Saturday, June 29, 2019


“I woke up with this marble head in my hands;
It exhausts my embows and I do not know
Where to put it down.”   Giorgos Seferis.

“Trilogy of a Desert Mirage,” painted in 1946, is one the most arresting of Salvador Dali paintings. Recently acquired and housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, I never grow tired of viewing it.

The gaunt, female figure, with the sturdy legs of a Michelangelo, the voluptuous bosom of Raphael's "La Fornarina' and the hair of Botticelli's Aphrodite, a walking contradiction, stands within a wasteland. Like Jason, of Greek mythology, she wears only one sandal. Does this indicate the fulfilment of a prophecy? Is she destined for greatness? Why is she depicted without any facial features whatsoever?
Occupying the western edge of the painting, her feet seem barely to touch the desert sand as she turns ecstatically towards the east, in order to pluck a desert flower from the head of the ancient sculpture of the Apollo Belvedere, who is being propelled towards us on marble tram tracks, overhung by broken arches, staircases that lead nowhere, stone buttresses, classical ruins and a depiction of the entrance arch to the ancient stadium of Olympia.

The result is a superlative capriccio on contrivance, the past, and its reconstruction. Dali, an expert draughtsman is making a set of deliberate statements as to the place of classical culture and the legacy of the Greek heritage within western civilisation. In so doing, he presents a tableau of extreme movement but also, great ambiguity.
The sweeping embrace of the animated woman is mirrored exactly behind her by a set of shadowy megaliths or rock formations. Juxtaposed against the aridity and ostensible featurelessness of the desert, she appears to be creating a new geography with which to define our place within the world, one that orients itself, worshipfully, towards the East of the past, reminding us of Kenneth Hanson’s poem, “Take it from Me:”
“But look at it my way.
Here was a new geography
a mind where anything that grows
grows by a kind of tour de force
requiring only unconditional surrender.
Here was the pure perfection of an art.
Nothing like it in the British Museum.”
Whereas the lady’s place of departure is dark, brooding and devoid of grace, from the enlightened east comes the head of the Apollo Belvedere, considered the greatest ancient sculpture by ardent neoclassicists and for centuries epitomising ideals of aesthetic perfection for the West. This is an image of power and of appropriation. In 1881 Denton Snider noted that ancient Greece, which: “has created to a large extent what we may call the symbols of our western world” and has provided “the ideal by which we mould our work and to which we seek, at least partially, to adjust our lives,” belongs as much to “us,” [ie. The West] as to the present inhabitants of Greece. Does the solution to the impasse of modern western civilisation thus lie in a re-genesis of the ancient Greek world within it, like that of the Renaissance before it?
Certainly, the “trilogy” appears to be a discourse between the past, depicted as a land distant, but verdant, from which glorious gifts emanate, the emaciated lady of the arid present and, slightly left of centre, a mysterious figure traversing the desert, swathed in shadow. From the direction of that serpentine, oil-slick like shadow, we assume that it has, some time ago, travelled from the past, and is headed towards the brooding megaliths, bypassing the lady altogether. Is it “us,” moving, not towards a megalithic present, but rather, an arid future?
Indeed, why avoid an Annunciation that promises Salvation? The lady’s plucking of the desert flower from the head of Apollo, is a scene that reminds us of the Theotokos receiving a lily along with Good Tidings. Here, the Good Tidings of Salvation evidently refer to the rebirth of the ancient past. After all, the regeneration of the ancient world offers a solution to the cultural and malaise of the individual in society. As Percy Shelley declared of the Greek War of Independence: “the final triumph of the Greek cause,”should be viewed, “as a portion of the cause of civilisation and social improvement.” Viewed from this perspective, do we understand Dali’s vision as a contemplative, even mystical form of Hellenism existing apart from the various forms of political philhellenism, imbued with western liberalism? Must “we”, like the Holderlin’s Hyperion and Shelley’s Laon, both heroes of philhellenic texts written to celebrate the Greek Revolution, go through a spiritual withdrawal from the world to renew our souls and embrace the truth before preparing to take part in our own respective revolutions? Is Dali, in fact, actually depicting the progress of our preparatory sojourn within the wilderness?
If so, the revolution must be pictorial because the renewal and reformation of the individual soul precedes mass action and the evident is anathema to those who have undergone such spiritual transformation. In this enthralling manner, Dali thus seems to highlight the transient nature of ignorance and error and the eternity of genius and virtue.
Having emerged from that wilderness, the transformative nature of embracing and revivifying the Greek classical legacy appears to be full of promise. In his “Ode Pindarique à propos la guerre présente en Grèce" French philosopher Voltaire put in the mouth of Pallas Athena, his own hopes for the Greek struggle representing a new beginning for mankind:
“I want to revive Athens./ Let Homer sing your combats,/ Let the voice of a hundred Demosthenes/ Revive your hearts and your arms./ Come forth, be born again, lovable Arts,/… Take back again your antique brilliance.”
Yet the very nature of the “angelos,” bearing salvation is fraught with ambiguity. As much as the Apollo Belvedere is a symbol of perfection, he is also a cliché, one uncritically acclaimed and fervently championed by such leading lights of the Enlightenment as Wincklelmann, Goethe, Schiller and Byron, but ultimately rejected and criticised in the Romantic Era by such luminaries as Ruskin and Hazlitt. In 1969, art historian Kenneth Clark aptly summed up its place in modern culture:
"...For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s  greatest boast to have looted it from the  Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture."
Accordingly, it may be possible to say that not only is the Apollo Belvedere trite, it is also abounding in colonialist and imperialist connotations. It reeks of appropriation. Is the moral of Dali’s cautionary tale that we should carefully consider the implications of enthusiastically and uncritically accepting past blooms offered as salvation without first examining the qualifications of the would be saviour to provide it, or indeed the ability of modern day recipients to contextualise it? Or is he in fact parodying his own return to the classical tradition as a means of inspiring his art, late in his career?
Compounding the conundrum is the inconvenient fact that “Trilogy of a Desert Mirage,” whatever its inspiration, is a commercial commission, the centrepiece of a triptych ordered by William Lightfoot Schultz, founder of Shulton Cosmetics, to promote ‘Desert Flower,’ a new brand of perfume and makeup for women.  The extraordinarily deep perspective suggests a kind of magnetism, implying that when a woman wears Desert Flower, flowers will bloom and men will be drawn to her like never before, even as she ponders the relevance of Greek civilisation in her own life.
 Essentially, it is the word “Mirage” in the title of the painting that provides the pivotal clue as to its decoding. As a mirage is an illusion, so too might love and seduction, sex appeal, as well as ruminating about the aesthetic and moral bankruptcy of modern civilisation and the perennial resort to the ancient Greek tradition, whether during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and beyond as a means of re-genesis, and of remaining forever young, be largely an illusion – albeit created or evoked by the olfactory allure of a distinctive and these days, long forgotten and soon superseded perfume. Nonetheless, though ‘Desert Flower’ is dust, Dali and the enduring problems posed by the Greek legacy remain.
Ultimately, we remain, as we did when first we ventured into Dali’s painting, trailing a meandering shadow, interposed between a bleak, sterile future and memories of an idealised past, viewing salvation as a mirage we can either believe, accept or reject in its entirety. In this, the final word belongs to Patrick White, by means of his 1970 novel, “the Vivisector,” which posed the question which as to whether it was possible to be a human being and an artist at the same time:
"It was I who was foolish enough to believe in the idea of regeneration...Do we come all this way for nothing? Yes of course we do; it is not so extraordinary."

