Saturday, February 05, 2022



The other day a friend was relating an experience he had in the eighties. A university student, on his days off, he would assist his mother who was a cleaner, to clean corporate offices in Melbourne’s CBD. One day, while cleaning the office of a prominent banker, said banker broke off a conversation with two executives to ask the mother: 

“Who’s that Mary?” 

“This my son,’ she replied in broken English. 

“Helping ya mum, are ya?” the banker commented indifferently and began to turn away. 

"Maybi you give him tzobi?” the mother asked, after an awkward pause. 

“Well if he cleans half as well as you, he can replace you,” the banker guffawed derisorily, causing the executives to explode with laughter. 

My friend, who paradoxically enough, is now well established professionally in the banking sphere, has never been able to forget this incident. According to him, what hurts most is the knowledge that although his mother was intimidated by the banker and knew full well that to him she rated as a human being not at all, she still summoned the courage to make the request on the off chance that she could ease her son’s professional path. The banker’s reaction at her presumption hurt, not because of his contempt but rather because of his inability to imagine that a child of migrants could have no other future than in menial servitude and his complete indifference to his and his mother’s feelings. 

A day later, I spent a wonderful day at Melbourne Museum with my children, especially enjoying the extensive Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, when my eldest daughter turned to me and enquired: “Where is the section about the Greeks and the other ethnicities that live in Melbourne?” 

It was my friend’s story and my daughter’s question that came to my mind when I learned of Museum Victoria’s proposed new international exhibition, which seeks the support and participation by the Greek community. Their announcement is as follows: 


We are hosting an exciting new international exhibition in early 2022 and we’d like you to be part of it. The exhibition explores Ancient Greek journeys and cultural connections. As an introduction to the exhibition, we are seeking treasured photographs of Victoria’s diverse Greek community. We’re looking for images that record modern journeys and celebrate Greek Australian families and communities in Melbourne and Victoria, from the early years right through to today. It might be a snapshot of a family business or BBQ, a wedding or graduation ceremony, a sporting or community event… [or] photos of arrivals in Australia….” 

Setting aside the cringeworthy and misspelt greeting for the moment as well intentioned, one struggles to see what the combined Greek Australian community of Melbourne’s photographic archive, such that it is, has to do with “Ancient Greek journey and cultural connections.” Is it the Museum’s intention to parallel Modern Greek migration with the Ancient Greek past? If so, we are entitled to know how this will be done. Will there be recourse to the threadbare cliché of the Odyssey, or instead will Greek migration to Australia be discussed in the context of a diachronic diasporic tendency?  

The question is a pertinent one, because the Museum is prescriptive in the types of photographs it desires to be included in its exhibition, suggesting it is following a predetermined narrative. In treating our journey and “cultural connections” it requires photographs that “celebrate Greek Australian families,” through community or other events.   

Photographs of this nature abound in all Greek Australian families: the ubiquitous photographs of the second generation in their graduation robes clutching their degrees that hang in living rooms all around Melbourne as an advertisement of success. Fading 1970’s photos of mass picnics at Sorrento and Portarlington. Members of the older generation posing self-consciously in photographic studios in their wedding clothes. Old uncles with wide ties and mutton chop sideburns dancing the zeimbekiko at brotherhood dances. As participants of an internal Greek-Australian discourse, such snapshots in time are polyvalent and increasingly assume great meaning, attesting as they do, to customs, pastimes and mores that are fast vanishing. What is not certain is how these are relevant to the mainstream and Museum Victoria’s purposes. 

This is because the very nature of the photograph is problematic. In the days before camera phones, few photographs were spontaneous. One posed for a photograph, an act which invariably entailed making decisions about facial expression, attire, background and which items or people would be featured. In an aspirational community such as ours, much can be gleaned from an analysis of the values that inform the composition of what in the most cases is a contrived portrait intended to convey a specific message. On the surface, when viewing collections of such photographs, one is presented with a picture of young, happy, smiling optimistic faces, acclimatising to their new country, gradually acquiring wealth and becoming good Australians. 

