Souvenirs of Replacement

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In the previous issue of Tasmania 40 South, James Dryburgh wrote: “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.” Writer and artist Elizabeth Lada gray has looked into the hearts of Tasmanian immigrants through treasured mementos, often grasped during the act of fleeing a homeland. In this follow-up piece, Dryburgh looks at the next stage of Gray’s project, the souvenirs migrants chose when, often after several decades, they returned to their homeland as a visitor.

Elizabeth Lada Gray and her participants reveal what a momentous journey a migrant’s return home is. “It is a rite of passage that confirms identity when they connect with the soil of their birth and ancestors, while maintaining allegiance to more than one country,” she says.

Sometimes seen as clutter or tacky, souvenirs are actually often interwoven with the geography, history, customs and life experiences of their migrant owner, helping to preserve their complex fabric of nostalgia. They become a significant possession due to what they represent and the gateway they provide to the past. Gray found that even troubling journeys home did not lessen the emotional value of the souvenirs because their significance lies in their ability to affect.

The participants’ souvenirs included: a traditional embroidered Hungarian doily with the ‘netting’ cut from cloth to form the net with tiny scissors; a scraped, dried and carved orange (fruit) with hand painted butterfly and flowers on the lid; a one million pesos bank note; a handmade brass plate with traditional Turkish pattern and Coat of Arms; and a lock of hair from the migrant participant’s mother.

Though their function and meaning does sometimes overlap, mementos and souvenirs are quite different, both physically and in terms of the meaning they provoke. A memento is generally laced with memories, somewhat beyond our control. We keep it and protect it because of these contents and because it has been with us on our journey. A souvenir on the other hand, is something we have control of – we attain it in order to fill it with memories that are more of our choosing.

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The souvenirs migrants seek out and bring back are often carefully chosen to act as a repository for memories of a particular time, place or event. The origin of a souvenir is often more obvious than that of mementos, that is to say, if the owner wasn’t there to tell the story, the object itself may provide some obvious clues as to the time, place or event it symbolises. This said, without the owner’s input, the symbolic meaning remains invisible.

Often souvenirs are whimsical, decorative and impractical, whereas mementos are often practical items whose origins and stories require much more explanation. This said souvenirs can connect the viewer to dark and disturbing issues, even when they are mass-produced ubiquitous objects. Thinking locally, a plastic key-ring from Port Arthur for example, would provoke deeply troubling memories for many people.

Elizabeth’s paintings utilize the still life genre. As Norman Bryson points out, this is a genre that “needs to look at the over-looked, it has to bring into visibility things that perception normally overlooks.” Elizabeth’s paintings gift the objects with new worth, helping them to become rediscovered and contemplated anew.

The souvenir triggers the narrative for an individual to relive experiences – it enables imaginary travel back and forth between two worlds. The process requires imagination, and in this sense, souvenirs can be particularly potent for children, who always have healthy imaginations. Children understand better than adults how experience can be saved and relived through the collection of objects. Children anticipate feeling nostalgic about special times and places – they take a stick home from the woods and a stone home from the beach, knowing full-well that these objects will allow them to ‘go back’ to these special experiences.

A child’s ease of access to such imaginary realms means that the souvenir can be a powerful means of passing on identity and knowledge from the homeland to the next generation, who have often not experienced it firsthand. A souvenir will more readily allow the past to be reconstructed – a memento, having been a ‘witness’, is not so easily deceived.

One of the participants, who fled Hungary, explained how souvenirs can be a reminder of some of the happier times in the homeland before it was fled. A painted plate is a reminder to him of songs sung in his school days. He also highlighted the importance of souvenirs for passing on memory, story and identity to our next generations.

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To many migrants, souvenirs are also a symbol of pride in what they have accomplished since leaving their homeland. “We can look at our souvenirs every day as we move from room to room and remember what we had and left behind in Europe, but also what we achieved in Tasmania and what we have now,” one said.

For one participant, Elizabeth’s project is creating an even stronger, more tangible connection between Tasmania and the homeland. Elizabeth will be gifting two works to a migrant participant from Sierra Leone so he can auction them off at his university graduation party in order to raise money for the improvement and completion of a primary school, water well and toilet block in a small town near where he was born. The paintings – representing the souvenirs and story of this man – contain woven tunics, thorn bush sticks representing a cross, a colonial postage stamp and flag colours and marks relating to the journey he made to eventually settle in Tasmania.

Like mementos, souvenirs help people to ‘return home’, prolong memory and keep past experiences tangible. The meaning assigned to souvenirs evolves over time, not merely as memory fades and alters, or the owner mythologises and embellishes, but also as the perceptions of oneself and of respective places change. To Gray, “The souvenir, as a curiosity object, becomes a second-hand experience and cannot be extended beyond its visual image without attached discourse, created myths and a narrative that belongs to the possessor alone who temporally moves the souvenir into private time.”

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Mementos and souvenirs are inherently inseparable from their place of origin, yet they are also necessarily nomadic. Perhaps the most obvious example of both is a photograph. The object’s story reflects the complexity and flux of their owner’s story. They attempt to defeat homelessness, reminding the migrant owner that in their mind, there is an alternative to homelessness – to have more than one home.

Next time you see a souvenir on someone’s mantle shelf, look a little closer, it may have much to tell, it may be the owner’s insurance against the loss of important memories and parts of their identity.

Have a little daydream: if you had to leave your homeland – perhaps it is Tasmania – for decades before finally returning as a visitor, what might you seek out as a souvenir? It is unlikely to be the classic tourist souvenir, the Huon pine cheese board or the fluffy Tasmanian devil toy. More likely, it will be something more abstract that captures fragments of your unique relationship with your homeland and a symbol of how the qualities of that place have helped to form who you are.

For Elizabeth Lada Gray, the instinct to tell and immortalise stories of human migration seems only to grow:

“Because migrants and their stories, steeped in dispossession, dislocation, displacement and emigrational journeys, have been ever present in my long life I do not see that I will ever be free of working with them, but rather migrants will continue to manifest in my art. A reciprocal arrangement filled with the worthy promise to keep telling their stories.”

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This article was first published in Tasmania 40 South, Issue 75, (with lots of beautiful images of Elizabeth’s work).

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