Ashik Mene, a Turkish Cypriot artist living in the north part of Nicosia, was welcoming and unsurprised when he heard American English on his mobile phone. In a typically Cypriot way, word had already arrived that a foreign artist wanted to speak with him. It happened when he was waiting at the border crossing from the south: another Turkish Cypriot in line in front of him flashed him a business card, and then walked on. “…She wants to see you,” he said as he passed. Cyprus still operates as a small place, even though opening the official lines of communication has significantly enlarged the breadth of the population in the past two months. Arranging a meeting on the Other Side – whichever side that is – can be awkward unless that local network of passing the word is in operation. A phone call, difficult already because of language differences, can sometimes be cut three or four times during the course of a short conversation. In some cases telephone calls must be routed through Turkey. If one disregards the UN Buffer zone cutting the city in half, then we are only a few blocks apart, within the same Venetian walls of the old city.
In divided Cyprus, memory and geography are inextricably linked with self-identification, and they are themes common among artists in the island today. The Cyprus Problem, the result of the inter-communal troubles of 1963-1974, has shaped the psychological heritage of artists of both communities. The island has remained divided since the summer of 1974, when a Greek-backed coup attempted to unite Cyprus with Greece. The Turkish army, ostensibly defending the island’s then 18% minority of Turkish Cypriots, clapped the island with an invasion from the North, and seized more than 30% of the island. The UN has remained as a presence since then, maintaining a divsion (“The Buffer Zone”, or “The Green Line”) that stretches from coast to coast, and bisects the capital city of Nicosia.
Like the two Cypriot populations, “division”, and “vision” are similar words without similar roots. Most Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots will identify themselves with one another first, as Cypriots, and then become more specific about their own lineage, either Turkish or Greek. Artists are a special case. They generally have politics to the left of the mainstream, and they have shown together in exhibitions abroad and at home consistently over the past 29 years. Even during the most difficult times in the last five years, Cypriot artists (Greek and Turkish) have made contact with each other and shared ideas over the Internet. Perhaps “division” could be regarded, in relation to contemporary art in Cyprus, as “di-vision”: Two visions of the same act of separation and reunification.
Ashik Mene arrived at our meeting point, the Ataturk Cultural Center, and took me in his SUV over to the part of the Arab Ahmet Quarter where he has his studio. We drove up onto a dirt parking lot, and from there picked our way through some rubble, dried palm fronds and mashed cyclone fencing to his door. Inside, we went up a flight of dark, wooden stairs past the word “Amen” written on the wall, and sheaves of unstretched paintings in storage. Mene’s work space is two small rooms with tall ceilings and whitewashed plaster walls. A red carpet, and a plate of fruits set off the colors in the large canvases that leaned and hung all around; and the perfume of varnish went everywhere: “It’s a drug, yes… I must have it every day,” he commented on the varnish. My company, Cypriot anthropologist Stephanos Stephanides, sat on an old patterned sofa below painted-out window panes and slumping jalousies that had given way to a modern air conditioner above.
The paintings are all in process. “I don’t want to say I paint in Cypriot ways, but I know the air, the earth. I am trying to… [remain] international, while at the same time [acknowledging] a responsibility to experience and memory.” The canvases depict soft forms, figures, slipping in and out of an apparently unstructured ground. There is no sense of place in these paintings, but there is a lot of air, a lot of space. Figures make themselves invisible into apparent interiorscapes, and seem to overlap, to wrestle with an undefined ‘other’. He favors a range of oranges, and blues. Sometimes an area of lead white will envelop a vast space like a creeping fog: obscuring structure and surrounding – upholding – only the salient among the subjects. A few identifiable, symbolic props are included in these pastiches of pose and gesture. One is a large screw. Mene’s work is a wrestling mat where forms struggle to maintain their substance and their structure, against an encroaching void.
Ashik Mene was born in Larnaca, a major city on the south side of the island. He spent his life in the midst of Greek Cypriot friends until he returned from art school in Istanbul, for summer vacation. That was the summer of 1974, the summer of the Turkish invasion; the division of the island; and a massive transfer of populations. Mene and his family left for the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia. “If you leave people together, he says, “they’ll solve their problems. If you live together, you have no problem – you are living, and you know each other. It’s when [someone] pushes The Button that everything is changing…” He narrated a long list of years in which, outside of Cyprus and on holidays at home, he had taken part in Cypriot movements for unification, and more recently in Cyprus he has taken part in “bicommunal” dialogues that have convened members of both communities in the shared (Greek-Turkish) village of Pyla. “[Artists] are the people who need peace… We don’t always agree with the politicians…”
One of the reasons artists need peace is economics: this is one of the major differences between the north and the south in Cyprus. It is also the most obvious way in which Turkish Cypriot artists can benefit. They may suddenly have a market for their work, and more than two state-sponsored places where they can exhibit. The difference in economics between the artists was highlighted recently when, because of the border openings, there was an opportunity to stage an open studio tour in the whole of Nicosia. On one side, Greek Cypriot artist groups are usually successful in getting financial sponsorship from corporate entities, like banks, as well as support from the Cyprus government and some foreign embassies. The backing is used for excellent publicity and formal catalogues. But the Turkish Cypriot authorities, on the other side, prohibited participation of their artists because the Greek Cypriots had netted this commercial support. At least, that is one version of the story. In the end, “Inside the Walls of Nicosia 2003”, the studio tour named in recognition of the Venetian walls that encircle the city and its divisive buffer zone, featured only Greek Cypriot studios. Mene comments on the situation, “…we put up another kind of zone: A commercial zone.”
