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Greek-Australian Cafe Culture

Lex Marinos - opening the exhibition

O Kosmos review:

The official launch of the 'Selling an American Dream: Australia's Greek Cafe' exhibition was simply amazing.

Over 300 invited guests crowding into the Macquarie University Art Gallery's exhibition space. The gallery was so full that a video feed into the vestibule area of the building was organised to accommodate the overflow of people. The Master of Ceremony for the night was the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie, Professor John Simons, who commented early on that the exhibition launch was one of the largest he had ever attended.

Speakers induded Nia Karteris, Director of the 2013 Greek Festival of Sydney, and actor/director and broadcaster, Lex Marinos, who officially opened the exhibition. Lex related his own experiences of growing up in his grandfather's cafe - the Bridge Cafe in Wagga Wagga - during the 1950s and very early l%0s, to the audience. His experiences both delighted and enthralled the gathering.

Guests included dignitaries such as: the NSW Minister for the Arts, the Honourable George Souris; the Greek Consul-General VasileiosTolios, the Greek Vice-Consul Theodora Toumanidou-Tolios; and well-known writer, Angelo Loukakis. Other artists, academics, mingled with past and present cafe owners and the general public.

On display were over 120 unique black and white historical and contemporary photos, as well as a diverse array of Greek Cafe ware and signage. A short film on the history of the Greek cafe in Australia, created by filmmaker Michael Karris, is also featured. Each photo in the exhibition is accompanied by an extended caption that tells the story of the cafe and/or the cafe proprietor or customer pictured.

The curators, photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski, were kept very busy on the opening night giving thanks for the congratulations they received for mounting such a magnificent exhibition.

The exhibition will run until 1st May at the Macquarie University Art Gallery (Building E 11 A on the North Ryde campus).It will be open Monday to Friday from 10am - 5pm and on every Saturday in April from l0am - 4pm. Tel: 02 9850 7437.

A number of events have been organised at the gallery, including two lectures on the Greek cafe and milk bar by the curators - the lectures are on 11 and 23 April at lpm.

A Greek Cafe Forum is being held at the Greek Orthodox Community Centre in Lakemba on 17 April. For information about the Forum please ring: 02 9750 0440.

An 84 page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. Entry to the display is free.

Download a pdf version of this article here:

Launch Greek Cafes Effy and Leonard.pdf

A review from a previous exhibition:

Review of Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis - Selling and American Dream: Australia's Greek Cafe, National Museum of Australia.

Zora Simic

Zora Simic of the University of New South Wales reviews curators Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis’

Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 11 July 2008

– 16 November 2008. Admission: free.

In 1982, photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski launched the In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians project. Their mission was to gather as much evidence as they could of the historical and contemporary experiences of Greek-Australians. The fruits of their collective labour have been plenty: two books, an SBS documentary, partnership with the Australian History Museum (Macquarie University) and a series of touring exhibitions.

The latest of these is Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café, a mostly photographic exhibition, which recently finished at the National Museum of Australia.

Small in scale, but rich in detail, Selling an American Dream has as its focus the ‘Golden Age’ of the Australian Greek Café, the 1930s through to the 1960s. Yet as the exhibition documents, the influence of Greek migrants on the Australian hospitality industry dates back to the Gold Rushes, while Greek cafes still exist today, usually in revised fashion.

From the late nineteenth century, the cafes began to show American influences. By the 1950s, the Americanisation of Greek cafes was complete: the jukebox and dining booth became obligatory features, with hamburgers and milkshakes dominating the menu.

To capture this long history, the curators mixed period photography (including one of Spiro Bennett and his wife Ann Jane, dated 1870s) with photographs commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Contemporary Greek cafes are maintained by descendents of the first owners, and also by non-Greek families, such as Dawn and Frank Leahy, who have taken over the Silver Key café at Rutherglen in Victoria.

To enrich my exhibition experience, I invited my friends, ‘café kid’ Anne Bollinger (nee Pippos) and her daughter Marina, to join me. Ann, the daughter of Greek migrants from the island of Ithaca, grew up in Brewarrina, in outback New South Wales. She worked in the family café, built by her father George in the 1930s, throughout her youth. Members of her family still run Café de Luxe, now a take-away business. The café, or the ‘shop’ as the family have always called it, has consistently adapted to stay viable (the exhibition notes how Greek cafes not only survived, but also boomed during the Great Depression). In remote towns like ‘Bre’, a café is never just a café. It has also historically functioned as a one-stop shop for the locals.

The exhibition contained an image of the current generation of the Pippos family who still live and breathe the café: Angelo and Margaret Pippos are pictured behind the counter, along with Peter and John Pippos; the men are all former café kids now well into middle-age. Emblazoned on the art deco shop fittings behind them is: ‘Cleanliness and Civility is Our Motto’.

Variations on this theme decorate other portraits of Greek cafes. Marina, who spent her childhood summers in the café, is struck by the ubiquity and uniformity of Greek cafes. The small range of material objects were particularly compelling for her – the standard issue stainless steel ice-cream scoop and dishes, the milkshake maker and the tea pot on display are as she remembers them, yet it is almost unfathomable that Greek cafes across the country were working with identical tools of the trade.

Surely Café de Luxe was unique? One of the pleasures of the exhibition is how it manages to convey both the specificities of cafes and their locations, and the wider context they all share.

Ann was drawn to the photographs of people that she knows or has heard about, such as the daughters of café-owner parents who never let them marry. The exhibition stimulated her memory and anecdotes about
mischievous locals enacting their daily dramas in the café roll out.

Images of customers are relatively scarce in the exhibition, but the emphasis on owners and their families offers an unfolding history in itself. The proud propriety with which many of them are pictured behind shop counters, in door ways or specially commissioned signs ranges across the
decades, charting optimism, success, resilience and in some cases decline.

The compact size of the room initially suggested a relatively brief visit, but each black and white photograph, and its accompanying panel, commanded closer attention.

The main story told was how ‘Greek cafes in Australia were a Trojan horse for the Americanisation of this nation’s eating and socio-cultural habits’, though other themes were of equal or greater interest. These included the pain of migration (observe Maria Kosseris, nee Stathoulia, who fled to Australia after World War II, after seeing most of the men from her village killed by German soldiers); the enterprise and improvisation of new lives carved out in new and often inhospitable places (note, for instance, how names are changed: Joachim Tavlandes becomes Mick Adams); the shifting racial politics across the twentieth century (witness, for example, the damaging effects of the Kalgoorlie race riots of 1934 on George Kalaf’s Majestic Café: windows were smashed in, and the whole business was rendered inoperable); and most evocatively captured, the theme of family.

As we walked out, Ann wondered why there was no jukebox among the material objects (owners are probably reluctant to part with them). My minor criticism was the space: I craved more light and space. Marina noted what photographs cannot capture: how her grandmother, for instance, had never seen a black person before arriving in Brewarrina, or how hot it was working behind the counter in high summer. Still, a good exhibition ideally encourages the visitor to reflect both on what is documented and what is not, and Selling a Dream certainly did this.


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