Greek City Times is proud to present a weekly historical snapshot
from the archives of the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek Australians’ national project
by photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski.
THEMOS & ELLIE MEXIS: MUSIC, FAMILY, IDENTITY
Following the sensational concert at the City of Sydney Town Hall on Greek Independence Day 2022 – AUTHENTIS 30 YEARS AT THE HELM – presented by maestro Themos Mexis, produced by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and managed by Ellie Mexis, it is only fitting that some historical insight should be provided into the lives of this creative team. Here we present excerpts from interviews conducted with Themos in 1997, and Ellie and their children in 2000.
Themos Mexis was born on the Greek Dodecanese island of Rhodes in 1947. His parents, Nicholas and Katerina, had married just before the end of World War II. His father arrived in Australia in 1952. The family followed in 1953. From 1960 to 1966, Themos attended Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. Between 1967 and 1972 he studied at the conservatoriums in Rome and Athens. In 1975 Themos married Ellie (Eleftheria) Castania, who is also his manager.
“Father survived the war with instruments… There was always music in the house… At school I was put into the choir… My parents were told that I should play an instrument – the piano appealed. Later, I found writing music more interesting… in 1976 I gave my first major concert at the Sydney Town Hall… it was a great performance… the ovations were incredible. But unfortunately… I found that throughout my career, ‘Ah, you’re a Greek composer”. I would say, ‘I don’t only write Greek. I’m a composer of Greek origin’. Besides fighting the establishment here, were also trying to be recognised by our own [the Greek-Australian community]. It seems easier to bring out acts from Greece, than to promote our own local talent.”
After a number of years of working in Greece, Themos and Ellie returned to Australia and reinvested their experience and talent into further developing the cultural milieu here for present and future generations. Whilst the recent Sydney Town Hall concert marked the 30 year reign of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, it also marked 46 years since Themos’ initial Town Hall concert and a spectacular start to what the future may hold musically for Themos and Ellie.
Ellie (Eleftheria) was born in 1950 on the Aegean island of Simi, the second of three siblings. Her parents, Stavros and Irini (née Zacharia) Castania had married in 1945. Ellie's father migrated to Australia in 1952, and she, her elder brother and her mother, two years later.
Ellie: “My mother really wanted to come to Australia to be with her brother... Financially they [my parents] had no reason whatsoever to come... Dad and Mum were not assisted immigrants... They sold everything... In the end, what they sold though was more than just a safety net – it was a whole identity... I feel more and more at a loss that I don’t know enough about my family... [But] they came, they lived a difficult life in the beginning, worked very hard – long and late shifts in factories – not only to survive, but also to prove to themselves, and to the wider society, that they can succeed – that they were doers, achievers! The measure of their success – owning their own home and educating as much as possible their children!... We [their children] had to prove ourselves to them.”
Irini: “I think one thing that I’ll definitely give to my children is the way my parents have always given my brother and I so much respect with what we want to do in life – who you end up falling in love with, who your friends are, work – knowing that whatever happens they will always be there for us.”
Nikolas: “They [my parents and grandparents] have given me certain ideals which have opened my mind up as to what I can achieve... for myself, my family... My grandparents obviously sacrificed their lives in Greece... my parents are in that cross-generation where they were brought up in Australia, but now they are unsure as to exactly where they fit in... I’ve been given many opportunities in life here, but in regard to a career or to a future, Greece is my answer.”
The concert was to honour Patriach Bartholomew’s leadership, and was initiated by Archbishop Makarios of Australia. The National Metropolitan Choir of Australia performed with the Sydney Youth Orchestra.
Photos: Effy Alexakis
Historical Research: Leonard Janiszewski
© In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians National Project Archives
Since the early 1980s, Effy Alexakis, a photographer, along with historian researcher Leonard Janiszewski, have been travelling around Australia photographing and collecting stories. They have also photographed Greek-Australians in Greece and documented some amazing histories. The images and text provide personal, diverse and powerfully moving insights, about opportunities, hopes and challenges. Collectively, these stories provide personal perspectives of a diasporic Hellenic identity. Their archive encompasses photography, both historical and contemporary, taped interviews and literary materials.
They have published 3 books and numerous articles, and their projects are ongoing. The photographs have been widely exhibited throughout Australia and in Greece.
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