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I don’t live too far away from Footscray, where GOCMV board member and Greek Youth Generator Instigator Dean Kotsianis has created his latest memorial to Hellenism’s Past: a mural on a wall in Yewers Street. Yet apart from a few names of businessmen who have had an impact upon the broader community, I struggle to decode the symbols depicted there by the artist. It is not that the method of portrayal is esoteric or obscure, quiet the opposite: the mural is vivid, its colours vibrant and it’s eschewing of the stereotypical earth colours of red and white reference a Hellenism that is at one with the local landscape. Rather than being a perpetually foreign element, it has embraced the land upon which it has settled and has become one with it. The addition of blue to the palette, not so subtly points us in the direction of the colours of the Western Bulldogs, a team once proudly known as Footscray. When we view Kotsianis’ tribute to the Hellenism of Footscray, we immediately realise that one cannot comprehend the history of the suburb and its environs without reference to its intrinsic Greek community.
I note reference to Olympic Doughnuts and remember reading at article in Neos Kosmos about its imminent closure, which alerted me to its existence. Quite apart from being a fixture of the community and a longtime successful Greek-Australian business, its appearance in Kotsianis’ mural is, I think, not coincidental. This is a paean to a Hellenism that no longer exists and its memory is fading. The few Greeks that remain in the area remember. Their children may not and their grandchildren are largely blissfully unaware of their existence. Some of the businesses commemorated in the mural are of broader importance and yet remain a lesson in futility. Jack Dardalis’ success in Marathon Foods enabled him to make possible the creation of the National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research (EKEME), an endeavour which ultimately failed. Other businesses’ such as the Goulas’ family’s Conway’s Fish Trading is still known for its philanthropy. Kotsianis has therefore conjured up the ghosts of Hellenisms past to haunt us, to remind us who we once were, what we once did.
The emphasis on businesses within the mural deserves consideration. For more than suburban yards, migrant architecture and the occasional brotherhood building, it is the Greek businesses, with their Greek language signage or billboards that advertised a particular place of origin in Greece that moulded the local landscape and imparted upon it a Greek flavour, enabling those of my generation to create our own sense of geography based upon the endeavours of our kin. Like Dean Kotsianis, I too wondered what the history behind the building bearing the inscription “Hellenic” was, on the rare occasions we ventured to Footscray, primarily on excruciating shopping forays to Forges of Footscray (a favourite pastime for Greeks from my neck of the woods who felt culturally deprived in not having a Forges in their vicinity), for the Greek furniture store it once housed had shut its doors years ago. Nowadays, such businesses as are owned by Greeks rarely display the origins of their owners by means of Greek themes or inscriptions, for they are oriented towards a broader market and generations brought up to expect visible manifestations of their presence on suburban streetscapes could be forgiven as they traverse suburbs undergoing a process of gentrification that the absence of such signifiers is a symptom of decline. After all, we stopped using Greek street inscriptions around the same time that we began to switch to English inscriptions on our loved one’s tombstones.
I barely experienced the Greek migrant craze for wrestling, the passion shared by my father and my uncles having largely died out as I grew up and barely spoken of. Footscray played a large role in fostering that craze and yet when I come across articles about Greek wresters in the print media of decades past or view the depiction of Alex Iakovidis in Kotsianis’ mural, I shrug my shoulders. This for me, is a historical curiosity, not part of my lived experience or repository of inherited cultural memories. It is someone else’s story, reminding me of something which we, and those who purport to represent us or govern us often forget in their attempts to reduce us to stereotypes and sound-bytes: While we are one community, we are also disparate and several. Much of our identities as Greeks are rooted in the suburbs in which we settled, raised our children and grew up ourselves, and our histories are entwined with those who shared those experiences with us whether Greek or not.
Given that the subtleties and nuances of our local Greek identities distinguish us from one another and the sub-cultures that arise from our co-habitation deserve study and celebration, perhaps Dean Kotsianis’ mural can be interpreted as a profound symbol as a way of re-configuring the relevance of Hellenism to Melbourne by moving away from a narrow identification of Greeks via their place of origin within Greece, an increasingly obscure and futile endeavour considering how few of the latter generations identify in any meaningful way with their grandparents’ birthplace, to a local identity, which is rooted in the experiences and interactions of those who actually live in that area, making these relevant to all those who still remain in, or identify with that area, considering that many of those who do so, have moved out of the suburb, some photos and a lingering affection for the local football team the most enduring ties to the place of their own personal migrant foundation myth.
It is for this reason that I believe that rather acting as a tombstone, a dread Dickensian ghost of Christmas Future, come to suggest a bleak past of utter desolation after the commemoration of its dead, that Kotsianis’ new Footscray mural suggests quite the opposite: instead of mourning for our lost migrant communities and mythologising them as a Golden Age in comparison to whose protagonists we are much diminished, we ought to celebrate them and render them joyous and vivacious, at all times and in all their multifarious manifestations. Rather than laying wreaths at their cenotaphs, and transforming our collective communities into a vast death cult in which all creative imperatives are relegated to the past with our, their inadequate descendants’ sole duty remaining as their undertakers and taxidermists, to ensure they remain stuffed and preserved for posterity, we ought to recognise, as Kotsianis’ mural does, that communities and the locales that house them are constantly evolving and ever changing and that nothing we can do will ever retard that process. We can however revel in the memories of those who came before, be inspired by their intrepidity and bravery and fortified by their ability to transform their local landscape in their image, attempt to find meaning in the Hellenism of our daily lives, wherever and however we live this. Finding this meaning and savouring it to its full extent, when all is decoded and nostalgia is afforded its proper context, lies at the heart of what Dean Kotsianis muralistic Hidden Hellenism project is all about.