“The power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them, and also in the vicissitudes of our imagination, and our memory--of this there is no doubt.”
Where do old photographs go when the people they depict and those who remember them are no longer extant? Are they as perishable as the memories they supposedly encapsulate or do they become the memory itself? In the “Museum of Innocence,” Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk examines the concept of memory and its objectification by relating an account of the obsessive love that Kemal, a wealthy businessman, bears for Füsun, a lower class shop girl. Oblivious to his own selfishness, Kemal first refuses to give up his fiancée to be with the love of his life, and then becomes an obsessive collector of the artifacts of his life with her. This is a relationship that is both lengthy and increasingly bizarre as Kemal objectifies Füsun and becomes a collector intent on satisfying his emotional obsession with his object of desire rather carrying on a healthy human relationship with his beloved. At the close of the novel, Kemal is founding a museum wherein the artifacts he collected that relate to his beloved will be exhibited.
Here in Melbourne, artifacts attesting to times long forgotten lie, largely forgotten in various unsuspected places. For example, in the file of one of my clients, I once found the cheque book and minute memoranda of one of our more ancient and largely defunct pre-war community organizations. A cursory glance of such records, inscribed in beautiful copperplate handwriting, do much to illuminate a particularly obscure period in our early communal history.
A particularly avid collector of such artifacts is the indefatigable proprietor of the renowned Greek restaurant Philhellene and astounder of the native populace by the poise of his mustachios, John Rerakis. The walls of his restaurant are wallpapered with old and rare photographs, gravures and other visual media that allude to times past, not only in Greece but also in Melbourne itself and which provide the patron with a fascinating crash course in contemporary Greek culture.
One of the pictures that adorn his walls is the one featured in this diatribe. It is a picture that John Rerakis was given by stalwart Greek dance teacher Olga Black. It truly is a masterpiece, with light and shadow accentuating the youthfulness, optimism and vitality of its subjects, yet at first glance it appears to be what it is: an old photo of some traditionally clad Greek dancers, something to look up from your meal of “lago stifado,” to appreciate for a few moments, only to re-commence immersing yourself in the ecstasies of the aforementioned dish. Yet for unsuspecting patrons, a chance glance at such photographs, have the capacity to prove life-changing.
Enter Menelaos Stamatopoulos, who, looking up absent-mindedly from his Philhellenic plate of comestibles a few weeks ago, was shocked to arrive at the realization that the smiling and dapper young gent pictured second from the right was a youthful portrayal of his now eighty seven year old progenitor, Odysseus. Moved beyond belief and astounded that he had never seen this photograph of his father before, he arranged a small surprise for him, inviting him to dinner at the restaurant and seating him directly underneath the photograph. When the venerable, hearty but hale octogenarian cast eyes on the photograph and beheld himself in his prime, resplendent in full foustanella, fashionably fastened at the waist, he wept.
A few weeks later, I am seated opposite both Menelaos and Odysseus at Philhellene restaurant. With trembling hands, Odysseus lovingly opens an envelope and fingers the black and white photographs that spill out from it. They too, are photographs of a suave and debonair Odysseus, resplendent in full regalia, ensconced among other suitably attired gents and demoiselles, posed in various dancing attitudes. The play of light and shadow causes their outline to be juxtaposed crisply against the background, granting them a nineteen forties movie star aura of glamour. The reason for the fortuitous capturing of these moments in such a skillful manner can be discerned by flipping to the reverse of the photographs. There we see stamped indelibly in purple ink: “Property of the Herald.”
“These photographs were taken in 1953,” Odysseus explains. “I had just arrived in Melbourne and was feeling lonely, so I joined the Olympic Dance Group, a way of meeting new people. Of the girls that you see in the photos, at least two are Australian. Back in those days, some of the Australian girls who had married Greek men would learn to dance and perform with us. Other Australian girls had no connection with Greece other than an interest in the country after the War.”
