A memento is “an object or item that serves to remind one of something”, a keepsake, “anything serving as a reminder.” It is something that, via our imagination, guards and releases memories for us. Some contain joy, some pain, some both. We all have them.
Imagine being able to glimpse the stories held within the most meaningful mementos of those around us. Elizabeth Lada Gray – artist, storyteller and community historian, enables us to do this.
Gray conducted a series of interviews with people who migrated to Tasmania between 1945 and 1975, in some cases, people who fled the horrors of World War II. These Tasmanian migrants revealed their mementos and shared their stories with Elizabeth, who then created oil paintings of the objects, and the memories within.
Mementos are commonly grasped when people are fleeing. They are often practical things. Few survive the journey from war zones, across borders, through refugee camps and temporary homes, often in several countries, to the eventual settlement in another country and a new home. This makes those that do survive very precious things.
Once safety and security in a ‘new world’ is attained, mementos are generally stowed away in a secure place within the home. Most mementos are pulled out on occasions, not viewed daily. They are often kept out of site to limit and control the reliving of terror and the ache of absence and loss.
Through their diverse objects – from a wash tub to a thimble, a hymn book to an alien document, a cup to a pair of spectacles – we have a window into the lives of migrants from Yugoslavia, Germany, Japan, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Holland, Romania, Finland and the United Kingdom living within the Tasmanian community.
At times, Gray has subtly added to the object to reveal a little more of the story. For example, on the painting of the Swabian dish brought to Tasmania, a faint image of the train tracks that led the Hungarian migrant to safety can be seen.
Through a painting of a dented old eight-litre wash tub, we can glimpse the complexity of forced migration and the ‘homelessness’ that occurs as the world’s unfortunate victims are moved or forced to flee from one place to another. The grandfather of the family which still own this wash tub completed his army service in Helsinki in 1912 to fight in the Russian Revolution and became a prisoner of war of Germany in Alsace-Lorraine. Eventually, the young man married and began a family, and in the midst of the Great Depression moved to Starachowice in Poland, for work. Germany then invaded and the family was taken to work on the outskirts of an industrial town in the Westvalia region of Germany. With five children, the family survived five years of World War II. Following the War, they endured five years of shifting around various ‘displaced persons’ camps created by the United Nations. When an opportunity appeared, they applied to migrate to Australia. Finally, in 1950 the family departed from Napoli and sailed to Melbourne aboard the General M L Hersey with treasured mementos including the wash tub, a bicycle, sewing machine and three handmade wooden suitcases. All were brought to Tasmania, where work had been offered.
On another painting we meet a Japanese lady whose family lost their home, most of their belongings and her father’s business when Kure, in Japan, was bombed as a practice run for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Against her family’s wishes, she married an Australian serviceman at the end of the war. She and her new husband planned to leave Japan together, but due to the Australian Government not allowing Japanese wives of Australian servicemen into Australia, she had to wait several long years before she could join him. Finally, in 1953, she travelled to Australia. Upon arrival, she was strongly urged to wear Western style dress in order to blend in and so she sent her treasured kimonos back to her sisters in Japan. In 1960, she was finally able to visit her family and bring her kimonos back to her home in Australia.
Australia is a migrant nation, and this is a strong theme within our collective story. Whilst primarily motivated by the importance of her subject’s stories and the desire they had to share and conserve them, Gray’s project originally emerged out of writing about her own personal experiences living with a migrant and on being one. Elizabeth Lada Gray, like most Tasmanians or members of their immediate family, has had her own authentic experiences of immigration.
A sixth generation Tasmanian herself, she married a Hungarian refugee despite their deep cultural and language differences. He had an “obsessive collection of objects” in order to replace his lost belongings. In 1970, Elizabeth found herself under house arrest in Russian occupied Hungary making plans to flee to the West. Years later in 2002, living out of one suitcase of belongings as an immigrant in Italy, she again experienced the difficulties of living within a foreign language and culture, the pain of homesickness and the longing for people and things left behind. Her own story undoubtedly helped Elizabeth to interpret and to empathise with the stories of immigration shared by her subjects. In her words:
“Carrying the wounds of displacement and lesions of loss, migrants are the guardians of their identities, stories, images and belongings, but as most of them are elderly these aid-memoirs could easily fall into oblivion. Their mementos are symbolic of nostalgic images and stories that reveal a longing for homeland and help people reconstruct their past, allowing them to ‘go back’ whenever they wish through an imaginary lens. Although the mementos are already endowed with the presence of the owners, as paintings they are removed from their familiar place and undergo translation that communicates the emotional resonance of this ‘return’.”