Loulli Michaelidou, a Greek Cypriot educated in London, is a cultural officer for the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture. Busy with her major concern, the 2003 Venice Bienniale, she spared a moment to comment on politics and artists in Cyprus. She said, “…the struggle [the Cyprus Problem] is political, but it’s also an individual one; it’s part of a cultural identity”. She elaborates: Cypriot art “…tends to be criticized for being homogenous, if not conventional… Beautification and aestheticization are still [very popular trends].” “Homogeneity, she clarifies, “is typical of small countries where deviation has traditionally not been rewarded, and where assimilation and ‘widened horizons’ have not, in the past, been valued as much as adherence to tradition.” In Cyprus there is a great market for what could be termed traditional Mediterranean painting and sculpture. Interestingly, Mene mentioned the same issue: “Conformism is dangerous for an artist… We have the exact same interests, the artists north and south. But it’s the lifestyle… If you have enough pain, you have to create”.
Artists in the south have experienced the past 29 years of separation differently. The Turkish Cypriots might have light pockets, but Greek Cypriot artists have had another kind of pain. In a much more severe way than the artists in the north, Greek Cypriots have been watching commercial developers destroy their landscape. Hills in the south part of Cyprus bear an underlying rhythm of handmade contour planes which, now grown over with feral grape vines and haggard olive trees, betray the dead agrarian past. The south is doomed because of Europeans speculating on real estate before Cyprus joins the European Union. Of course the artists are making money: the more concrete walls poured, the more walls that may need artwork.
Rinos Stefani is a Greek Cypriot born in the Paphos District of Cyprus. He spent some ten years studying art in London and working abroad, and then returned permanently to his native village of Tala. Stephani can most easily be located in his “field,” which is an expanse of recently planted olive trees near his home, and near his parents’ home. “My father grew barley, wheat, he had orchards and olive groves, vineyards – he made wine – he had carob trees, and goats, and donkeys…” He says about his painting, which is deeply rooted in the figure-in-landscape tradition in Cyprus, “I grew up in the land. I love the earth… [as subject matter], it’s spontaneous.” He has also worked on several bicommunal projects, and is an active member of the Union of Cypriot Artists (EKATE). In May, the Heliotropeion Gallery in Larnaca had some forty paintings in a show of his recent work. Nearly all the work sold.
Stephani’s metaphors of planting, plowing and reaping modify the obscure relations between men and women in his canvases on display in the gallery.
These paintings juggle poetic, erotic stories with acts of building highways, planting trees, and going to the village fountain. They are personally narrative, directly inspired by the Stephani’s life which is planted in the changing economy. The exact meanings, however, are as obscure as the source of Stephani’s laugh. His work expands beyond his modestly sized canvases. The colors are stray, almost unmixed, and reminiscent of the odd amalgam found in archaeological mosaics. The taut, linear compositions are equally archaic – rhyming with the lines drawn on jugs and plates from Mediterranean antiquity. Stephani however, most likely does not spend much time in archaeological museums. This is the autochthonous, “spontaneous” visual language to which he alludes when talking about landscape painting. He has managed, without nostalgia, to depict his personal geography in the threatened environment.
Acknowledging that artists have a “minor” role in the politics of Cyprus, Stephani expresses his opinion: “… the sudden changes at the border created a temporary sentiment… But there’s no solution to the real problem, which is the occupation of northern Cyprus by the Turkish army. For me, it’s an opportunity to meet Turkish Cypriot friends, artists, and I can get a handful of earth…”
Yiannis Toumazis underlines what Stephani said about the politics: “If I were an artist I would be thinking about the return-no-return [that we have] here. Nothing is crystallized… It is exciting, but there’s still a regime; there’s still an army.” Toumazis is the Director of the Municipal Art Center of Nicosia (the Power House). He is also the source of my connection to Ashik Mene, who used to visit the Municipal Arts Center up until 1995 – before the Turkish Cypriot authorities clamped down on communication. “Really, he said, “from nothing, there are now many new opportunities. This is a huge change. Hopefully it will… have an affect on [Cypriot art]. If not, nothing will.”