First published in NKEE on 29 June 2019

Saturday, June 22, 2019


When I was growing up in the eighties, only criminals or ultra-cool denizens of the margins of society who could transcend boundaries, possessed tattoos. As my parents determined at a very young age that my skill sets precluded me from membership of either group, the sporting of a tattoo was a pursuit that was relegated firmly and clearly to the realms of the forbidden, this applying also to the tattoo transfer papers one used to be able to purchase in the delectable faux-cigarette confectionary FAGS, now known as FADS, also forbidden, so that I would not develop an appreciation of pipe weed.

As a teenager, while daydreaming at Greek school, I once distractedly drew an enhanced version of the owl that formed the logo of my Greek school textbooks on my lower arm, in biro. Glimpsing it later that afternoon, my grandmother grabbed my wrist with Hephaestian firmness and marched me to the laundry. There she proceeded to slave off my epidermis with a wire brush that I am sure was once used to scrub down employees at the Chernobyl power plant. As she did so, she delivered an impromptu homily on Leviticus 19:28: «καὶ ἐντομίδας ἐπὶ ψυχῇ οὐ ποιήσετε ἐν τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν καὶ γράμματα στικτὰ οὐ ποιήσετε ἐν ὑμῖν ἐγώ εἰμι κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν,» rendered in English as: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.” This, by the way is true. She was our god, and my protests, to the effect that I had not etched «γράμματα» upon my personage but rather, a very artful cartoon, fell upon deaf ears. So too, did my attempt to explain that while I conceded that in ancient Greece tattoos were seen as a mark of punishment and shame and that according to the historian Herodotus, Greeks learned the idea of penal tattoos from the Persians in the sixth century B.C. and used them to tattoo criminals, slaves who tried to escape, and enemies they vanquished in battle, I was merely re-enacting, as a Samian, the famous tattooing of the defeated Samians with an owl, by the Athenians, by way of solidarity.

