The stories we don’t tell: Griffith Review 61

Every morning I would press my nose against the glass and try my best to imagine what that space was for. A bare shopfront, paired with a laundry, together flanking the modestly crafted entry to a 1930s brick apartment building. Its large awning covering the bus stop where I’d wait for the last of the three buses that would take me to my new school. When it was cold or rainy, I would huddle as close as possible to the shopfront’s closed door, which was angled against the street with a low marble step where I could sit and hug my knees. Inside, the walls were white, the floorboards beautifully polished – but the room was empty. I could see pictures on the walls: paintings, sometimes photographs. Routinely, they would be replaced by others; not often, but frequently enough to notice. Nothing else changed. What was this place for? What did the simple, hand-lettered name on the window-glass mean? There was no furniture, no products marked for sale, nothing in the space to indicate a function.

I was nine years old, and I had no idea that public places existed for seeing and discussing art.

My new school was in Woollahra, where for two years I studied evolution theory, ancient history, advanced science and mathematics, creative writing, and art theory and practice. If you know Sydney, you’ll know that this place was worlds apart from Eastlakes Public School, then part of the NSW Government’s Disadvantaged Schools Program. There, in the early 1980s, I had put together shows of pupils’ drawings in spaces I found around our school buildings, written and staged several plays, and made little zines with carbon paper and a manual Gestetner machine – yet my parents and I were only ever given to understand that this was because I was working through the teachers’ lesson plans too annoyingly fast. Just as in Ancient Greek times, contemporary Eastlakes seemed to have no word for art, only for technique – and I was growing problematically adept at those. So my conscientious, kind-hearted teacher, Annemarie Wagener, spent two years going out of her way to befriend my parents, winning their trust enough to allow me to sit the entrance exam for a selective public school. I was accepted, and – incredibly – I was allowed to go.

My journey from Eastlakes to Woollahra spanned language, class, culture. I devoured new thinking and embraced new modes of expression – but each new experience took me further and further from my parents, who feared what they did not understand. Like many migrants, they had never imagined that a better life would come to mean a radically different life for their children – one that would ultimately separate us in ways we could never have anticipated.

That was over thirty years ago. Australia’s capital city arts festivals were still in development, as were key organisations such as Express Media, Melbourne Fringe and NAVA, and state funding programs for such organisations were only just about to begin. Rupert Murdoch bought the Herald & Weekly Times and Channel 7. The Australia Act was passed by both the Australian and the UK Parliaments to dissociate the two legislatures, making Australia formally independent for the very first time. Paul Keating as Treasurer was still dreaming his grand cultural vision for the nation.

In Greece, the new Panhellenic Socialist Party (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα or PASOK) government was rapidly implementing a progressive reform agenda to reinvigorate the nation after the 1967 coup, the military dictatorship, and the 1974 student-led uprising that had ignited the restoration of democracy. The horror of Nazi occupation and the five-year civil war that followed had devastated the nation, torn families apart, imprisoned and tortured thousands, destroyed cultural, communications and supply networks, and starved villagers to death. Some 200,000 Greeks died in WWII, over 150,000 in the civil war, and an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 in the Μεγάλος Λιμός, the Great Famine that was caused by both. That’s more than one in ten Greeks – meaning nobody’s life was unaffected. 1980s’ Australia had been the making of me, but this was the environment in which my parents were raised. They experienced the traumas, but never their resolution, leaving instead for Australia in 1964.

With that national ordeal in mind, PASOK and its arts minister, the legendary actress and political activist Melina Mercouri, made the 1980s a time of social revolution. While PASOK legislated a confidently feminist agenda for first-time national health, wage standards and women’s rights – including the long-overdue end of the dowry system – Mercouri built ambitiously on her civil war resistance years to embed the arts in education at all levels, connect Greek artists globally, and envision what became the European Capital of Culture program, with Athens its inaugural city. Her vision for Greece was powered by the resilience that had sustained her vision for her own life: whether at home or in exile, a vision for a life as lived publicly. Greece would recover with its tenacity, creativity, hospitality, political astuteness and cultural integrity intact, if its long-held personal values could once again become civic values. If public institutions could advance the public good. If the domestic could become global. If decisions made by one group of people for another had an αγορά in which to be contested by a diversity of voices: a town square, a theatre, a gallery, an assembly, an open marketplace, a free media. The Greek institutions of classical times reinterpreted as public values for modern times.

