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With Clash Comes Culture

by Angela Costi

A version of this essay was published in Meanjin, Vol. 59, Issue 4, 2000.

An idea that simultaneously embraces cross-arts and cross-cultural worlds must embrace struggle – if not, it dies.

Saloni Mediterranean, Saloni M for short, is such an idea. Crossing the borders that separate one art form from another, one cultural terrain from the next and incorporating all generations of migrant, Saloni M embarks on a rough journey. In one sense, inspired by ancestral journeys to foreign lands and the optimistic vision of arrival, it is also informed by those journeys that begin as optimism wanes, when vision and arrival do battle. Our vision continues to gather strength, year by year, as various writers and artists group and regroup, collaborate and clash over what Saloni M signifies.

'Saloni', in a number of languages across the Mediterranean, refers to the communal living and dining room within a home – the point where family and guests meet and share words, food, music, spirit. The place where joke can spill into argument as easily as childhood memory turns into song. As for 'Mediterranean', its meaning changes with mood. When clear-headed, the dictionary meaning satisfies: three continents and sixteen countries abutting the Mediterranean Sea. On temperamental days, however, it becomes relentless snapshot moments – in front of ferry, on ferry, view from ferry – and a growing thirst for dry land. On days of wishful thinking, it becomes enmeshed with mythology and legend: Apollo and Aphrodite are pouring retsina and serving mezze, a Catalonian poet is teaching the sardana to flamenco dancers, and the fairy chimneys and rock churches of Goreme are filled once again with worship and prayer.

Saloni M, originally conceived as a one-off event, a visual art exhibition and night of readings, is now in its third year. Informal networks within the communities of the Mediterranean ensure that each year's event is well attended – from 200 to 300 people, and sometimes more. Many come for just one component of the event – art, music, text – and end up falling in love with others. Between the events, Saloni M continues in the meetings of organising artists and contributors. Artistic collaboration is facilitated and encouraged, and the tasks needed to ensure an audience at the next event are undertaken – this year, a Saloni M website was developed.

This may sound organised, but the 'Saloni' are insistently informal, ad hoc gatherings. Accepting the above involves passionate discourse, angry words, explosive gestures, the shaking of hands and lavish helpings of bread and olives at various houses throughout Melbourne. In accommodating, foremost, the feelings and views of the collective, our identity defies institutionalised definitions: those that tend to the magic word 'multicultural' as a 'pure' expression of a single 'other' culture, rather than a genuine meeting of cultures. Yet it can be no other way, Saloni M needs to feed on the minds of many and the more discordant these minds, the richer the experience on arrival. It needs frenetic energy to clash with the overly organised, the unrealistic imagination to fret with the nervous pessimist, the easygoing wanderer to make it to every meeting and, just as importantly, the Greek, Cypriot, Turkish, Romanian, Italian, Spanish, Lebanese and French bloods to mix. Clashes occur each year. Funnily, the specific placement of a painting, for example, can be more important than whether 'my great grandfather fought against yours in the Independence rising'. More easily achieved than an agreed artistic direction is the decision to do away with 'nationalistic' borders. After all, what is at stake here is the survival of a new breed of artistic exchange derived from first-, second- and third-generation artists from migrant backgrounds traditionally perceived as 'warring'.

The process is self-generating and sprawling; from the first meeting with one filmmaker, writer, visual artist and musician, all of Hellenic heritage, it has spread to the latest meeting of four writers, two performers, several musicians, visual artists and sculptors and still one filmmaker, and now with a mixture of nationalities, including Anglo-Celtic. The initial questions are still being asked (Do I need to be true to my roots? Why is there a need in me to connect with a past I’ve never completely owned? Why not share expression beyond Greek culture?) because they are still relevant and constantly evolving, but other questions have surfaced (Why am I identifying myself as a Mediterranean, and why do I need to connect with other Mediterraneans? Is Mediterranean a dying concept in Australia? What does Mediterranean mean to those artists who have contact through travel rather than birthright?) which take Saloni M into wider spheres incorporating perceptions of 'tourist' and 'foreigner'.

From a basic structure of a two week art exhibition combined with one night of readings, it has developed into a banquet of poetry and storytelling, visual art and sculpture, music, song, film and feast. The tranquil environment of candlelit white tablecloths in gallery courtyard erupted, this year, into cushions kicked against wall for an impromptu dancefloor, where audience and performer became blurred in circular dance. The fighting words over which painting should be displayed where, and the constant lament of not enough tables, chairs and food, gave way to nervous tension and, afterwards, the hugs and toasts to another Saloni M year.

Internal struggles are inevitable but it is the external challenges that make the Saloni M journey precarious. The current storm of institutionalised cultural shows (such as the Antipodes Festival, Womad and the various 'multicultural festivals' organised by local governments), the backlash against multiculturalism (publicly initiated by Pauline Hanson and her Party and propelled into academic and literary circles by such writing as Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians), and the insistence by the wider community to marginalise culturally diverse artistic expression, have pushed Saloni M to the periphery. Media attention is so minimal that word-of-mouth is the main promotional tool. Informal networks within the communities of the Mediterranean, always ensure that the event is well-attended, from two hundred to three hundred people, and sometimes more. Newer audiences are being encouraged through this event but their connection to mainstream dialogue, through review, feedback and funding is non-existent.