So many decades hence, every time the vague urge to decorate myself emerges within my consciousness, my right arm begins to itch and burn uncontrollably and I go on to seek more wholesome and productive pursuits.

Consequently, the only person in my immediate family that is marked by a tattoo is my mother in law, a cross on her wrist, to mark her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the number 20, the rest of the year remaining ambiguous as the process was too painful for her to complete. My mother in law, it should be added, firmly believes that the New Testament has supplanted the Old. I also have vague memories of coming across a weather-beaten old lady in my extreme youth, who bore a tattooed cross between her eyebrows. Dressed in threadbare clothes, as she would shuffle down the main street clutching her string bag, the more well to do ladies of our community would whisper: «η βλάχα, η βλάχα,» or cluck their tongues and pronounce: «η σημαδεμένη.» I know not where she was from or what language she spoke and it was only after spending time in the Vlach villages of Pindus decades later and noting the prevalence of the custom among the elderly ladies there, that I began to appreciate the tattoo as a personal abstraction, or a glyph, a key or rather a deliberate intervention into the interpretative process invited by the viewing of one’s countenance.

Given then that the glyphs or symbols we embellish ourselves with, in order to demand that others unravel the mysteries encoded within our features, are the key language in which this interpretative process takes place, the art of tattooing, Leviticus aside, is an inordinately personal one. Our choice of pictures, logographs and abstractions go to the core of what we want others to believe us to be. In the case of the traditional Vlachs, it is their identity as Christians that is asserted when one first sees them. In the case of modern body art, with its babel of semantic and pictorial connotations, assertions are both contrapuntal and legion.
It is for this reason that the incidence around Melbourne, of proud Greeks who want their patriotism indelibly etched upon their skin, so that said patriotism can never be removed, especially in light of recent events regarding the Macedonian name dispute, having their patriotism and assertions of racial purity impugned, either by malicious design or oversight, by incompetent tattoo artists that cannot understand, let alone spell Greek, is so deeply disquieting.
Of course how one asserts their Greek identity via body art is highly subjective given that there exists no common vocabulary in which to do so. An inebriated friend, who, enmeshed in the paroxysms of new love, was compelled to seek a tattoo of a Versace sun instead of the Vergina Sun by his Italian girlfriend, in the interests of good taste, is merely indicative of the general cacophonous trend.

The photograph illustrating these words further illuminate our plight. How can our tattoos compel others to accept our Hellenic credentials when we ourselves, thanks to our incompetent and possibly traitorous tattooists, can't even get our Hellenic words right?
The gentleman who claims enough affinity with the ancient Greek philosophers in order to have his arm proclaim: “Know thyself,” to all and sundry would benefit from knowing that the phrase is γνῶθι σεαυτὸν, not γνῶθει. The misspelling however, creates an interesting ontological dilemma. If you don't know how to spell thy own tatt, how can you claim to know thyself? Is this the real point of the tatt? That identity defies definition?
Obviously, when seeking to proclaim affinity with one’s tribes, it assists greatly if one is able to write the name of that tribe correctly. Thus, in the example of the hapless gentleman portrayed, Έληνας should be Έλληνας, unless one is claiming that one is actually the Diet Coke of Hellenism, and thus, with lambda lacking, not quite Hellenic enough.
Similarly, though it is easy to swoon at the beauty and sheer power of the Greek language, it would be useful to inform the lady pictured herein that the quote she literally painstakingly had transcribed upon her arm, from Saint Paul in the New Testament: «ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει,» means love never fails. If one writes ἐκπίπτω, as she has, then one is making the rather ungrammatical statement: “Love never I fail” or possibly in a variant interpretation: “Love I never give a discount to,” which makes next to no sense, but then again neither does love, on the odd occasion.

My favourite tattoo however, is the one perched proudly upon its owner’s pectoral muscle. No doubt, the independently minded gentleman, wishing to express the sentiment that he is self-willed and subject to no one, sought recourse in online translation services for the Greek rendition of the word “free.” Sadly, «δωρεάν» means free of charge, gratuitous, or complimentary, thus debasing his street currency precipitously and rendering his ontology as a commodity, outside the market.

