Stella Pelše, Art Historian
Book 'Australian Latvian Artists' (Sydney: ALMA, 2008.)
An interest in émigré culture as a kind of forbidden fruit and a storehouse of national values belongs to the past – to the end of the era of politically dictated separation, when the power of attraction between both parts of the nation was determined by the logic of restored independence. Aware of the ongoing disintegration of the community of the diaspora due to the disappearance of political barriers, as well as mixed marriages, the Union of Australian Latvian Artists (ALMA) has been continuing its work of documenting Latvian artists who emigrated to, or were born in Australia. Currently, Latvian origins are just one component in a kaleidoscope of changing identities, as is emphasised in the introductory essay ‘Place is Meaningless’, in which Rex Butler from the University of Queensland points out that all attempts to write Australian art history assigning “national character” to newly-created art is no longer relevant to the situation today. Accenting the contribution of “non-Australians”, he stresses that “art is always in the process of adoption and adaptation, so that it does not make sense to see it as belonging to any particular place” (p. 10). Thus, the compilers’ avoidance of seeking out specifically “Australian” or “Latvian” components, instead pointing to the artists’ “who connect with the world in all sorts of different ways” (p. 11), can be viewed positively. The corrective effects on art interpretation by the passing of time are particularly noticeable when compared with the introduction by Mārtiņš Gauja, in a structurally very similar book from 1979.(1) This earlier work still brings into play the theses put forward during the interwar period by Boris Vipers, Jānis Siliņš and Jānis Dombrovskis about a Latvian style which, though admittedly “hard to define”, was still described as richly colourful, lyrically romantic and a vision of stylization and symbolism .(2)

Australian Latvian Artists / Austrālijas latviešu mākslinieki: A Collection of Works by Latvian Artists in Australia. Ed. by Dagnija Greste, Biruta Clark et al. Sydney: ALMA, 2008. 256 p: ill.
As in the first version, the main body of the new book features a double-page spread for each artist with encyclopaedia-like informative texts in English and Lat¬vian, and one or more illustrations. The number of artists covered is large (103), although for various reasons this cannot be considered to be a complete list (p. ix). All generations working in all the spheres of visual arts (painting, graphics, sculpture, photography, applied arts or crafts) are covered, and the resulting diversity is impressive. This single book therefore embraces both Erna Ķikure-Dzelme (1906–2003), who graduated from the Latvian Academy of Art Graphics Master Class in 1932 and in Australia was also known as a writer, and student Elise Henry-Viesis (born 1989), who has just gained critical recognition in the art world with her textile collages. Alongside famous names (Imants Tillers, Reinis Zusters and others) we are also introduced to personalities whose achievements are perhaps closer to naïve art or the category of amateur (Ingrīda Ķauķis-Rehbaum, Viktorija Niedoliņa and others). The book’s editorial board (Dagnija Greste, Biruta Clark, Ojārs Greste, Peter Legzdins, Kristina Granstrom-Lucis, Dzidra Mitchell, Ieva Wilson and Vaira Zemīts) has not chosen to follow narrow selection criteria. Instead, the book is “as if a resume, documenting the com¬munity’s contribution to Australia and its art history” (p. ix). In contrast to the 1979 book, the biographical information on each artist is accompanied by a small excerpt in the artist’s own words – their memories, creative impulses and an outline of the meaning and aims of their creative work (the sections on deceased artists contain comments by their contemporaries, or fragments from earlier publications).

Finally, the book concludes with a number of brief articles, with the most personal expression of the émigré condition to be found in Jānis Balodis’ essay Rakstnieka valoda ‘The Writer’s Language’: “Only recently I had dis¬covered that I wasn’t really Latvian, now I wasn’t really Australian either. [..] At times I think I have taken the best from both worlds, with a foot in either camp. In darker times I think I have fallen between stools. The truth, as always, is in between.” (p. 226). The remaining texts are dry, informative overviews of Latvian activities in Australia (social life, choirs, theatres, handicrafts, sports and student organisations).

Although it is beside the point to consider the criteria of linguistic purism a requirement in this type of work, the editing could have been more thorough, and a careful re-reading would have eradicated the language mistakes. There could have also been fewer technical errors present (letters and spaces have been omitted). Nevertheless, the book provides an insight into the range of creative endeavours (which at times has parallels with the overall landscape of Latvian art), and there is an internet site (, where additional information not found in the printed version will be available. This publication also whets the appetite for a deeper analysis, for example in the form of a thematically linked collection of articles, for which there is already precedent in neighbouring countries.(3)

(1) Latviešu mākslinieki Austrālijā. Redkol. M. Gauja u. c. Strathfield: ALMA, 1979.
(2) Ibid., p 1.
(3) Goštautas, Stasys, Korsakaitė, Ingrida et al. Išeivijos dailė. Vilnius: Kultūros, filosofijos ir meno institutas, 2003.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/

go back