Briefing notes by Annette Blonski
Some years ago, a friend and I were looking at a photographic collage, a work by the photographer, Chris Barry. At the centre of the collage was a photograph of a child carrying a bunch of flowers. The child was framed against a backdrop of high stacked planks of wood and looked out at the viewer with a wry half smile. It was hard to tell whether the wooden planks were part of a broken down structure or a neatly stacked pile of old cut timber. The context was unclear but we knew that the photograph was taken in Poland because it was part of series created by Chris when she had returned to the country of her birth. The image of the child could have signified the persistence of hope in the midst of rural decay or maybe it was an image of a city child on a bucolic rural retreat far from the polluted cities. Perhaps the child could be seen as the photographer, frozen in time in the land she had left. In Poland, she would always be this child perhaps.
There was something in the fair-haired child's eyes, however, that spoke to me of a country that my parents fled forty years ago, and which I had never seen. And yet... And yet when I talked about this photograph with my friend, I said "When I go back to Poland, I would like to see..." I hesitated. What would I like to see? What do I think I would find? More to the point, how was it that I could go back to a country I had never been to in the first place?
For years I had flashes of memory, like a waking dream, of fields overgrown with high grasses and filled with sounds of crickets, of collapsed fences, of the decaying remnants of villages, of streets filled with potholes and muddy water. The images were grainy and shaky, as though they had been shot on a Super 8mm camera, hand held and moving rapidly. They looked as though I was running. Chris Barry's collage, with its brown paper border, roughly cut and pasted around the frame of the child reminded me immediately of those images which were, for me, of the land of my ancestors. They were images that I had purloined, like a bower bird. And principally, those images had come from my father, from his descriptions of the country he had travelled through and lived in for forty years, the country he still loved, despite the losses he had suffered. He had grimly hung on to a vision of what might have been possible if everything had been completely different. Such a forlorn hope and yet so vivid and rich in images and memory. A Jewish Polish nationalist. A contradiction in terms and one only possible if lived as an ideal. The reality is, in my view, impossible. Nevertheless, such was the strength of his passion that I felt that I had been there, that I was of that country, of that soil, though I had never seen it, never set foot on it, was not even born there. This was the landscape of my memories which were the memories of my father.
With a symmetry that is only possible in life and dubious in fiction because it is far too neat, forty years after he left Poland, I am reminded of my father's obsession with the place where he was born and trying to decide whether that sense of belonging is something I shared with him. That sense of homeland, of being at home in the culture of one's birth, can be seen as a dream of identity and nationhood, of feeling at one with one's place. But these very notions of "identity" and "nation" are now in crisis. Take the idea of a "national identity". Even in those countries where such an idea seemed firmest, countries like France and the United Kingdom, the nation state is experiencing a fundamental challenge from the existence within their borders of rapidly growing immigrant communities, many of them originating in countries that had been colonised and were now "coming home". Until recently, the United Kingdom was Australia's motherland. Sometimes, and this is many years ago, I would hear Australians speak about "going home".
There are so many contradictions at work here. Take, for instance, the establishment of the nation of Australia at the time of Federation. Although there was much dissent over the particulars of the Constitution and relative power of the new central government, all agreed on one thing and that was on what constituted an Australian. A "native Australian" was white, born here in one of the seven colonies, English-speaking and of British extraction. Organisations such as the now ludicrously named Australian Natives Association, were formed to lobby for Federation. The ANA was comprised entirely of white men. The vision of Australia as Arcadia was of an exclusive white domain which did not include the Indigenous Australians, the Chinese, or the Afghans. Europeans adapted and more often than not, anglicised their names, erasing evidence of their origins, at least for their children's sake, and even white women had to struggle for representation. With Federation, Aborigines who, in South Australia at least, had the vote, lost their right to franchise and did not regain it for over half a century.
Meanwhile, the "white natives" adopted the emblems of the bush as their motif and everything from furniture to advertising was wreathed in wattle and waratah and kangaroos and wombats. They believed the other "natives", Indigenous Australians, would die away. There was rejoicing in the West of Australia when Jandamarra, who had led a rebellion and fended off the police for several years, was caught, executed and beheaded.
So jubilant were some at the time of Federation that one newspaper commented "...there could be no doubt that the great event of that day, the federation of the colonies of Australia has struck the keynote of the century...Might they not indeed look forward to a federation of the whole Anglo Saxon race through out the world?" (ML Commonwealth Celebrations, Misc. Publications, Newspaper Cutting 1901). The catchcry was "One People One Destiny" and over the next fifty years, that was largely achieved.
It took the mass migration of Europeans after 1945, the renaissance of Aboriginal resistance, and the subsequent waves of Asian immigration in recent years, to drive a wedge into this complacent and contradictory image of the white native of the South Seas whose allegiance was owed nevertheless to the mother country. With it has emerged twin or even multiple identities: Italian-Australian, a Polish Jewish Australian, Indigenous Australians, an Australian of Chinese origin. Each carries with it its own story of origins of how this particular combination of elements came into being. Colonisation or immigration, the late nineteenth and twentieth century has been a tumultuous period of mass movements of people across continents and oceans, driven by hunger, war and economic upheaval to seek a new place to live.
Migrants have come to Australia in their millions, adopted a new homeland, and many have taken citizenship, becoming "Australians". Before this period of mass migration, migrants of non-English speaking background might try, discretely, to preserve some of the elements of their home culture but publicly, they became assimilated. The core culture found it difficult to accommodate difference, even if it was European. After 1945, the assimilationist project began to collapse. Post-war migrants and recently-arrived migrants have become Australians who live between two cultures, the culture of their memory and their homeland and the culture of their adopted land.
Their children, however, are faced with, or forced to, or can simply want, to make a choice. You and I are those children. We can adopt an idea of ourselves as multi-faceted or we can say that we are Australian, whatever this may mean, a generation of hybrids. There is contention over what it means. That contention, that struggle with traditional formations of identity, is taking place throughout the world. It seems to be one of the critical experiences of the end of the century and the end of millennium. How appropriate. Given the West's obsession with calendars and the fragmenting of time into blocks of chronology, one would expect that the end of the millennium would be momentous and so it is.
Are we hybrids, then, a new strain?
The word Hybrid in the Compact Oxford Dictionary: a list of images and meanings, competing and commingling:
But then a change.
The mongrel and the rose, the monster and the poet, the beauty and the beast. These competing images persist. Are these dichotomies not also dependent upon each other for their very existence? We cannot understand one without the other. Just as those on the margins are often able to see clearest what the core culture might be, so each requires the other to define it.
Another image could be added, a new post-modern one where the hybrid might also be the outrider, the nomad. It too must have a twin.
In another context altogether Edward Said has said, of the role and position of intellectuals in society, that "...the intellectual always stands between loneliness and alignment (p 16)." I wonder whether that may not be true of the condition of being second generation Australian. On the one hand, we cannot be fully part of the culture of our parents. On the other, we are not necessarily completely at home and fully integrated into the culture of our birthplace, a condition made more complex by the fact that our very existence is a crucial element in the transformation of that culture. This condition is one of fluidity and transformation, of enrichment and change, of rootlessness and foreignness, of occasional bursts of disorientation and also of great creative energies. To travel to the country of one's forebears is to experience all of these feelings at once.
I went (back) to Poland not long after I first saw the series of photographs Chris Barry had taken and the collages she had made. The images I had dreamt, indeed the dreams themselves, which her work had made me remember with such intensity, never returned after that journey. But the collage hangs on my wall now and I pass by it many times every day.
Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, Vintage, 1994.
Copyright ©1995 Annette Blonski