The ancient writer Pausanias reports that when the seer and philosopher-poet Epimenides died, his skin was found to be covered with mysterious tattooed writing. The last tattoo accompanying these words, mirrors that experience, departing from it only, in that it illustrates exactly what takes place when one’s tattooist’s computer is not configured to read Greek Unicode fonts. But then again, maybe the intention here is to declare, as one walks in the shadow of the valley of the cacophony of 4,000 years of diverse Greek tradition, that it is all Greek, if not to us, then at least to the tattooist.

The tattooed Epimenides, who even my grandmother respected because his work was quoted in the New Testament, enjoyed the privilege of having his skin preserved at the courts of the ephors in Sparta, conceivably as a good-luck charm. Considering that future archaeological exhibits and testaments to our Hellenicity walk amongst us, it is high time that the Greek community take immediate steps to educate its own tattoo artists so that pseudo-Hellenic slogans are eradicated from our discourse and the pure and unadulterated Hellenic sentiments of our tattooed people are preserved free from corruption. Failing that, it must establish a strict monopoly over the licensing of Hellenic language tattoos whereby it can oversee and enforce proper grammatical standards that shall prevail among our tribe for all time. Let «Ορθογραφία ή Θάνατος!» be our watchword, as we ponder whether we should just stick to patriotic images instead. The Byzantine historian Zonaras relates that Emperor Theophilus used tattoos to punish two monks who publicly disparaged him, by having eleven verses of vulgar iambic pentameter inked across their foreheads and faces. Give me a FAG transfer of a butterfly any day.

First published in NKEE on 22 June 2019

Saturday, June 15, 2019


“Ali deemed anchorite, or saint a pawn –
The crater of his blunderbuss did yawn,
Sword, dagger hung at ease….
… for Janina makes
A grave for thee where every turret quakes…” Victor Hugo.

To the Albanians, Ali Pasha Tepelenjoti is a hero, a symbol of Albanian nationalism and of the struggle for emancipation from the Ottoman yoke. For the Greeks, he is an ambiguous figure, whose shadow still looms large over Epirus, the seat of his power. On the one hand, he is renown as a bloodthirsty tyrant, the drowner of the hapless Kyra Phrosyne in Lake Pamvotis, slayer of the Gardikiotes and annihilator of the Souliotes, yet on the other hand, he used Greek as the language of his court, honoured Saint Kosmas the Aetolian, secretly funded the Philike Etaireia and employed Greek warriors who would come to play pivotal roles in the Greek Revolution. We do not know what to make of him. Though through him, the word Τεπελενλής has come to be synonymous with malevolent guile, he is also known as the “Lion of Ioannina,” and his grave, in Ioannina fortress, on the highest point of the city, is still approached today, if not with reverence, then certainly with undiminished awe.

When he was not plotting, scheming or killing, Ali Pasha concerned himself with the acquisition of beautiful objects. The famed Spoonmaker’s diamond, the fourth largest of its type in the world, was acquired by Ali as a gift for his mistress, Kyra Vasiliki. He also owned the largest Gobelin carpet ever made. As author and future Prime Minister of England  Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his father in 1830 upon visiting the ruins of his serai: “The Hall was vast, built by Ali Pacha purposely to receive the largest Gobelins carpet that was ever made, which belonged to the chief chamber in Versailles, and was sold to him in the Revolution. It is entirely covered with gilding and arabesques.” When Lord Byron visited Ali in 1809, the wily potentate showed him his prized possession: the sword of Orhan, founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

Viewed in this light, as connoisseur and collector, it is easy to fall under the spell of the infernally charismatic Ali, centuries after his death. One can easily imagine him reclining languidly in his longboat, being rowed across the now drained Lake Lapsista by burly foustanella-clad Souliotes, as he fingers his favourite objects.

What is relatively not known about the multi-faceted Ali Pasha is that he , along with his son Veli, was one of the first Greek archaeologists. This side to him is revealed by Danish archaeologist Peter Oluf Brøndsted, in his manuscript Interviews with Ali Pacha. Brøndsted relates that he met Ali in 1812, having travelled to Greece with architect Carl Haller von Hallerstein, landscape painter Jacob Linckh, and Baron Otto Magnus von Stackelberg of Estonia. Arriving in Athens, the party befriended the ubiquitous Lord Byrob, as well as meeting Charles Robert Cockerell and John Foster, who would become the most famous archaeologists of their time.

