Art Scene Nicosia
It’s Saturday morning. Elena stops her car outside my house, the radio blasting hip-hop. “You’re in a good mood” I say, laughing. She winks at me. Having travelled for years together to the Venice Biennale, Elena and I can account for miles of artistic exploration. Officially, Elena is a curator of art, an art historian and scientific collaborator at the University of Nicosia. Unofficially, she’s the perfect guide for treading the many paths of Nicosia’s art scene.
Our first stop is the area of Pallouriotissa on Kissamou Street. It’s a pedestrianised street in a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood. The housing is overcrowded and nothing goes unseen under the watchful gaze of the area’s elderly. It’s not by coincidence that two artists, Stelios Kallinikou and Peter Eramian, chose this place to convert an ex-machine shop into an art space. The shop’s original sign at the entrance, kept and preserved intact by the new proprietors, reads “Thkio Ppalies” (“Quick Execution”) in the local dialect. “This was precisely their goal”, Elena explains. “When the financial crisis overturned the situation, Stelios and Peter reacted swiftly in order to create an artist run space and a platform for exchanging ideas among a community determined to take matters into their own hands. At ‘Thkio Ppalies’ you can feel the restlessness of the new generation of artists, which in turn fuels your own passion for art, through their experimentation”.
Within the walls
We park at the Famagusta Gate and prepare ourselves for a stroll around the streets of the historical centre. It’s an area where the past and present seem locked into a perpetual match of “tug of war” over a boundary that represents one’s cultural influence over the other. “This neighborhood has the potential to develop into an epicenter of culture”, Elena points out. At its centre is the State Gallery of Contemporary Art-SPEL, housed in a building designed by architect Stavros Economou in 1965. This is the latest cultural infrastructure project. The gallery will soon host an exhibition of the state-owned collection of Cypriot art from the 1950’s to today.
We walk up Famagusta Street. Buildings and homes now converted into museums or exhibition spaces are all around us which, along with their collections, hide suppressed truths. We reach a semi-circular building with unique aesthetics. Once a Turkish-Cypriot cemetery, later an automotive workshop, today it exists as the exhibition space for the Lefteris Economou Foundation, “Garage”. As explained by Elena, “It’s a significant addition in that it offers another point of view of the country’s art through its exhibitions such as ‘Visions / Echoes’, a collection of paintings by female artists of the 60’s”.
At the heart of Tahtakale, we turn towards Ermou Street. The scene is oddly juxtaposed; guard stations next to modern cafés and withered gardens behind the facades of landmark homes under renovation. We stop at the Centre of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR). With a beautiful café-restaurant, a magnificent, panoramic view from the roof, and home to the private collection of Costas and Rita Severi, CVAR helps to shed light on the many intricate aspects of the country’s art history. “Especially from the foreigners point of view”, Elena underlines, as we examine a collection of paintings from the 18th to 20th century. Painted by artists from abroad, the intention to portray the island as exotic and oriental, replete with scenes incorporating camels at the foothills of the Troodos Mountains and depicting young, Cypriot women as amorous, dark-skinned Aphrodites, is clear. “This distorted image, clearly an attempt to cash in on exoticism through artistic fiction, is the subject of study for contemporary, Cypriot artists. There is abundant material in this museum”.
We head towards the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre (NiMAC), another building with its own unique history, now serving the needs of the contemporary art community. In 1994, “Palia Ilektriki” (old electric powerhouse) was turned into the Municipal Arts Centre, thus creating the largest, most beautiful exhibition venue in the city. “Here, throughout the years, we've had the opportunity to see large scale exhibitions by Cypriot artists”, Elena explains over coffee in the centre’s inner courtyard, blooming with bougainvilleas.
Outside the walls
Our tour continues outside the walls. Our first stop is the State Gallery of Contemporary Cypriot Art on Stasinou Street. “The history of Cypriot art, depicted inside this neoclassical building by artists such as Adamantios Diamantis and Christoforos Savva, is based on a chronological narrative with folk art at its starting point”. Elena singles out the painting “Phyteftries” (Women Planters) by Diamantis, the textile drawings of Christoforos Savva and abstract paintings by Katy Stephanides.
Our next stop is Hadjisavvas Mansion, gallery and home of the Point Centre for Contemporary Art. It’s a space that breathes new life into contemporary Cypriot art, highlighting the work of local artists on the one hand, and extending the other to the international art community. The imposing, architectural masterpiece, Leventis Gallery, is located just steps away from the Point. Here, the collection of Anastasios Leventis is housed and includes paintings from the Renaissance on through to the Impressionist period. As enticing as a meal at the gallery’s restaurant sounds, we opt instead for a visit to Moufflon Bookshop on 38 Sofouli Street, home to rare, used books and English language publications. Ruth Keshishian is waiting for us amid stacks of books. “There is no one more appropriate than Ruth to recommend interesting reading material on Cyprus. Her father used to publish the tourist guide ‘Romantic Cyprus’ for many years”, Elena informs me.
A stop into the Cyprus Museum, home to many archeological treasures, is mandatory. The collection of clay warrior figurines from the Archaic sanctuary at Ayia Irini is particularly impressive.
The First Art Exhibitions
We capped off the evening having dinner in the courtyard of the “Home for Cooperation”, just across from Ledra Palace Hotel in an area of the “green line” (buffer zone). From our seats we gaze upon the once famous hotel. “Certainly, this must have been a work of art”, I say to Elena. “Did you know that it hosted the first art exhibitions in the country?”, she responds. Having shared information, we agree like co-conspirators, that there are truths about this city hidden deep within the many twists and turns of its artistic paths.