About the recent series of photographs of photographer Matjaž Rušt, entitled The New World exploring the visual iconography of Slovenian immigrant communities in the lands overseas.
Migration has existed in the world for as long as civilisations, i.e. connected communities of people with collective identity and consciousness. In the last few centuries, with the development of the national state, the sense of a common culture based on language, history, mythology, customs and art, has reinforced and become the foundation of identity. Consequently, the national paradigm still obstinately persists in societies despite inevitable perspectives of increasing cultural and political globalisation after the economic has already been penetrated. Indeed, the period of the industrial revolution and the transition to the modern era is formative because it was then that regulated policies of emigration were formed – as well as the concept of citizenship and the ‘belonging’ to a determined socio-political and cultural environment. However, not even the strongest national consciousness can prevent emigration when this proves the best or only solution in a given situation.
In the years of modern history, from the 16th century onwards, an expanding Europe was the largest producer of migrants, who in dense consecutive waves populated the new world which for them often meant economic and political emancipation; on the other hand, for the native population and those who were forced to emigrate this migration policy turned out to be a yoke and led to marginalisation. Through the centuries, the causes for emigration from the old continent repeat over and over again; the main reason remaining economic migrations while in the periods of repressions, conflicts and wars we witness the emergence of political migrations which (altogether) in a few centuries substantially changed the ethnic and geo-political map of the world.
In Slovenia, which has truly been conscious of its national identity for about two hundred years, large emigration waves began to emerge during the period of industrial revolutions when people left the region in masses in the search of new opportunities, at first in North America. In the late 19th and early 20th century the Slovenian national identity was developed to the stage that the immigrants deliberately preserved their language, customs and cultural patterns, which, due to the distance and irregular contacts with the homeland, inevitably changed. Further migrations, although with irregular dynamics, were constant, be it the migrations to Latin America and Australia at the end and immediately after the end of the Second World War, economic immigration to the countries of western Europe in the years of the post-war reconstruction, or today’s economic and career migrations which are relatively dispersed and less accommodating to the notion of the preservation of identity.
Hence the Slovenian communities have remained the strongest in the environments which were populated enough and distant enough from the homeland to prevent closer contacts. The greater the distance from the homeland, the stronger the need to preserve and express cultural identity. On the other hand, this distance not only causes idealised images of the homeland to form, which is often related to the time of emigration and the number of generations born in emigration, and results in an interesting mix of different cultural codes.
The photographer Matjaž Rušt visited Slovenian communities in the US (Cleveland), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Mendoza) and Australia (Sydney, Melbourne) to get to know better their ways of life, which are often trapped between national and cultural belonging to the homeland and the inevitable assimilation into the dominant cultural environment. These communities are the oldest of all, and despite their smallness also the most resilient. The artist was interested in the preservation of identity in the environments which are socially, politically, economically and culturally completely different from those back home, and among the emigrants who are born and raised there. He is interested in the small enclaves of cultural and social life.
In a period when there is a lot of talk about the integration of immigrants in the new cultural environments, the issue of diaspora can also be viewed through a universal prism which can be applied to any emigrant group based on a common ethnicity. The photographs illustrate the visual signifiers of Slovenian identity in the faraway lands, and the identity which due to the irregular contacts between the diaspora and the homeland increasingly diverges. The images produced on these three field expeditions offer some inevitable observations and conclusions, such as, for instance, that Slovenian emigrant communities are characterised by smallness and resilience in the preservation of their culture, close mutual links and relative wealth. Nevertheless, the Slovenian communities around the world are very complex and with regard to everything, with the exception of belonging to their original culture, very heterogeneous formations which do not always have a common denominator.
© Miha Colner, November 2017 / translated by Melita Silič