Saturday, May 01, 2021


Very little survives by way of ancient Greek murals. While many are described by the ancient traveller Pausanias, and while the art of the mural as pertains to Greece is most ancient, stemming back to Minoan times, due to the perishable nature of the materials used and the major upheavals at the end of antiquity, they did not endure to the present in significant numbers. 

Accordingly, it is romantically fitting, or ironic that in twenty first century Australia, Greek-Australians would consciously choose to employ this most perishable of historical Greek art forms, to record or rather capture their presence within the urban landscape of Melbourne, even as they increasingly sensitive to the fleeting nature of their sojourn therein, as an ethnic entity with its own distinct hypostasis. 

Dean Kotsianis, student and chief driver of the interestingly named Greek Youth Generator, (a name that could equally and aptly be applied to a Greek-Australian fertility clinic) is one such proponent of murals and the way they can be used as a form of expression not only of ethnic identity but also of its place within the broader social narrative of Melbourne. With roots in Yarraville, a suburb with a historically dense population of Greek migrants, he laments the passing of the traditional migrant streetscapes of his locale, the social and cultural mores that were encoded within them and even more so, the lack of recognition by the mainstream of the contribution of Greek migrants to the municipality. For him, the painting of a mural, which currently graces the side of Yarraville identity and chemist Maria Stogiannis’ pharmacy on Wembley Avenue, constitutes an ideal way to publicly assert the Greek element of Yarraville. 

Uncharacteristically, with regards to the manner in which our community manifests its activity, Dean Kotsianis did not wait around for any organisation to adopt his idea and run with it. Having canvassed widely among the grass roots, he enlisted the support of his local council and those Greek-Australians willing to fund his project, worked out the symbolism and message he wished to propagate with his mural after careful consideration, seeing it to completion. 

When Dean met with me, he explained the symbolism of his mission in these terms: “to organise cultural and community experiments to strengthen, reinterpret and preserve Melbourne’s Greekness.” He went on to justify the appearance of Dionysus as encapsulating the Greek love of revelry, celebrating the taverns and cafes that both capture our essence and serve to stereotype us, and of Hermes as commemorating the post office and pharmacy space upon which the mural is painted. Significantly, the muse Thaleia celebrates the Greek chapter of the history of the iconic Sun Theatre under the ownership of film pioneer and Cypriot community stalwart Panayiotis Yiannoudes. 

“What do you think?” Dean asked, as I absorbed his enthusiastic explanation in silence. “It’s not for me to tell you what I think,” I responded after a moment’s thought. “You have explained your motivation and ably justified your choices. My job, is to support you, open whatever doors I can for you and help you in achieving your goal. That is what our community is about.” I resolved to assist in funding the project, heart-warmed by Dean’s positivity, the fervour of his deep thought process, the integrity of his immense affection for his community and his urgent sense of mission. In the pause between his exposition and my response however, I considered with sadness, the fact that the mural, which is currently a Yarraville landmark, is neither triumphant or indicative of a community at its apex. Instead, it is a memorial, a tombstone, inscribed with the memory of something that is gone, or which lingers, in terminal decline. And unlike a tombstone, it is perishable and is destined to fade away, or be defaced, as memories and memorials do, if left untended. Sometimes, however, tombstones and memorials endure, which is why we know so much about our ancient ancestors, and Dean and I can thus be forgiven for seeking to enshrine as sacred, evocations of our beloved forebears, and wishing that their achievements are respected and not forgotten, even if, bit for a little while.  

Across town in Mentone, talented artist Effie Chaniotis has just completed covering the Imvrian Society’s building with a striking turquoise mural. Here, the irony is even more bittersweet. There is no place called Imbros anymore. Since 1970 the Imbrian’s beloved island is known as Gökçeada and the majority native Greek population has dwindled to a few hundreds, as a result of planned resettlement from the Anatolian mainland in order to alter the island’s demography.  