 

None of these stories were ever told in my home. None of these histories were ever taught at my schools. And yet, we can’t tell the story of contemporary Australia without understanding the politics, the traumas and the resilience that characterise our various migrant cultures. Including the traumas inflicted on First Nations by colonist migrants, and the migrants we are traumatising today for daring to seek asylum. Their stories are our stories. For me, the inheritance of those unresolved traumas was an isolated and often violent upbringing, with little social life outside of extended family, and tight controls on all of my movements. My sister and I fought bitterly for the dignity of our own independence, ultimately leaving at the earliest opportunity to seize that dignity and independence for ourselves. As difficult as the controlling was, more difficult for us as children was the burden of negotiating our mother’s mental illness – again, never identified, never discussed. A constant anxiety, a hostility, a fear. Depression, certainly. Autism, perhaps: anxiety about any change to routine; repetitive, compulsive behaviours; frequently misunderstanding people’s facial expressions; frequently responding with the wrong emotion to the wrong degree; endless ranting and arbitrary attack. My sister and I looked after one another’s skinned knees in the schoolyard to avoid getting in trouble when we got home. We hid tiredness, bad moods, illnesses, stomach aches, migraines. My parents feared and mistrusted doctors – understandable, given experiences such as the emergency appendectomy my father had had as a child, without anaesthetic, because there was none available. I only saw neurologists for the diagnosis of my brain condition after moving out. It was easier that way.

Constantly having to monitor our own facial expressions for our own safety, my sister and I grew up without an experience of the carefree ease of childhood. We were scolded abrasively for enjoying ourselves at play. We were raised to second-guess our own joy. «Τα πολλά γέλια φέρνουν πολλά δάκρυα», we were told. Much laughter brings many tears. We became introverted, and very studious – the microbiologist and the writer – spending evenings in our rooms alone, connected by the intercoms we’d given each another as Xmas gifts. We hid the wiring under carpet seams and over door frames. We invented games, made radio plays, and exchanged journal volumes with a cousin. Metres away, in the living room of our little fibro house, the tv was always on, or the radio. Sensationalist current affairs shows and shock jocks reinforced social anxieties and degenerated them into open racism, sexism and homophobia. The outside world was a danger, as was its people, its ideas, its social change. «Με όλους, και με κανέναν», I was advised when it came to the public expression of my political views. With everyone, and with no one. Not a surprising attitude given my parents had grown up understanding the public expression of personal views as punishable by death.

One of my grandfathers had been a royalist, an indefensible politics he had assimilated while posted in the palace to acquit his military service obligation as a bodyguard to the king. Meanwhile, my grandmother and his brothers had protected the family – at any cost, at all costs – after the Nazis burnt down the village to deter resistance. My other grandparents had complied with the Nazis by day – they had, after all, occupied their entire home and business – while feeding and arming resistance forces by night. They too saw political executions, arbitrary attacks, death by starvation. My grandmother was left a widow with nine children to raise alone when illness cut grandfather’s life short. Their son, my father, would go on to become an unwavering enabler of his wife’s mental illness, never questioning any action she took in the raising of their two daughters. None of these stories were ever told in my home.

 

Education opened up my world. Art opened up my mind. Both electrified my sense of personal and cultural identity, countering oppressive isolation with a glittering array of possibility. I craved the outside world. I longed to experience it, to know it, to understand it – and, maybe one day, I could even contribute something to it. As a child making new discoveries for myself for the first time, public space held as much explosive potential for me as an artwork, each one the complex intersection of presence and composition, action and ideas, practice and interpretation.

Even the transit space, that long commute to school, energised me: my body, still and content, alert and thoughtful, safe from constant harassment; outside the window, different people doing everyday things in unfamiliar streets pointing in new directions. It was in the outside world where I was respected and appreciated for my own ideas, and so a duality emerged, a double life: one bleak, one expansive. Was the distinction as simple as Greek culture versus Australian culture? Ah, but no: the outside world rapidly dissolved that distinction. Curiously, there the Greek culture was revered. Democracy, architecture, philosophy, science, art. People would speak in awed tones of Sappho, Heraclitus, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Pericles, Plato, Aristotle. People would give explanations of complicated concepts with thoughtful deference to the Greek word of their origin. And when they gave those explanations, they made sense – whereas when family members evoked the heroes of the classical times, the gesture was all too often a self-aggrandisement, an appeal to legend. “We invented democracy, architecture, philosophy, science, art.” The Greeks have a word even for that: προγονοπληξία, an excessive or indeed pathological glorification of the ancients evoked as our direct ancestors.