This statement, it seemed to me, tended to do much to restore balance to a somewhat one-sided community myth that would have the pre-nineteen sixties broader Australian social context look disparagingly upon migrants and especially their culture to the extent where openly being Greek was socially impermissible. The stereotype of Greek men marrying Australian women who were invariably opposed to manifestations of Greek culture and thus excluded their menfolk from the community also seemed to be in part, contradicted. Such bias apparently did not exist among the smiling young Australian ladies of the photograph who seem less embarrassed to don Greek traditional costume then some of their Greek-Australian counterparts some six decades later.
Further belying the myth that Australia was largely not interested in the migrant cultural experience prior to the advent of the official policy of multiculturalism, is the fact that the series of photographs have been taken by mainstream Australian print media. Odysseus takes great pains to point out that the bulk of the performances undertaken by the young dance group were for Australian audiences, with the group even performing publicly at festivals organized to welcome the advent of the 1954 Olympic Games to Melbourne. It appears that, possibly because of the novelty value, that exhibitions of Greek culture, such as they were, and possibly owing to their novelty and the sympathy Greece elicited in the hearts of many Australian returned servicemen at the time, were much more integrated within the mainstream and captured more interest than many do now, our primary focus being our own entertainment.
As I gazed at the photograph and listened to the venerable Odysseus relate fascinating stories of his life, I marveled at the swiftness of the passage of time. The young man, full of promise, optimism and raw sexual energy is now a mellow yet sprightly grandfather. Many of the smiling youths of the photograph are no longer with us and when the last of them go, one of the fading reminders of their brief sojourn on this earth will be a photograph on the wall of a restaurant, interesting, evocative but largely incomprehensible to those who have not yet embraced oblivion.
As Odysseus talks, I notice that the street-facing window of his restaurant, John Rerakis has strategically placed some old suitcases that have an unknown lady’s name painted on them and then that singular word «ΠΑΤΡΙΣ,» that evokes so many memories and causes an outpouring of emotion from first generation migrants, upon its utterance. “I bought it at a local second hand shop,” Rerakis explains, with the relish of a connoisseur. Then his voice plunges and becomes somber. “A wooden stefanothiki came with it and it was part of a deceased estate. Just imagine. This old lady kept the suitcases she arrived in Australia with and of course, the stefana with which she was married. And they ended up in an op-shop. I display the suitcases so that Greek and other patrons alike always are reminded where we came from.
A half remembered early childhood sitting on old wooden milk-crates and surrounded by rusty farming implements from the fifties, old photographs, printed tickets to dances long ago forgotten and being told stories of our family’s life on the farm in Bulla in the thirties suffice to convince me that it is not enough for us to attempt to understand and draw our identity solely from the motherland, ossifying an idealized interpretation of its traditions into a liturgy of aspirant cultural continuity. A whole way of life, the time of Innocence, of the valiant first generation struggling to acculturate and settle in Australia, is disappearing before our very eyes, its values considered quaint and irrelevant and its accoutrements, hoarded lovingly in the polished drawers of nineteen sixties furniture, being discarded in the trash or adorning the shelves of op-shops around Melbourne.
As we lose this value insight into our past, its labyrinthine permutations as exemplified by Odysseus Stamatopoulos’ experiences, we lose a veritable part of our souls. John Rerakis valiant anthropological endeavours to preserve the material evidence of our past should act as a clarion call to our entire community. It is high time that a Museum of our own Innocence is established, there to house the multitude of ephemera and memorabilia that testify to the vibrancy and cohesiveness of our community during its most golden period. A festival program, tattered and replete with advertisements for 1980’s business long since closed down, old props from school plays, report cards from Greek schools, all these things form as much a part of our cultural heritage as the Parthenon. And in pride of place over the foyer there should hang, the photo of Odysseus and his merry crew of dancers – a reminder to the visitor of our innate optimism, permitting one to ponder just how far we have departed from our perceived communal path and whether the future roads will take us.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 September 2012