It is this prevailing migration discourse of the dominant class in Australia that appears to be propagated by Museum Victoria, in purporting to “celebrate” migrant communities such as ours, for a celebration is invariably a positive phenomenon. In celebrating our journey, it implies that migration, as determined and presided over by the dominant culture can be viewed as a “success,” and thus the organisers of the exhibition detail the type of photographic evidence that will fit into their predetermined suppositions about the migration experience. The fact that the call for photographs has been enthusiastically received by sections of the Greek community that are flattered by the attention afforded to them by the Museum and who feel nostalgic about a lost, imagined past, will no doubt result in a large number of photographs fitting the Museum’s criteria being provided. 

What of the other migration narratives however? Various New York Greek American lobby groups have over the years campaigned to have the here pictured 1918 photograph of gun and whiskey toting Cretan miners from Utah removed from display from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and replaced with a more conventional scene as a wedding because they worry that this picture sends the wrong message about Greek Americans. Will we also self-censor in order to “fit in” to the prescribed exhibition’s narrative? How many of our photos actually capture who we really were or are? 

There is no photograph of my friend’s face when his mother was mocked by the banking executive. There is no photograph of Victorian Court of Appeals Justice Emilios Kyrou being subjected to physical violence as a boy for being Greek. There is no photograph of pioneering businessman and author Sotirios Manolopoulos’ utter despondency at being stuck in the Northern Territory without a job and not having enough money to buy his children milk. There is no photograph of the single ladies who arrived here on the promise of marriage, were taken advantage of and then expelled from the tight, judgmental and claustrophobic support network of their village peers. There is no photograph of the aspiring student, now a retired educationalist who was told by her teacher: “I do not know why you are studying. You will never get into uni. You wogs only need to know enough to work in the factory.” There is no photograph of a three shift working late Christos Mouratidis and so many like him, permanently injuring his back due to the unduly arduous tasks assigned to him and the unsafe work practices of his employer. There is no photograph of George Zangalis’ face being denied Australian citizenship as a result of his social activism. There is no photograph of Ioanna Liakakou working twelve hour days seven days a week in a Milk Bar and furtively scribbling down her memoirs, on the brink of nervous collapse. There is no photograph of Papa Lefteris of Red Hill being harassed by his neighbours who objected to a church being constructed in the vicinity of their properties. 

If there is anything to “celebrate” about migration, it is that our community managed to settle here and thrive, despite enormous difficulties and the accumulation of much trauma, for the migrant experience pre and post migration was inordinately traumatic and its psychological effects both upon the functioning of our communal institutions and the individuals of our community have, criminally, not been studied. An exhibition that purports to “celebrate” migration without mentioning the difficulties inherent within the Australian migration experience, however will meaning, denies our community a voice, by assuming control of its narrative. Any such exhibition that does not mention the implication of migrants in legitimising the dominant culture’s abrogation of the sovereignty of our First Peoples over this land is also misrepresenting the migrant experience. 

Considering just how important mainstream approval is to the psychology of Greek-Australians, and just how internalised the stereotypes of that mainstream have become, it is to be expected that Museum Victoria will be provided by our community with the happy snaps and nostalgic portrayals that it has requested. Yet it is of vital importance, that those progressive organisations that have archives pertaining to activism for social change, industrial reform and migrant equality freely offer up their resources so that a proper picture of migration can be propagated. 

Museum Victoria is to be commended for reaching out to the Greek community. Ultimately, however, the Greek migrant experience is a discourse that belongs to us and we must be in control of  determining its narratives. These are our stories to tell the mainstream, and so far, none of our communal institutions are invested in telling them, in a sophisticated, multi-faceted manner. Yet it is these experiences that form the cornerstone of our identity, ones that if properly told will determine the way we are seen, in turn see ourselves an result in a lasting relevant Greek-Australian cultural identity that will transcend the generations. We refrain from their narration and allow others to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of our Odyssey, at our peril. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 February 2022