound manner possible, the complexity of the Greek-Australian conception of the homeland and the ancillary loss and lack thereof. A group of faceless men women and children huddle together amidst a yellow background tinged with rising columns of red and convoluted figures of blue. We do not know whether we are dealing with conflagration, war, famine or any of the other misfortunes that blight humanity for the artist has deliberately chosen to evoke, but not to depict these. Equally we could be in Smyrna, Auschwitz or Syria.
Similarly, the faces of the main characters portrayed are also blank, lending them a polyvalent quality. Devoid of any racial, ethnic or religious characteristics, they could be anyone and thus symbolise the tragedy of all dislocated people, forced to anadon their homes and flee, everywhere. Conversely, the blank faces allude to the innate human capacity to dehumanise and to deface: for the settled and the comfortable, the refugees flocking to their shores in search of salvation do not have faces. Rather than being human, they are an amorphous mass devoid of personality and thus, normal forms of courtesy do not apply.
The faceless figures, rather than embracing their new land, turn inward and on themselves, forming a protective coccoom around their offspring with a closed suitcase as its epicentre. We are not privy to the contents of that suitcase. Is this an ark of memory under construction, a shrine to a lost homeland that will preserve an identity but prevent engagement with the new place of sojourn? In this respect it is significant that all the figures are turned facing the youngest, who alone, appears to stare at the viewer. As we cannot see its eyes, we cannot guess the extent of engagement if any with those outside the frame. Is the youngest the most susceptible of forgetting? Will this be the one that will be able to place the lost homeland in some sort of workable context with its adopted country? Indeed, is the painter suggesting that within this outward facing figure, the future lies?
The faint Neos Kosmos mastheads that recurr embedded throughout the composition imbue it with even greater ambivalence. On the one hand, Neos Kosmos literally means “New World,” and the refugees certainly have come to a world, if not new, then completely foreign to the one they have left behind. On the other hand, the “New World,” seems only to be understood if not within the terms of reference of the Old World, then certainly, within the language of its discourse. Further, “Neos Kosmos, mirrors its earlier counterpart of same name, a news bulletin of the leftist guerillas during the Second World War, the title expressing hope in the creation of a renewed, equitable world. Given that we all know how that experiment turned out, the presence of the polysemic mastheads grant the piece and all it implies about lost homelands, immense poignancy.
The painting forms part of the “Lost Homelands” exhibition, held by the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne earlier this month, as part of a series of events culturally commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the holocaust of Smyrna. A collaboration of local artists, the exhibition seeks, using Smyrna as a starting point, not merely to blandly and aridly mark the century since the extirpation of the Greek presence in Asia Minor, but rather, to ponder its deeper significance for humanity as a whole and for the diaspora specifically. What results are some truly remarkable and evocative works of art than engender discussions about the nature identity, belonging, conflict and more besides.
Vasy Petros’ “Lost Homelands (1922 Asia Minor – 2022 Ukraine) thoughtful piece is inspired by ‘Darkness’ a poem by Lord Byron, indicating how our presence in both the Greek and Western discourses can intertextually inform each other so as to produce original and powerful work. These three verses of the poem in particular could easily be applied to Smyrna, but almost any other conflagration created by conflict: “The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,/ The habitations of all things which dwell,/ Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d…” Consequently, the artist adopts a Manichaean palette: there is light and dark and it is in the liminal spaces in between that we are called upon to preserve or to betray our humanity.
In “Waiting for Our Return,” Maria Fouroudi views the lost homeland from the place of exile. Capturing a moment on the shores of Brighton Beach, Fouroudi focus on a pair of battered chairs. The viewer imagines that once upon a time, people, whose identity is not disclosed, once sat upon those chairs, gazing out to sea, most probably considering their journey to this country and the vast expanse of ocean that separates them from their lost homeland. The fact that those people no longer exist and that even their chairs, the foundation upon which they base their dreams of return are in imminent danger of extinction suggests to us that lost homelands can be found everywhere, even within the new homeland. Longing, therefore, is a homeland in and of itself, and when longing ceases, an entire homeland is lost.