In my twenties, I was as constantly disappointed by the uncritical Greek-Australian cockiness as I was by the uncritical Australian apathy. Why were so many Greek-Australians bragging about achievements that weren’t theirs, rather than emulating the civic duty of the ancients they admired? Why were so many Australians allowing a loud minority of foul politics to poison their sense of identity with attacks on the creativity, hospitality and cultural diversity that mean so much to the overwhelming majority?

Something I never experience in Greece is a sense that only some people have the right to contribute a public voice. The responsibility to co-create our public spaces and public values is one felt by everyone. Small apartments dot southern European cities in an endless mixed-use sprawl, making for very different living conditions to Australian suburbia and its sharp distinction between residential, commercial and cultural precincts. Living in a small place and close to other people makes the local square your backyard and the local taverna, kafenio or club your living room. Political allegiances are discussed openly and critiqued in fervent detail. A constant evolution of multi-party parliaments generates media coverage that’s often a five-person debate as opposed to a single talking head being interviewed politely. An active resourcefulness characterises the Greek response to the latest political or financial crisis: people mobilise fast and create change.

In Australia, on the other hand, crisis situations pass unrecognised as crises, and so, are allowed to continue – such as our disrespect for First Nations sovereignty, our death toll of women from domestic violence, our torture of asylum seekers, our destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, our devastation of public health, and our damaging negligence of schools and universities, community legal centres and of course the arts. In a democracy, each of these things is our responsibility – a responsibility that is not abandoned, but heightened, the moment we elect people to make decisions on our behalf.

And so, throughout my twenties and thirties, I actively sought to understand the perspectives and the work of people who’d drawn on similar backgrounds to make active civic contributions for a more politically astute Australia – “political” always for me meaning the active creation of public space in its every form. Lina Kastoumis created a complex set of characters which she performed with smarts and sass, and today her #lakembabiennale and #commutorama work continues to advance a confident multiculture as the Australian mainstream. Chris Zissiadis made WogLife, the massively popular online home of Australia’s multicultural youth, showing time and again that the children of migrants had more in common with one another than with the countries of their parents’ origin. George Megalogenis identified three stages of wogdom – cocky, cowed, connected – to compress decades of migrant experience into a declension of active civic engagement, from cultural isolation to today’s greater social, educational and financial successes earned by the children of migrants. With great personal generosity, Maria Katsonis published her story of trauma, breakdown and resilience within a professional life of significant public and community leadership. Vivian Dourali’s latest designs for the strong, mature female body always came with long conversations analysing current issues, often over Greek coffee, in her shop with that name of quintessential Greek passion: «Είμαι» meaning “I am” or “I exist.” The boldest public assertion of unique identity.

Hearteningly, there were so many others. Rosie Dennis. Bobby Hodge. Stelarc. Christos Tsiolkas. Nik Pandazopoulos. Michael Zavros. Mary Kostakidis. Nella Themelios. Lex Marinos. Patricia Karvelas. Nikos Papastergiadis. Irine Vela. Elizabeth Gertsakis. So many more. People who I’ve known at different stages of their careers, seeing their thinking and their values develop. People who have transformed for me what Greek-Australian means – and could mean. Many of whom I am proud to call a friend. And all of whom have pursued a practice with integrity, tenacity, and a vision for a more confident public – whether as a creator or a facilitator, always with an openness to new thinking that champions multiple perspectives. Each one of them has emboldened me to consider my decisions, my actions and my work as constitutive of so much more than my own identity.

Boonwurrung Elder N’arwee’t Carolyn Briggs is important to honour here. Her guidance and her wisdom have come to mean a great deal to me – in particular, her approach to leadership that scaffolds to create ever-new platforms for others. We’ve often talked about the special relationship between Aboriginal and Greek-Australians, with plenty of Greeks in her own family. Against the relentless racism of the pre-referendum White Australia Policy years, each culture recognised family and community values common to both. In the mid-1960s, my parents would spend their weekends at La Perouse with the local Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and I have longed to thank Aunty Esme Timbery and her family in particular for their hospitality in welcoming and crafting work together with my parents and so many others. My mother has treasured Aunty Esme’s little shell-clad booties for over fifty years, having no idea that they were made by an artist who has by now achieved great international acclaim.

