Blog 57 06/10/2017 “From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural foundation through artefacts.”
“From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural foundation through artefacts.”
It is not often I find someone who shares the same level of enthusiasm for Greek/Ottoman textiles, history and art as my guest today. Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne -based solicitor, author and freelance journalist who writes a weekly column called Diatribe for the Greek newspaper, Neos Kosmos. When I launched my historical novel, The Embroiderer in Melbourne, it was Dean who helped to promote my book by writing a shining review and who introduced my presentation at the Greek Centre in Lonsdale St, Melbourne. Dean has long been a highly regarded member of the Melbourne Greek community and I am honoured that he has agreed to join me on my blog today to talk about his latest exhibition, “From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural foundation through artefacts.” A collection of Epirotic costumes, jewellery and artefacts of folklore which will be on display in Queen’s Hall, Parliament of Victoria from 31 October to 2 November 2017.
The region of Epirus in north-west Greece is a fairy-tale land of soaring, rugged mountains, steep gorges and fast-flowing rivers, and slate and stone villages. Because of the dramatic landscape, parts of the region have remained relatively isolated until recently. It is a land steeped in ancient and Roman history, Byzantine churches and has some of the most beautiful Ottoman bridges in the Balkans. With such a rich history it is little wonder that we also find a long tradition in the decorative arts of textiles, jewellery and other artefacts, many of which display extraordinary creativity and a high degree of skilled craftsmanship. So without more ado, I’d like to give a warm welcome to Dean and ask him to tell us about the beautiful artefacts that will be on display in the exhibition.
1. The exhibition is entitled “From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural foundations in Artefacts”. What is the multicultural experience that you are hoping to bring with the exhibition and what was it that inspired you to collect textiles and artefacts from this region?
In answer to this question I’d poke you lightly in the direction of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who, while her husband was out gallivanting with one eyed monsters and particularly nubile demi-Gods, sat at her loom, weaving into it, imagines scenes of her husband’s adventures.
Three thousand years later, and in roughly the same geographical position, women sat at their looms, waiting for their husbands, migrants to various parts of the world, to come home. Loss and longing formed the warp and the weft of their experience and they wove upon it, motifs that had barely changed over millennia. You will see some of those motifs woven or embroidered upon some of the fabrics displayed in the exhibition.
The loom was then one of the most central implements to the Greek woman’s identity, which is why, not a few Greek migrants to Melbourne, my own great-grandmother included, pack her loom, a most bulky thing to pack and brought it over here with her, on the great Odysseus like sea voyage.
We no longer have the loom with us. It appears that the loom was only relevant if it was used in a Penelope like fashion, the man being abroad, and the woman waiting for his return. Now, the whole paradigm was inverted, or if you’ll pardon the cliché, turned down under. It was the woman who had embarked upon the Odyssean voyage, the woman who was to tackle the monsters and the pleasures of that voyage and considering that there was no gender stereotype waiting for a return, or at least able to imagine the adventures of those migrant women, nothing could be, or was woven. The loom, in the new country, became useless. Ours was secreted in a basement, where, unused, it proceeded to rot away.
The fruit of the loom, which is what we are concerning ourselves with today, is thus a powerful symbol of the backstory of multiculturalism. The patterns, the motifs, the very fabric, transplanted here, to these Antipodean climes, forms the framework through which a significant number of Melburnians have and still do, view the world around them. The application of age old tropes, connotations and ancient meanings which have their origin at Penelope’s loom, to an interpretation of Melbourne society describes the process of Greek acculturation here in Australia. This is a significant and yet unstudied, aspect of the multicultural experience. Belabouredly pushing the paradigm further than any paradigm should plausibly go, it is these motifs, the memories of these fabrics that form a new warp and weft for a new psychological loom, one upon which the travails of everyday life here are interwoven.
Of course the provenance of these costumes and artefacts is based upon their origin in Epirus, north western Greece. Long before multiculturalism, globalization and immigration became buzzwords with which to tax the tabloids, Ioannina, the capital of Epirus was a trading and cultural entrepot whose reach was surprisingly long. Thus, you will see among the exhibits, a silver butterfly belt, made in Ioannina, exclusively for the Bosnian export market. You will see a costume, made in Ioannina but exported to and worn primarily in Cappadocia, central Turkey. You will also see a shepherdess’ costume that can be found all along the northern Greek transhumant pastoralist continuum to the Turkish border, in only small variations: the Sarakatsan costme. Reflecting the diverse nature of the social fabric of Epirus, long before words like mosaic or melting pot became popular for a brief period here in the eighties and nineties, you will see almost identical wedding crowns for Christians and Muslims, distinguished only by extremely slight details and, amazingly, a votive box with the undeniably Christian symbol of St George on the obverse, while on the reverse, paradoxically, or maybe not so, we find the Jewish star of David. Long before our arrival to these shores then, our women understood not only diversity, but also synchretism and the enriching experience of culture-sharing. They packed their looms for the journey here, with a pre-disposition for pluralism.