Rebecca Solnit, in an essay for the book Once Removed: Portraits by J. John Priola, suggests that memory is linked to objects and that fragments of memory appear as portraits of the absent. “The object restores to the viewer lost memory, experience, emotion; it is one’s own inner life, not the object that comes back to life in this act of recognition.” Gray’s intention is to ensure such objects are painted so as to strengthen their significance and assist in their survival.
The use of the still life genre captures and isolates otherwise over-looked everyday objects, allowing the viewer to explore the complexities of migrants’ stories. Most of the participants expressed feelings of disconnection to Tasmania whilst experiencing a strong yearning for their homeland, leading Gray to leave the painted images unanchored within dark backgrounds that symbolise profound memories as well as the usual places mementos are kept – in boxes, cupboards and sheds. Particularly when telling someone’s story, Gray always reminds herself to finish the work before it is finished to ensure there is the tension of something not said, not shown.
Through mementos we attempt to defeat the advance of forgetting. We enshrine meaning within an object, which in turn enshrines memory. Inherently, they also become a ‘vehicle’ to secure our identity, within a new, or changed, world that will inevitably have ways of eroding it.
What do you paint for a migrant participant who arrived with nothing?
Elizabeth studied the spatial paintings of Ad Reinhart and Mark Rothko, whose paintings gave her “access to personalised contemplation that proffered the absence of an object but not the absence of emotional resonance.” The result was a large (150x100cm) oil on canvas. The image is all black, but small and barely visible in the top right hand corner – almost lost itself – is the word ‘loss’.
The process and the product of Gray’s work offer so many contemplations. The works remind us that these people, these stories of joy and pain, life and death, are all around us within our community – passing by us in the street. Through stories of horror, so difficult to imagine for those of us who have been written a more fortunate script, we see the fortune and misfortune that is dealt simply through a person’s birth place and time. Individually and collectively the paintings demonstrate the power of human resilience, to make a life with very little and against the odds.
They remind us of the countless stories we don’t hear, the mementos lost and forgotten, and the plight of today’s refugees – the stories being written as you read this. Mementos remind us that even though in recent times the sound of its beating has been muffled, within Australia there is a generous heart that has offered hope for thousands of diverse people fleeing despair.
Elizabeth Lada Gray’s project’s focus on immigration during the period between 1945 and 1975 exposes the constant change imposed on our world by time. If, for example, Gray had focussed on the past 30 years instead, we would be hearing fewer stories from Europe and more from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East – how different, but also how similar, these more recent stories would be.
One is also reminded there are tens of millions of these stories worldwide. Colombia alone has four million displaced people and we have all witnessed the hundreds of thousands fleeing across the Syrian border in recent years – so many common people, with common objects symbolising common lives and aspirations.
On a more local and personal level, this project reveals that many people want their story captured, preserved and shared. Gray, with the aid of her courageous and generous participants, has uncovered the richness, wisdom and great value that these stories and their keepers bequeath our community.
As a war memorial provides the trigger for reflection, the reliving of past events and a context for the future, so too may something as simple a book, cup or wash tub for its owner. Such objects become a kind of personal memorial – a keeper of memories and a tool to enable the reliving of ‘past lives’. But before this, and perhaps more than this, they are an active, living thing, providing comfort and a connection to home in a time of flux. Gray has said it better than I could have:
“For me the painted mementos are oblique portraits of the migrant participants and an aid-memoir for the absent and irrecoverable in their lives. For the viewer my painted images are mementos attached to stories. For the migrant participants they are their lives.”
The stories people told Elizabeth and the objects and photographs they showed her have become her greatest source of artistic inspiration. They have inspired a second stage of the project, to paint the souvenirs migrants sought out the first time they were able to return home. Mementos are grabbed when people are fleeing, often practical things, often put away out of sight to control their power to open sleeping wounds. In constrast, souvenirs are chosen. The second stage will be featured in the next issue of Tasmania 40 South.
And if Gray “survives” her 2014 research studies and subsequent paintings, she intends to apply for entry into the Universityof Tasmania PhD program to “continue painting the precious mementos and souvenirs of migrants before these simple objects fall into oblivion.”
This article was first published in Tasmania 40 South, Issue 74, (with lots of beautiful images of Elizabeth’s work).