Similarly Ivy Cafaci’s “Perilous Journey’s” conflates Smyrna with our own Antipodean reality. The scene she depicts could easily be a few boats tossed in a choppy Port Philip Bay. The ochre colour emanating from the horizon could easily be a cliff-face or the smog of a busy city. Even more plausibly, it could be the play of light at the exact position where sky, land and sea meet, at the setting of the sun. Yet, for those of us who have inherited the cultural memory of the lost homeland, lurking behind all other interpretations there is the primary trauma: Smyrna is burning, perpetually, wherever the elements testify eternally to their outrage at the enormity of this crime. In “Buring Waters, Tears to the Wind,” Cafaci is not so subtle. The entire natural order is subverted, so that waves become tongues of flame and the scene resembles a volcanic eruption such as that which destroyed Ancient Thera. When the life-giving elements become instruments of death and bury civilisations, we know that much is wrong with the world.
The motif of perpetual conflagration is taken up by Masonik in their composition “The Exile’s Grief.” The first of the two flanking panels of the piece feature firestones, raw and unshaped. In the small squares around them and in the second of the two flanking panels, these stones have been shaped into alien angular shapes, as if to emphasise their foreignness and perhaps signifying our inability to understand or appreciate the pain felt by those who have lost their homelands. The stones are arranged and re-arranged, often assuming the guise of museum pieces. When do our memories become petrified, stereotyped and static? the piece seems to ask. Who is responsible for their arbitrary arrangement? These questions are a mere sideshow to the central panel. The viewer is placed in an ever-narrowing corridor whose walls are alight. Travelling up the steps at the end of that corridor, a thin open portal reveals even more fire, white-hot. We are in hell and there appears in the artists’ mind at least, no way out of the hell of losing a homeland, whether that hell is on slow burn, or high heat.
The concept of a way out is interrogated in an arresting fashion in the photograph of same name by Heidi Seraphimidou. We are situated at a train station, with abandoned suitcases in the foreground. A solitary figure, blurred, with undiscernible features appears in the background, leaning on a column. We do not know what or for whom he is waiting, if indeed that is what he is doing. Above, a sign proclaims impassively: “Way Out.” Yet there are no trains at this station. There is no movement. If Masonik’s lost homeland is Hell, then this must be Purgatory, an in-between place of ennui and self-recrimination, limbo of return to Paradise Lost.
That there are more than one lost homeland and that all lost homelands are connected is a theme that manifests itself in Pavlos Andronikos’ emotive photograph: “Mourning the Missing.” This is a photograph of Katina Papademosthenous at the now defunct “Justice for Cyprus” annual demonstration in Melbourne, in turn holding a photograph of her father, lost and never found, during the invasion of Cyprus. The artist’s lens here focuses sharply on Mrs Papademosthenous, obscuring the multitudes around her. There is method to this. As the artist explains: “It is a public display, but her grief is dignified and private.” Sometimes, the lost homeland is not a place, but a person and we try to contain that loss within four sides of a picture frame.
Theodore Adorno once wrote: “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” The fact that the exhibition takes place in a space whose traditional custodians are both present and yet simultaneously absent from their homeland lends the endeavour ever so much more poignancy and provides pathways for future intercultural discussion. It is therefore signifcant that Mary Raphael’s companion piece to “New Beginnings-Hope” refers to the history of the Australian Aboriginal people. Entitled “Dreamtime -Survival,” its characters are given similar attributes, founding an original artistic discourse of commonality of experience between our two venerable cultures.
How we negotiate the conflicting elements of trauma, memory and history, how we define homelands, the attributes we give to loss and grief, the nature of the outlets we seek, all these processes are interrogated in what is perhaps one of the most significant Greek-Australian cultural events of the year. The questions that are posed by the artwork are profound and engender conversations that are timely and pertinent to all, and the quest to inhabit a homeland, lost, real or imagined looms large as a perennial and intrinsic to the human condition.