Prior to arriving in Epirus, Brøndsted excavated on Kea, Aegina, and Salamis and subsequently, the party travelled to the Peloponnese, where they received permission from Ali’s son, Veli, who was the Pasha of Morea, to excavate the fifth century BC Temple of Apollo Epicurus at Bassae. Described by antiquarian William Gell as: “the most amiable of tyrants, not thirsting as he said himself for blood, but only for money,” Veli had come to realise that archaeology could prove a lucrative stream of income. To this effect, he had conducted excavations of his own at Argos and Mycenae, which explains how three of the green marble pillars flanking the entrance to the treasury of Atreus, found themselves in the Marquis of Sligo’s house in Ireland. In order to be able to better pinpoint sites of archaeological interest, Veli even had the ancient travel writings of Pausanias translated into Modern Greek. One of the products of the collaboration between Brøndsted and Veli was the discovery of the temple frieze at Bassae by Parthenon architect, Iktinos. Like  its later Attic counterpart, it ended up in the British Museum.

Taking his leave of Veli, Brøndsted first encountered his father Ali Pasha, in Preveza in November 1812. Brøndsted  records that the ruler of Epirus received him with great cordiality, conversing with him in Greek and creating a lasting impression upon him as to Ali’s perspicacity, intuitiveness and imposing appearance. During  their lengthy discourse, over a wide range of topics, Brøndsted claims that Ali“eagerly demanded if I had been one of those...who had lately given a large sum of money to his son Vely Pacha...for permission to excavate somewhere?" When Brøndsted replied in the affirmative, (an affirmation that later caused the pernicious Pasha to demand a large sum of money from his son), Ali was enraptured, confiding in him that his land too was possessed of “old stones” which could lend themselves to excavation, in the furtherance of which, Ali could provide as many workers as may be required, ostensibly without charge, but on the proviso that: “that I will have my share of the marbles, and precious things that we find.” Brøndsted attempted to decline the despot’s invitation, expressing the desire to return home, but it is a perilous thing to peeve a pasha and upon realising that he had annoyed Ali with his disinclination, he agreed to accompany him to the ruins of the city of Nicopolis, built by the Romans overlooking the bay where Octavian finally defeated Mark Antony and wrested complete rule over the Roman Empire.  
Arm in arm, (for even Lord Byron records that Ali was a touchy-feely, tactile tyrant), Ali and his pet archaeologist strode among the extant walls of the ruined city, Ali eager to discuss the functions of the two ancient theatres on the site, musing as to whether the ruined stadium could be restored for the purpose of conducting running races. Having exhausted all small talk, Ali then turned to Brøndsted and demanded that he identify locations where they could “dig for ancient marbles and other curiosities.” Although Brøndsted demurred, believing that Nicopolis had been thoroughly plundered of decent sculpture since times ancient, under the influence of Ali’s ever tightening grip upon his forearm, he finally last pointed out some ruins inside the city walls which he speculated could an ancient temple. Instantaneously, Ali barked out an order and “about twenty peasants hastened from one of the huts, furnished with mattocks, shovels, axes…” After some desultory digging, the peasants uncovered “three fine square marble slabs,” probably floor paving, according to Brøndsted  and two coins minted in Nicopolis, one in the reign of Commodus and the other in that of Caracalla. Fittingly, Ali pocketed the Commodus coin and granted Brøndsted the other, chuckling“at this augmentation of his treasury.” They then departed for Preveza, the marble slabs being carried in a sedan chair.
Yet this was not the only instance of Ali cajoling foreign travellers to assist him in his archaeological pursuits. In his Travels in Greece, Sicily and Albania, Thomas Smart Hughes records that Ali Pasha accompanied famed architect Henry Holland to Nicopolis, there to supervise excavations, that reflected the potentate’s paranoia at a time when he was falling increasingly into disfavour with the Sultan and thus had urgent need of fortification material:
“There is one spot, where the agents of the pasha had been making excavation, upon which some superb temple must once have stood: the numerous marble shafts and pieces of entablature that are discovered, are all carried off to be worked up in his forts and serai at Prevesa – thus perish even the ruins of Nicopolis; and the monuments of Augustus’s glory serve to decorate the dwelling of an Albanian robber…I understand his excavators have discovered a very fine bust of Trajan which now decorates  one the principal rooms in the Prevesan seraglio..”