Memories of Greek Imbros persist in Mentone however, with the Imbrians entrusting to Effie Chaniotis the task of enshrining those memories upon their urban landscape, in her distinctive style, an Aegean transcendence of Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Franz Marc and El Greco at his most mannerist. Upon the unmistakably vibrant edifice, the artist has, as she describes, depicted: “nine key subjects that represent personal relevance to the community and what they wish to express to the wider public.” According to her, the ancillary creative process is “extremely rewarding,” as is the opportunity to decode the artfully crafted, jewel-like symbols which adorn the building.  

A portrayal of “Life” Magazine with Martin Luther King on the cover may seem mystifying at first until it is considered that one of the most famous modern Imbrians is Archbishop Iakovos of America, the only hierarch to defied the social pressure and bigotry of his day, taking his place next to King at Selma. When asked to justify his choice, the Archbishop spoke of his own experience at being treated as a second-class citizen as a native Greek of Imbros. Memories of this nature and the wounds that they evoke are defining elements of the Imbrian identity and they have much to inform a multicultural narrative that is constantly in flux. 

A coin depicting Athena and Glaux, her owl, is equally as emotive. Imbros was a colony of Athens, one that is now at the end of its trajectory, while Melbourne is a colony of the Imbrians and all the other Greeks who settled here. The Athenian tetradrachm thus is a potent symbol of our lineage, but also, of our inevitable mortality.  

The majestic depiction of Poseidon next to one of his mythical winged horses is also imbued with ambiguity. The great god of the sea was said by Homer to maintain his stables in an indeterminate region “In the depths of the sea on the cliff/ Between Tenedos and craggy Imbros,” just as we, in the diaspora occupy, at least mentally, an indeterminate region between our place of origin and our place of abode. 

Imbros was in antiquity sacred to Hephaestus and the artist’s depiction of the revelry characteristic of the tribe is fundamentally volcanic in essence. Though the artist’s colour vocabulary is comprised of the cooling blue of the sea defining the island, the vivacity of the Imbrians portrayed is red hot. Indeed, the poignant depiction of the Australian Anzac soldier playing the Last Post for his fallen comrades as the same red-hot sun sets upon their resting place, masterfully facilitates the mural coming full circle, reminding us of Imbros’ important role as a staging post for the allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, prior to and during the invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula, establishing an Australian connection even before the migration of the Imbrians in Melbourne. Herein, in this complex tapestry of images then, lies the Dreamtime and the Revelation, entwined. 

Imbrians are relatively few in Melbourne and they too share in the fate of an aging first generation of Greek migrants whose institutions and brotherhoods are rapidly becoming depleted of active members. While it is not known for how much longer the Imvrian Society will be in a position to maintain itself and its holdings, one thing is certain: Effie Chaniotis’ exuberant and sensitive adornment of its clubhouse serves as a fitting swansong for a brave and resilient micro-community that deserved so much more. Quite possibly, the mural, in which the entire history and significance of the island is enshrined may move its epigonoi to think about its preservation, rather than its sale, in the years to come, which is, I suspect, the wily Imbrians’ plan all along. 

It would be interesting to see just how many more murals will adorn the streetscapes of Melbourne as we enter into our community’s autumnal season. Dean Kotsianis has already indicated interest in immuring memories of the unique nature of suburban Greek communities throughout the municipalities of Melbourne, an elegy and a eulogy to those that have gone before and all those that lament their own inevitable and imminent journey along the same path. As I gaze upon his mural and that of Effie Chaniotis, I am reminded, in a Proustian madeleine moment, of the favourite billboard of my childhood: A Bushell’s Turkish coffee advertisement depicting a Greek grandfather enjoying a cup of coffee with a Greek inscription stating: Ελληνικός καφές, behind the Essendon train station. It is upon half-forgotten recollections such as these that our own identity as Greek-Australians is founded. And it is the very symbols and artworks we erect in celebration and memory of ourselves and our forebears that found the ethnic consciousness of the next generation and ground it, in the places in which they live. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday  1 May 2021