Alarmed by Saloni M’s explorative approach, the ‘cultural police’ (made up of audience, artist and academic) have directly expressed concern – aren’t you subverting, manipulating, distorting, appropriating our transported culture, they ask. Maybe so, maybe through the act of ‘turning inside out’, the Saloni M artists are creating a hybrid culture. But is this so wrong, when it comes from a need to express the emotional truth of a group reconciled with bicultural existence and immediate overseas dialogue (via the Internet). Saloni M, is not interested in a folkloric approach to cultural connection nor the exhausted, nostalgic migrant bravery storytelling, these are respectfully laid to rest in the endeavour to explore the multitude ways ‘Mediterranean’ continues to exist in a land once foreign, and now called home.

The Saloni M collective is constantly challenging itself in the very act of challenging others; words such as ‘authenticity’, ‘integrity’ and ‘freedom’ relentlessly interweave the Saloni M discourse; weighing up loyalty to the past with loyalty to the present; and never having a clear answer to the question ‘How true am I being to my roots?’

Nevin Hirik, 99 Boats and Mermaid, 2000.
acrylic on canvas, 122 x 92 cm

It takes courage to go beyond the initial journey of suitcase and sea and embark on a journey that shifts migrant into explorer, releasing the comfort associated with institutionalised nostalgia in order to deal with ‘diversity within diversity’. Seeking out common and uncommon links from shared past, transporting them to here and now, using the once-upon-a-time enemies/allies status – these are some of Saloni M’s explorations.

So what are some of our findings? One thing I dug up, after being strongly moved by the paintings of Nevin Hirik, a Turkish artist who has participated in Saloni M, is the lyrical poem ‘Dancing through mirrors’.

She is as Greek
as I am Turkish
I accept her invite
of hip bone and song
we dance to same history
and our seduction is fierce

Hirik’s paintings of Turkish women are coated in ‘blue’ yet the brush strokes seem to possess the movement and spirit of ‘red’, opposing colours yet, in their strength and resilience, very much alike. This reminded me of the song I grew up with that was sung in Greek yet danced in Turkish. The Greek and Turkish elements in the song spoke volumes to me of the Cypriot situation; a heritage captured between red and blue, between strength and resilience…

and the smallness of the divide
from prayer call to bell
lokoumia to Turkish Delight
kibbeh to koubba, remember
the coffee of mud
brews by the same rules
its smell has no borders

Saloni M artist, Ramez Tabit, a playwright, offers another way of exploring cultural borders. Through his work-in-progress, the play The Muslim Sinner, he highlights the perceived contrast of sexual ideology between Fundamentalist Islam and the French, and questions this perception through the sexual journey of a young Muslim.

….He was well travelled and experienced. Came all the way to Lebanon to colonise us, bossed us around, pretended to know better and in the process, while he’s on a break, he mounts my mother, and you call him 'handsome young man'? (3)

a lane

Cultural borders within the Australian context are also traversed, with Helena Spyrou and Bill Mousoulis, using text and film, respectively, to reveal the life of Melbourne’s inner city laneways, which were once the stomping ground of ‘woggy’ working class school girls.

On the way to school, you made a bet with your girlfriend that the sagging prick would be waiting for you in the Mary St lane anxious to catch the thrill of shock in your eyes. And yea, you'd be right. There it was pink and fleshy cupped in his hand and you'd stare and tell him to put it away and then run till you reached the light where the lane met Drummond St. (4)

Spoken word artist, Fotis Kapetopoulos, creates his own stomping ground with the traditional staccato clapping and guitar rhythms of flamenco dancers and musicians. But refusing to be lulled into the passionate language of the Spanish/Greek past, he serves up the angry ravings of a millennium man by chanting:

this Rock and Roll is Killing me.

Raving transforms to whispered incantations as poet Ian McBryde delves into the underworld of Greek iconostasia, spirits and graves.

I hear but cannot see
the traffic,
the swift wind,
the disturbances of birds. (5)

A collaboration with translator Jo Panas, this work provides a duet of English and Greek poetry drawn from the depths of crosses and icons, roadside shrines to lives blown short.

Saloni M aspires to be a dynamic experience that can complement the continuous evolution of hyphenated identity: Lebanese-Australian, Cypriot-Australian, Turkish-Australian etc. As a one-off event, it can only capture frozen thought; its dynamism is in the collective experience, the continuous gatherings and the continuing need for identity to challenge and to be challenged.

Idea without struggle is like land without sea, no shoreline, no defining parameter, no gaze into infinite possibilities. Saloni Mediterranean looks forward to another year of inevitable struggle and, with that, greater strength.

Any responses to this essay are encouraged - email.

© Angela Costi, 2000.

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1. Extracts from poem written for first Saloni M event, titled Dancing through Mirrors. back

2. Further extract from Dancing through Mirrors. back

3. Dialogue extract from The Muslim Sinner by Ramez Tabit. back

4. Extract from Lanes by Helena Spyrou. back

5. Extract from Ian McBryde’s 8 Unvisited. back

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