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Review: Who are you? Ko wai koe? – Athens, Aotearoa & the art of Marian Maguire

The Hellenic Museum’s current exhibits explore Greece’s rich history and the impact of colonisation in New Zealand.

Pictured: The entry of the Hellenic Museum.

While semester begins for RMIT students here in Melbourne, the Hellenic Museum’s 8,000 years’ worth of art invites us to dream of myths, mortals, and Greece.

Located on William St near Flagstaff Gardens, the Hellenic Museum is Australia’s only museum exhibiting and preserving Greek art.

The building itself used to be the Royal Melbourne Mint but has now been transformed into an art gallery and function centre. The external imposing architecture sets the mood of what you will experience when you step inside.

Entering the museum, every visitor is greeted with high ceilings, a sprawling staircase, and a quiet, reflective atmosphere. After entering the first exhibit, you are transported to the beginning of the Greek Empire.

The Gods, Myths and Mortals exhibit takes the viewer through Greek treasures across the millennia, with highlights being the tomb-like exhibit showcasing religion and gold-adorned jewellery.

Religion section of Gods, Myths and Mortals exhibit.

Ancient Greek jewellery from Gods, Myths and Mortals exhibit.

Leaving the exhibit, you cannot help but feel inspired by how the modern world we know today has evolved from such ancient cultures.

Perhaps the highlight of the downstairs exhibits was Australian sculptor, Sam Jinks’,artwork The Messenger. Jinks was inspired by the Greek Goddess Iris, who communicated with mortals and gods.

The Messenger.

Stepping inside a small room, instant darkness surrounds you and The Messenger’s expansive gold wings take centre stage – Iris is frozen in time in front of the river Styx.

The Messenger

According to Jinks, sculptures “are a conduit for collective memory, [allowing] past generations to speak both to the present and into the future”. The Messenger serves as a place of quiet reflection.

Heading upstairs, Marian Maguire’s exhibit showcases a different form of myth – one where ancient Greece, Colonial Britain and Māori culture and history intersect.

Maguire is an artist from New Zealand who combines figures from colonial prints, and the past and ongoing tensions of New Zealand biculturalism. Uniquely, her work uses ancient Greek mythology to encourage public discourse around these issues.

Her pieces are thought provoking and demand the audience stop and consider the crossover of global cultures throughout history, and how they continue to influence modern societies today.

Her artwork, Captain Cook makes his Approach from the West (2005) is a symbolic showstopper. It features Captain Cook as a subordinate to the Māori chief protagonist. Cook is holding a “xenia”, which translates to hospitality in Greek, in the hopes of being granted permission onto his land.

Captain Cook makes his Approach from the West (2005).

This piece calls on reflection from the audience to examine the alternate portrayal of history compared to the actual dispossession Indigenous peoples faced due to Captain Cook’s colonialism.

Maguire’s exhibit highlights the important ramifications of the removal of artefacts and findings from their native homes. She emphasises how it may add to the dispossession, disconnection and destruction of culture and history Indigenous peoples may feel to their land.

In Curio from the Colonial Era., dated 1860 – 1880 , isa colourful vase of Taranaki origin, showcased with faint writing that says, “to whom does this upon which you stand belong?”.

Curio from the Colonial Era. Artisan unknown. Dated 1860 – 1880. Taranaki origin (2011).

An important question indeed. The exhibit encourages introspection, consideration of society’s history and its future.

Through artistic expression, Maguire’s exhibit importantly demonstrates the intersectionality of colonial history and its lasting impacts.

Upon leaving the Hellenic Museum, you will have new found insight that both inspires and creates hope for a better future – if only we can learn from our past.


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