Maggie Baxter, an Australian artist, curator and writer wrote this piece about an Australian artists’ recent exhibition in response to an earlier post on this journal – The Violence of a Needle: http://gopikanathstitchjournal.blogspot.in/2013/06/the-violence-of-needle.html?m=1
The family history of Greek/Czech Australian artist, Olga Cironis will resonate with many Indians whose families suffered the upheaval of dislocation during Partition.
Olgas’ grandmother worked on the side of the Greek Democratic Army during the Greek Civil War of 1946 – 49, sending food and ammunition to the sons, daughters, husbands and fathers fighting on the front. Pregnant, she was moved to a refugee camp in the then Yugoslavia[i], but later re-settled in Czecholslovakia [ii]. Her oldest child, Olga’s mother was lost to her for many years until the Red Cross reunited them.
In Czechoslovakia, Olga remembers that the Greeks were well educated by the government, but nevertheless kept apart from mainstream society. But 1968, when the Russians invaded and made Czech communism even more extreme, the Greeks were formally asked to become Czech citizens or told to go back to Greece.
Olga’s parents decided on an alternative –migrate to Australia, where settling in a low socio-economic area, they once again found themselves on the fringe, albeit not officially so as in Czechoslovakia. Ostensibly in Australia they had freedom to go wherever and be whatever they wanted, but in reality their lack of language skills placed Olga’s parents in low paid jobs far below the professional level they had previously enjoyed, and socially isolated.
They were without ‘Voice’ – just another small family in a sea of ethnically diverse migrants, who once accepted into Australia, battle out a life for themselves however they can.
This rather long introduction will help to explain Olga’s confronting photographic portrait tableaux of herself, dressed like her mother but with her lips sewn together[iii]. As Paola Anselmi said in the catalogue essay to the exhibition “Cironis’ stitched lips speak volumes about the inability to express yourself and your past when no-one else understands the conditions that shape you”.[iv]
The emotive prospect of causing such agonising self-harm is deeply political within contemporary Australia where, in a race to the lowest depth of our national psyche, politicians of both major political parties vilify asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat. These hapless individuals have for the past decade been sent to detention centres on remote tropical islands with fewer facilities than our prisons. Some detainees have, in utter despair and frustration at years of not knowing their fate, sewn their lips together in protest.
In 2012, Cironis received a grant to return to the Czech Republic and Greece to retrace her family history and try to make sense of her fractured identity.
She loves the traditional embroidery on old tablecloths and bed linen and during the trip she collected many pieces some of which were cut up and reassembled for the exhibition. For Cironis embroidery is a manifestation of her ethnicity, it connects to her childhood where the women in her family were always making things. But by putting the needle through the fabric she acknowledges the violence and fierceness of women in war when they need to defend their children. Her own mother as a young teenager was forced to take on the role of ‘mother’ to younger children, while her mother (Olga’s grandmother) was removed to an unknown destination.
At first glance the oval samplers of stitched old blankets seem benign and innocuous. But nestled in amongst the embroidered lyrical drawings and universal symbols there is anger waiting to be noticed: a woman blindfolded; expletives aimed at the capitalist system.
Olga Cironis is not a textile artist per se, but a sculptor and installation artist for whom cloth and stitch are central to her practice. Many of her installations are of objects bound in cloth– an old kitchen mixer, or a large tree branch. She says that stitching over an object is an act of gagging it. Sometimes she makes lost souls: despondent, featureless, animist figures with threads hanging down from their bodies like tears.
Yet in an optimistic reversal children hug and play with Cironis’ cloth animals, so much so that she was recently commissioned to make cast bronze replicas for a family courtyard in a new hospital in Western Australia. The stitch marks on the patches are essential tactile elements recalling once again the ferociously gentle act of sewing.
Maggie Baxter is an Australian artist, writer, curator, and public art coordinator, who has worked with textiles in India for over twenty years.
‘Into the Woods Alone’, and exhibition of works by Olga Cironis was held at the Turner Gallery, Perth, Western Australia from 2 – 31 August 2013.
[i] After civil war and upjeaval, Yugoslavia broke up into six separate republics in the arly 1990’s.
[ii] . In 1993, Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully into two separate states: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.
[iii] Don’t panic – it was drawn on by a professional make-up artist and not actually stitched.
[iv] . Anselmi, Paola. ‘Into the Woods Alone’. Turner Gallery 2 – 31 August 2013. Catalogue Essay.