Text by Kiriakos Spirou
Cyprus — as a state, an island, a place, a society, an imaginary — is visibly scarred by its recent historical trajectory, which is entwined with late and post-colonialism in the Eastern Mediterranean; American and British foreign policy; the extreme polarisation of the Cold War and the eventual hegemony of the right; the trappings of Turkish and Greek nationalism; Middle Eastern struggles; and many other episodes that are part of living memory of probably everyone reading this article. An important characteristic of Cyprus however, which is something it shares with neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Palestine, is an established status of perpetual unresolvedness, a sustained crisis that defines every political and social expression. I’m not referring to the proverbial “unresolvedness of the Cyprus problem”, but to its fetishistic preservation, which has been keeping power in the hands of the local elite for decades.
In general (and I hope I’m forgiven the oversimplification of this classification), a large part of artistic production in Greek-speaking Cyprus since the second half of the 20th century, is willingly embracing narratives of Greek-Christian nationalism, ancient (Greek) and mediaeval (Byzantine) traditions, picturesque Cypriot landscapes, the national trauma of the 1974 Turkish invitations, and similar themes. It should go without saying that artworks with such subject matter are happily deployed by the establishment for all sorts of purposes. As we move away from the political tensions of the 1950s-70s however, Cypriot art is more and more emancipating itself from the dominant narrative and develops critical responses to issues of historicity (especially in relation to the landscape, monuments, and urban development), collectivity, decolonisation, anticapitalism, feminism, the legacy of modernity, queer identity, the financial crises, and the use of public space, among others. At the same time, artists develop activities outside the proper limits of their artistic work, actively participating in public discourse and formulating political positions.
As far as grassroots organisations are concerned, some collective activism initiatives exist, such as the Visual Artists and Theorists Association - phytorio and the Cyprus Chamber of Fine Art (E.KA.TE.). Both Phytorio and E.KA.TE effectively keep the State in check through public interventions, and have played an important role in legislative issues about cultural policy. An example is the so-called “law of the 1%”, which was approved by parliament in the 1990s after the efforts of E.KA.TE. members, and which calls for the commission of new artworks for every public building, with a fee that equals 1% of the building’s total budget. In recent years, E.KA.TE and Phytorio have been successful in putting pressure on the government for putting that law in effect, with more than a dozen such commissions already underway. What still remains an open issue is the legal status of the artist in Cyprus, since there is no recognised artistic profession and artists are widely forced to work in precarity. Grassroots organisations continue to put pressure on the government regarding these issues, demanding more rights and less precarity in the cultural sector in general.
What the combination of the above (i.e. the artists effectively organising and critically engaging with the dominant narrative) has led to, is that marginal narratives and alternative histories of Cyprus and its peoples are escaping the tight control of the establishment and coming closer to mainstream audiences. A recent example of this shift is the discourse that unfolded regarding the cancellation of the Cypriot pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. Although the ministry of culture appointed a selection committee in 2021, it invited its members to convene too late, missing the relevant deadlines and reducing preparation time significantly. The culture minister then pleaded the urgency of the situation and tried to appoint an artist for the national pavilion himself, bypassing all legal procedures and condemning Cyprus to a poorly prepared and rushed representation. Phytorio then called for an artistic boycott in order for this serious possibility to be avoided, forcing the minister to cancel the national pavilion altogether on 20 February, citing the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse.
Cyprus’s absence from the most important art exhibition in the world this year constitutes a dark spot in the history of Cypriot art, since the country has been participating in Venice since 1968, with uninterrupted presence from 1986-2019. Independent institutions, groups, and individuals (including every artist who has represented Cyprus in Venice, ever) have publicly condemned this failure, and signed an open letter to the president of Cyprus on 14 March calling for the resignation of the culture minister. Instead of receiving a direct response to this letter, the artists became the target of a coordinated shadow attack through other channels.
A few days after the open letter was published, a Cypriot MP raised a question in parliament regarding an excerpt from the official catalogue of the Cypriot pavilion in Venice in 2019. It referred to a footnote in a text by sociologist Maria Panteli, where she states that the 1974 Turkish invasion in Cyprus was called a “peace operation” in the Turkish-speaking part of the island, which according to the MP is relativising the illegal Turkish invasion and occupation in the eyes of the international community. The minister of culture was prompt to respond with assurances that an investigation will take place in order to find out who was responsible for publishing this statement; in the meantime, a barrage of articles in mainstream news outlets and social media picked up the story and bashed the artistic community as a whole (calling them scum), and even attacked specific artists by name — in an attempt to degrade the “dissident” artists in the eyes of the public, de-legitimise their demands, and force the artistic community to de-escalate their protests. Reactions to these articles and posts were met with gaslighting and denial.
The obsession of the establishment in Cyprus with the perpetuation of the dominant narrative has collided with a younger generation of intellectuals who have a different perception of their historical place. To stifle them, the establishment is attacking artists and contemporary Cypriot culture in general, condemning the island to even more conservatism, nationalism, and isolation. Artists in Cyprus should hold their ground and seek out allies from other fields and countries that share their objectives and have similar histories. It will take longer and sustained battles — as well as intersectional collaboration and a very open-minded and critical turn to the East and North — for extroversion, solidarity, dialogue, co-existence, critical thought, freedom of expression, and other antidotes to take root against rising authoritarianism in Cyprus.