 

Was seeking out those Greek-Australians my attempt to reinvent a genealogy – my own προγονοπληξία? I wanted to understand what had spurred my resilience and inspired my ethic, and that meant I could not avoid understanding the influence of family, no matter how problematic, how painful, how flawed. The things we value most in life are never immaculately conceived. My mother’s father, for example, was a tyrant, a violent man, and yet he took displaced people and asylum seekers into his home indiscriminately and without hesitation. A goat-herder from a long line of goat-herders, he taught me a great deal about leadership in the ways we worked the herd together: goats are smart enough to recognise a leader to follow in times of unexpected movement, but that animal is rarely the one who thinks of itself as the leader – rarely the one making the most aggressive leaps and head-butts as a kid – and so the entire herd needs to be nurtured closely from a young age to identify how leadership is recognised and distributed. Like diversity, leadership is a property of groups, not individuals. Leadership does not come from a place of perfectly refined values, but from a flawed place of constant negotiation, constant reflection and constant critique of group identity and culture.

One conspicuous element of that negotiation for me, both within and beyond my family, is my accent – an unwanted class marker that belies my cultural background and demands that I constantly contradict people’s expectations of who I am and where I’ve come from. I was taught English by an Englishman, a tutor we’d engaged before moving back to Greece permanently. (A year later, we moved back to Australia permanently, at great disruption and expense.) My parents called him “the Professor”, and I still have vague or possibly imagined memories of an elderly moustachio’d gentleman with pince-nez and elbow patches. At Eastlakes Public School I was enlisted to help teach the newly-arrived refugee children English, which rounded out my accent even further, speaking carefully and respectfully as memories of traumas emerged from reluctant facial expressions, which is what happens when children are able to speak at last to other children. My next schools weren’t ninety-something per cent non-English-speaking-background, and so my accent and my ability to speak another language became a novelty, a curiosity. This startled and disappointed me, having only known Australia as a complex multiculture where the school curriculum was taught in our own language for an hour or two per day. As it turned out, however, my experience at Eastlakes had been exceptional and not the norm: my school was piloting the Community Languages Program, now in its fourth decade – but disappointingly again, a program since diminished by multiple policy changes. While it’s now presented in over fifty languages, today it’s an opt-in program that’s no longer integrated within school day, but after-hours only, taking it out of the reach of the migrant families most likely to need it.

I don’t have a Greek accent, I don’t have an Australian accent, and I don’t even have a woggy accent. “Your Greek is perfect,” locals tend to tell me in Greece – and then, always: “Where did you learn?”, marking me immediately as a foreigner. Ironically, my accent also distances me from Greek-Australians; I didn’t sound like kids at school, I don’t sound like my family, and I was teased by cousins and even by my own parents for the way I speak. Nor do I look like them. My skin is so pale that my parents used to joke that I must’ve been swapped at the hospital and not really theirs at all. One of my aunts tells me that, as children, her brothers would try to convince her that she’d been brought by the Gypsies! Displaced and nomadic people remain a common presence in Greece – a constant reminder that cultural identity and national identity are not the same thing. In Australia, on the other hand, each migrant culture endures an anxious generation of clinging to values fixed at the moment of emigration, sparking intergenerational conflict. The realities of the migrant experience make the Greek-Australian elements of my identity fraught, difficult, always problematic. The most appalling things that have ever been spoken or done to me have been by my parents. The responsibility to work this through has always been entirely mine, and inevitably, there comes a time when responsibility over another’s mental health becomes an insupportable and damaging burden. Our current estrangement, now years old, gives me a healthy peace – but not contentment. And despite my great distance from my sister’s home of twenty years in Canada, she and I become closer and closer with each passing year – and that means the world to me.

 

Why is it so hard to speak honestly and passionately about what we value most in life? With pride, and not with shame? It’s what we admire in the people we care about, and it’s what we expect of our public institutions – as last year’s marriage equality survey confirmed. Against the daily ordeal of homophobia inflicted by a government unwilling to legislate for equality, cultural institution after cultural institution spoke out in recognition of their own duty toward the public good – and of the Australian Government’s abandonment of that ethic. The recent Sydney Symphony experience was emblematic: in response to public criticism of its silence, its board reluctantly made a statement rejecting the need for one, sparking massive outcry from the sector and also from its own musicians and incoming CEO, whose dignified response as a proudly out gay leader prompted the necessary publication of a board statement in support of equality. But isn’t the Sydney Symphony just an orchestra? How far does the public responsibility of the cultural institution extend? The mission, vision and constitution of every not-for-profit organisation are explicit on this point: the company must be oriented towards the public good. Here, I go a step further: any organisation in receipt of public funding has a civic duty to foster the public good actively. It has a responsibility not just towards its members, subscribers or customers, but also to the taxpayer as citizen – and that responsibility isn’t limited to its operations and finances. It’s a civic duty to champion values as enacted publicly. When public institutions advance the public good, the decisions made by one group of people for another are contested in a diversity of spaces: news media, social media, concert halls, theatres, galleries. The public space is what we make of it.