Pilferer or not, the Pasha displayed uncommon interest in an ancient heritage he identified with and became obsessed with finding the site of the ancient oracle of Dodoni, at that time, associated with the most ancient religious site of the Greeks of old and not the cheese that came to share its name as Edward Everett, the first American to visit Ioannina recorded in 1820, in The North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal. Ali never found Dodona,  nor did he achieve his dream of ruling Greece and Albania as one autonomous kingdom. Nonetheless, his archaeological pretensions offer a fresh and intriguing insight into one of the most notorious and eminently fascinating figures of modern Greek history.


First published in NKEE on 15 June 2019

Saturday, June 08, 2019


“You see this pile of bricks?”  The old lady gestures around the room. Her living room is decorated in a mish mash of styles, reflecting trends from the fifties to the eighties. But not beyond. In that space, time has stopped.  The smell of mould is all pervasive. “It’s falling down around me. I’m on a pension and my husband is dead. I can’t do the necessary repairs by myself and I can’t afford to pay someone to do them for me.” She sighs. “There is no other income. We had an investment property and we gifted it to my son when he got married. Now he is going through a divorce and he is going to lose that property. I want to help him financially, but I can barely help myself. The only solution is to sell this house – property prices in this area are quite high - but where can I go? I’ve lived here ever since I came to Australia. Neighbours come and visit me. Someone will always knock on my door to check whether I’m alright. I don’t want to move.”
Mr Yiannis is an elderly gentleman on a pension, who is caring for his wife who had dementia. “We have been married for fifty years,” he exclaims with tears in his eyes. He strokes his wife’s hair lovingly as she stares into space blankly. “She is as beautiful now as she was the day I married her. I haven’t got the heart to put her in a home. As long as I can stand on my own two feet, I will look after her.  Even with the limited amount of money I have, I make do. The problem I have is with my daughter’s children. My daughter has not been able to provide for them the way we provided for her. Our grandkids are leading an aimless existence, and I want to be able to at least set them on the right path by providing them with a deposit for a house. Otherwise, in today’s market, without outside assistance, there is no way that they can buy their own place. I want to borrow some money using my home as security to help them but the brokers I have spoken to have told me there is no way that any lender would consider lending me any money at my age.”
Mrs Soula, whose husband died two years ago of a sudden heart-attack, confides: “I was involved in businesses ever since I arrived in Australia. Working from morning to night. I never had to worry about money. My husband maintained the finances and we had several investment properties. We were doing fine and were not entitled to the pension. Never did it occur to me to plan for the future. He had it all in hand. It was only after he died that I realised how much money he owed left right and centre. After creditors took the business and the properties, I am left only with the family home and a fifty year old autistic son. There is barely enough money to maintain the family home and provide for both of us. But what I really want to do, is be able to finally go on a holiday to Greece. I want to spend some time with my elderly sister who I haven’t seen for thirty years and to look after her in her final days. But I don’t have the money and there is no way I can find a way to raise this amount.”
Mrs Katerina is curt and to the point. “I don’t want to move into an elderly people’s home and be away from my garden or my daughter who lives next door. My daughter works and is raising her family. She can’t look after me full time and I need some home care assistance during the day. I had savings which I gave to my daughter over a period of time to help her with her mortgage and I don’t want to burden her with the financial responsibility of looking after me. After trying to secure finance from various quarters, my daughter finally put me on to a reverse mortgage. I now feel secure in my own home, can afford the care I need, without being a burden on anyone.”