2. What was the first piece you acquired?
The first piece I “acquired” was bequeathed to me by my great grandmother. It was a silver cartridge pouch, said to belong to one of my ancestors who fought Ali Pasha of Byronic fame, in the mountains of Souli. The cartridge pouch is ornate and looks too much of a vanity piece to have been really used for its ostensible purpose. Nonetheless, it was for me a tangible piece of either personal history or personal myth and the grey area between the two excited me.
3. Where did you collect the artefacts from? Is it getting harder to find them?
Many of the items have been collected from families resident in Melbourne. Sadly, in many families the significance of such items is not understood or appreciated and they are more than willing to divest themselves of them. Inexplicably I have found some items, especially textiles, in second hand shops. But the bulk of the collection comes from Epirus itself. Considering our history of perennial migration, I think there is something poignantly ironic in bringing items from Epirus to the Antipodes.
4. How many pieces are in the exhibition? Do you have a favourite?
The exhibition will display 50 pieces from a much broader collection. My favourite piece is a green silk caftan approximately 150 years old, woven in Ioannina. Age has not diminished its shimmer and the work on it is exquisite.
5. What is the rarest artefact on display?
The rarest and most intriguing artefact on display is a silver reliquary. On the obverse, we can see a relief of St George, a common motif for Christians. On the reverse, however, we can see the Star of David. We know that there was a large and important Jewish community in the city of Ioannina. Either this reliquary reflects religious ambiguity and an ability to glide seamlessly between communities, or is a testament to the religious syncretism of the times.
6. What is the oldest?
The oldest piece is a 15th century enamel belt buckle. The style and construction places it in the Byzantine Era and it is fascinating to examine how certain motifs were retained, extrapolated and developed in Ottoman times.
7.Can you tell us anything about the techniques used? Are there still skilled artisans, weavers and embroiderers making these exquisite pieces or do you think these are lost arts?
They are verging on become lost arts in Melbourne. And that is one of the main points of the exhibition. While the looms have been stilled, many of their operators are still alive. Unfortunately, they have not passed on their skills to the latter generations. It is my hope that this exhibition will allow us to celebrate these skills and act as an inspiration for their retention.
8. All the artefacts are works of art. Do you believe that the areas they come from still value them?
These artefacts form an intrinsic part of the Greek identity. Of late, museums in Epirus such as the Ali Pasha museum in Ioannina are making great endeavours not only to collect and preserve but also to place these objects in their global context.
9. The region of Epirus spans a large area from Arta and Prevesa in the south to Konitsa in the north. How do the designs and techniques differ from one place to another?
The designs display an incredible diversity, though there are common motifs running through all of them. The urban wear of Ioannina reflects global trends that were common to the whole Ottoman empire. Silks, elaborate embroidery silver jewellery that you can find from Bosnia to Syria. In regions such as Souli and in northern Epirus, now in Albania, you find homespun cloths, greater use of contrasting colours, more originality of design and, in the case of the Sarakatsan nomads, designs that resemble those of Australian aboriginal art. Of course, one can also discern the use of imported materials from Manchester, especially in the late 19th century.
10. Do you believe these artefacts reflect the society in which they were used?
Absolutely. These days, social media facilitates us wearing our hearts on our sleeve, or on our Instagram, our pinterest and all the other forms available. At the time when the costumes on display were worn, and many of them were still being worn in Epirus, at least on feast days at the time of mass-migration to Australia, what set you apart was your bling. That bling, was in less words than a tweet, the entire articulation of a personality, including one’s standing in one’s family and community. You will see in the exhibition the entire range of fashion, from urban formal wear, with silks and intricate brocades, to rural formal wear, slightly heavier and rustic, but no less ornate, to urban street wear for the more active woman, and there were few that were not, to rural street wear, formidable, durable, uncompromising and ready for action, kind of like most of the Greek community actually.
11. What role, if any, did the dowry system play in keeping these traditions alive?
It was vital in that it provided a means for the skills to be passed down the generations.
Thank you for joining us today, Dean. It’s been a pleasure to have you on my blog and I wish you continued success in adding more to your growing treasures.
“From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural foundation through artefacts.”
A collection of Epirotic costumes, jewellery and artefacts of folklore which will be on display in Queen’s Hall, Parliament of Victoria from 31 October to 2 November 2017.