 

Today, Australia boasts an independent arts scene of sophistication and international renown. Myriad organisations stimulate an arts ecology where practitioners take confident leaps across all artforms. The mass media and the major political parties are in decline, unable to develop business models and values sets that respond to the diverse subcultures and social technologies of contemporary Australia, and so their mutual decline fuels further mutual instability. Arts policies have come and gone, never surviving political change. Arts funding at state and federal levels is in a post-crisis limbo – a visionless inertia, failing to respond to the alarming trends revealed in research study after research study showing sharp declines in artists’ rights, income and working conditions. And, decades later, 102 Burton St Darlinghurst is East Sydney Doctors, a shopfront next to a laundry in a 1930s brick building behind the imposing Greek Revivalism of the Darlinghurst Courthouse. A single artwork hangs in its front window – perhaps a nod to the National Art School opposite, perhaps a gesture of recognition for the public who that front window continues to serve. Now into my forties, today it’s my job to advocate for the centrality of artists to the nation’s cultural life.

I was not raised to engage with or respect the arts as a career. Nor was I raised to take an active role in civic life. And yet the values of my cultural heritage champion both. My father – a craftsman who worked in factories as a wood machinist – spoke often of form, of rigour, of the hand and well as the community of the maker. His workshop, a ramshackle former stables in the back of our little house, was a wonderland of possibility for me as a child. Throughout my teenage years we worked many jobs together to bring in extra money; having moved back to Australia and into a new mortgage in the 1980s, the burden of 18% interest rates on a growing family was quite the shock. Inadvertently for a girl in our culture, I was raised with the powerful sense that with the right tools, the right materials, and the right techniques, there was nothing you could not do. In understanding his own practice, my father was explicitly μάστορας – a master craftsman – and not καλλιτέχνης – the Greek word for artist, whose literal meaning describes a mastery of technique. What he valued most was not the aesthetic and certainly not the political aspects of a work, but rather, its making: a resourcefulness that could transform anything to hand into the useful and the enduring. To make something that would last. (My parents moved back to Greece in 2010, permanently permanently this time, and both the fibro house and workshop have since been demolished.)

I grew up constantly negotiating different aspects of an identity I longed to understand. I grew up nurturing the resilient optimism I knew I would need so as to emerge with any sense of self. My explorations of the outside world as a wide-eyed schoolkid exposed me to places and ideas that weren’t hostile after all – they were invigorating, thrilling. I would go on to contemplate the public space with rigour through studies in philosophy, law, art, architecture, education, media and leadership… the fundamentals of public discourse – and on reflection, quite the apprenticeship in Greek values. And nowhere have I found greater intellectual challenge and deep personal fulfilment than in contemporary arts. The way a work of art can bring all of this together – and explode it. The way thinking about art can unsettle everything you only just realised you’d been taking for granted. The way places for art can bring different people together without that exchange being transactional. That’s what makes a place public – when its possibilities go beyond the functional, beyond the commercial, beyond single interests. To share what we really think, and develop what we really value.

What if Australia took who we are seriously – as constitutive of more than just an accidental cultural diversity? What if the traumas of our First Nations people, our migrants and our people in detention camps were understood not as incidental but central to the Australian story? What if our government could trust in the unknown consequences of hearing what they don’t want to hear? Recognising the value of personal and creative expression is politically challenging, politically risky. It means trusting in people as critically aware and ethically engaged. It means fostering public institutions who confidently exceed their remit, or welcoming the advocacy of commercial and non-profit leaders who challenge public policy, or funding the arts ambitiously in the context of an expansive cultural policy. The risk of creating a framework and not knowing what will emerge; the openness to welcoming the lost, the displaced and the new; the tenacity to work with astuteness and integrity. Public values for our town squares, our theatres, our galleries, our assemblies, our marketplaces, our media, our times. An intricate outside world for reflecting on who we are.

>>> An edited version of this piece was first published in Griffith Review No. 61

IMAGE: 102 Burton St Darlinghurst today. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.