As the first generation of the Greek community ages, many of its members are finding retirement a challenge. Conditioned to expect a comfortable pension-funded retirement, a sizeable number are realising that they cannot, on the income they are receiving, fund basic life choices or meet immediate needs. Coupled with a tight lending market, many retirees are enduring a life of privation and anxiety, when they should be enjoying what are considered to be their ‘golden years’.
Chris Moutzikis of Household Capital, a specialist retirement funding provider, has been closely following this emerging phenomenon. “The first generation conundrum is impacted by the fact that there is a cultural shift in traditional expectations with regard to family property,” he observes. “Traditionally, property was considered something that didn’t belong to a person, but rather, to the whole family, an asset to be preserved and passed on down the generations. This is why we witness the phenomenon of older Greeks living in poverty, because they do not wish to use their assets in order to fund their living. Instead, there is the expectation that they will pass these properties on to their kids. Of course, traditionally, the corollary of that is that the children were supposed to reciprocate by looking after their parents – but in today’s complex society and with work conditions being what they are, that is not always possible. Often I witness cases of parents feeling the need or being pressured to support their children financially, well into their children’s middle age.”
As the above-mentioned examples suggest, the complex emerging and unforeseen needs of Greek-Australian retirees are posing a challenge to inherited concepts of property ownership, causing them to seek novel approaches to funding their retirement. According to Chris Moutzikis, home equity lending, through a reverse mortgage, is increasingly being recognised as a solution to pressing financial and lifestyle problems.
As he explains: “An increasing number of older Greek Australians are taking advantage of the type of loan that allows them to borrow money using the equity in their home as security. That loan can be taken as a lump sum, a regular income stream, a line of credit or a combination of these options. Interest is charged like any other loan, except they don't have to make repayments while they live in their home. The interest compounds over time and is added to their loan balance. At all times, they remain the owner of their home and can stay in it for as long as they want. Most importantly, the loan, interest and fees are paid only upon their death, sale of the property or where they seek aged care accommodation. In many cases, the flexibility exists for the loan to be repaid prior to any of these events taking place so that children who wish to retain their parents’ property have the opportunity to do so.”
The erosion of social certainties and the cultural diversity of our community means we often overlook the extent to which access to capital impacts upon the way our understanding of family is constructed and how such constructs are challenged, altered or evolve in the face of challenges to one’s standard of living.
According to Chris Moutzikis, embracing new (with regards to the first generation of Greek-Australians) ways of accessing capital, rather than threatening traditional perspectives of family, can actually enhance them: “Home equity lending can improve retirement lifestyles by topping up superannuation, enhancing retirement income, and improving retirement housing. Home equity can also be used to fund in-home care and support the transition to aged care – a large challenge currently faced by our community. The flexibility of enabling the transfer of home equity between generations to fund first home buyers’ deposits and school fees is in keeping with the grandparents’ generation continuing to take an important and respected role in the upbringing and care and welfare of their descendants. How more Greek can you get?”
As more and more Greek-Australians seek financial advice to take advantage of such flexible products, it is worthwhile to appreciate just how central the concept of property ownership is to the traditional Greek identity. Could such products conceivably be offered to asset rich and cash poor Greek-Australian community organisations in the future? “It is certainly worth considering,” Chris Moutzikis smiles. “At the end of the day, in the traditional Greek view, you are nothing without property. Developing a way in which you can preserve your property, and be able to fund your aspirations, is key to the Greek conception of self-identity and familial obligation.”
First published in NKEE on 8 June 2019

Saturday, June 01, 2019


For a people that have been around for a considerable length of time, it is astounding that we still struggle to define ourselves. When coupled with an antipodean hypostasis that causes us to grapple with the implications of that identity, far removed from the geography that engendered it, the ensuing ontopathology is as complex as it is unique.
Although the annual Antipodean Palette Exhibition, organised by the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne is just as its title describes: a range of colours, tones, themes, moods and explorations, this year’s artists seem to have, all of their own, and from different angles, coalesced around the central theme of the Greek identity. Can one define such an identity through art? Does there exist within the Greek-Australian artistic milieu a common vocabulary of symbols or images that convey a sense of that identity, interpret it, defy it and deconstruct it?
In Sky-scape, by the arts collective ‘Masonik,’ the originating topography of such an identity is inverted and subverted. A grouping of suburban Athens apartments, topped by antennas is juxtaposed against an azure sky. Yet that does not describe the heavens. Instead, occupying their place is a long grey panorama of Athens, as cement-polis. These are clouds that produce no rain. It is almost as if the people below, ensconced in their micro-communities are completely unaware of their collective identity as part of an urban whole. It is so remote as to be completely irrelevant.
In Night-scape, the viewer’s eye is directed past a narrow alley way, into the illumined night sky. A dim moon is visible overhead, yet this does not appear to be the source of the illumination. Instead, we are attracted to a street lamp, whose brightness effaces the night-sky. It is as if the natural order of things has become completely overturned.

Elements that comprise a hybrid identity in an Antipodean world are ever present in the photographic work of Helen Sartinas. It is telling that her inspiration is the Mexican ritual of setting up altars to welcome the souls of the Dead, and not the Greek Orthodox ritual of the Ψυχοσάββατο. There is a spiritual and ancestral disconnect in her picture. A votive lamp burns before a tacky Monastiraki souvenir of a scantily clothed ancient woman and a black and white photograph of ancestors who gaze back, impassively.  Faded, antiquated photographs of children mounted in badges, arrest the development of youth in time, while Chinese demons and Mexican skulls look on, almost mockingly. Significantly, in the still life of the fruit bowl, pomegranates, the food of Persephone in the Underworld, which ultimately condemned her to return there, feature prominently. Is it our conception of a standardised traditional identity that we  preparing to receive? What is suggested by the fact that our lamp burns before our forebears rather than a religious icon? Does this convey a coded message about the arid worship of cultural stereotypes? Do we, in the automatic replication of ritual, exclude from our consciousness, the hybridity of our daily existence?

Chilean Greek Australian Rolando Garay-Matziaris explores the constituents of such a multicultural identity by deconstructing its founding myths. In  homage to Russian Constructivist photomontage, and the work of Greek photographer Nelly’s his remarkable digital collages, football is coupled with theatre and mythology to compare and contrast the parallel narratives of the Greek and Greek-Australian identities. The antiquated in style, action shots of the footballers of old, have a remarkable statuesque quality, evoking ancient athletes of the Olympic Games. All of these however, surround a theatre mask, suggesting that it is the common experience of pomp, pageantry, bread and circuses that are the constituent elements of an identity, one that, in the case of the Greek Australians, is already being eroded, reforged and grafted onto other cultures, through shared ritual.

Luke Spiliopoulos’ “Still Life with Tools” is perhaps the most unassumingly profound piece of the exhibition. In his portrayal of a suitcase, topped with some boots, blue worry beads and what appears to be folded paper or a sheet, he, provides us with a complete tool chest of items that could comprise the conventional Antipodean identity. The suitcase, symbolic of the migrant, is shut, suggesting either more secrets hidden inside or a redundancy of the peripatetic condition. For how long does one keep their suitcase shut, before they cease to be called that by which the ruling class defines them: an immigrant? The boots worn out and tired looking, appear no longer are in use. Whatever journeys they undertook in the past no longer belong in the present. They have been superseded. Yet they evoke the well-knownGreek phrase: “Παπούτσι από τον τόπο σου κι ας είναι μπαλωμένο.»  There is thus a crisis of stasis in this painting, one that the worry-beads intensify. The pastime of the thoughtful and the indolent, they confer both introspection and inertia, for nothing is to be gained by the hypnotic click-clacking of the beads except for ennui. Indeed, the worry beads exemplify a tradition that has exhausted itself, and is uncertain of its direction. As the old song “Φτωχό Κομπολογάκι μου” goes“ Συ μου πέρναγες την ώρα ,Πες μου τι θα γίνω τώρα;” This strange tool chest is thus an ark of identity, one at a disconcerting impasse.

A similar attempt at inversion and interpretation of the Greek identity, through an interpretation of its constituent parts, especially its hallowed iconographic heritage is effected by artist Efrossini Chaniotis. Paintings inspired by icons of Saint Nicholas, (as a Brunswick Barber) the Annunciation (I See Flowers Icon) and the Panagia and Child (I See Love icon) are imbued with the same optical effect as the icon prototype. They stare serenely at the viewer, almost accusingly. Is the highly emotive Earth icon, a chthonic Panagia, in an inversion of the Annunciation story, appears to be smelling, or adoring a prism instead of a lily, although she holds a bunch of white flowers in her other hand. What does this foretell? Is it a defragmented crystal ball of infinite possibilities ? The disembodied ochre womb behind her, which appears to be impregnated by a colourful butterfly, shines also as the sun. What creative majesty is to be unleashed upon the world through her intercession? The scene is imbued both with intense anticipation and, strangely, for Greek-Australian art, optimism. The novel manner in which Efrossini Chaniotis interprets the symbolic palette of Orthodox iconographic tradition, without falling into the trap of rendering clichés, makes this piece particularly noteworthy.
Any Labiris’ still life with apples, citrus and figs that look like female genitalia also partakes of the creative symbolism of Chaniotis. Yet these figs/genitalia, look suspended in time, arid and unproductive. They will remain on the plate, unfertilised, while the sad fruit in the bowl at some distance before them, already look as if they are in a state of decomposition. Is the artist here making a point of the lack of creativity in our community, suggesting that in our endeavour to retain and parrot tropes and perform rituals from the past, we are actually condemning such culture as we are recycling, to infertility and decay?
The high level of insight the artists display into the diasporic condition, coupled with their high level of technique render this exhibition, one of the flagship events organised throughout the year by the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne, an event not to be missed, for all those who wish to engage in debate about the nature of our hypostasis, how we understand it, but most importantly, celebrate the manifold media in which we manifest it.

First published in NKEE on 1 June 2019