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The Description of Art of Cyprus

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 What is art? Art can have many purposes: it could be used as propaganda, it could have a specific function, or it could simple be something nice to look at. For these reasons the true purpose and definition of art which is set by the artists themselves, is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of Cypriot art, when answering the question, what is art, answers will vary from person to person especially, on what side of the green line you are asking the question. Because of Cyprus’s location in the Eastern Mediterranean and the events of 1974 the island has become a true “melting pot of civilization and cradle of culture”. Many may see art as simply something nice to look at but for Cyprus, art can be the key to ending the divide of the island. Suzanne Cotter discusses modern Cypriot art by stating;

“while the [artists] work we saw did not therefore conform to anything one might dare to identify as ‘Cypriot’…there was a shared concern with content which, more or less explicitly, expressed something of the condition of Cyprus as a divided country with a tragically brutal history (the bloody annexation of the north of the country by Turkish troops in 1974).”

Artists are affected by their surroundings and history. This is prevalent in the modern art of Cyprus, an island with a long history or turmoil and unstable surroundings. The modern art of Cyrus has been influenced by ancient art, impacted by the events of 1974, and is the key to answering the question of who the true inhabitants of Cyprus are. In essence finding the first people of the island gives the current residents of the island hope for a future with no Green Line, and art can lead us to those answers.

The Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods are the earliest periods that human habitation has been uncovered. In these periods, “Apart from tools and kitchen utensils…Cypriots produced works of art, either in relation to religious ritual or just for their own sake.” Most stone sculptures in this period were made of andesite and later unbaked clay. Of all the artwork of this period “The best known artistic production…is that of the small steatite [or soapstone] figures.” These figures have “flat stretched arms, long neck and legs separated by vertical groove…it has a ‘necklace’ round the neck, with a pendant in the form of a cruciform ideal.” The ‘necklace’ worn by the steatite figure, like those of other Chalcolithic necklaces is used in tombs as gifts for the dead; which represents the idea of an after life in Cypriot culture. The idea of the after life is also used in Egyptian culture, which can lead to the idea that the early inhabitants of Cyprus were of Egyptian descent. Another form of art that supports this suggestion is the representation of terracotta fertility gods and goddesses; similar to early Egyptian fertility gods and goddesses. As the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods end the Bronze Age begins.

Karageorghis noted that, “The earliest phase of the [Bronze Age] is characterized by…Red Polished pottery…[mainly] vases [which] were usually labeled as ritual vessels, but in all probability they are the creations of a potter who wanted to produce extraordinary shapes in order to impress his clients.” As in the Chalcolithic period fertility also dominated the Early Bronze Age. One could infer that the need for more people, animals, and plants for the Cypriot culture to grow caused the passion for fertility icons. Another form of artwork that dictates this period is that of everyday life scenes. These everyday life scenes depict humans “cultivating the earth to produce food [which at this time] was at a very advanced stage in culture…such models…are also known from Egypt.” As the Bronze Age continued “numerous experimental ceramic styles were produced,” such as “white-painted pottery [and] all kinds of geometric patterns.”

While Cypriot culture advances into the late Bronze Age more non-Cypriot art is introduced to the inhabitants of the island. This is not unexpected given Cyprus’s location and trade. Cypriot art gained many influences because of such artworks like the “so-called Tell-el-Yahadiya [which was] imported from Egypt.” Another milestone gained from other cultures is that a script related to Crete’s Linear A known as Cyro-Minoan script. Also, advancements in mediums such as the use of ivory to make pipes, plaques, mirror handles, etc; were common of this time period. Other than Egyptian influences on Cyprus and visa versa it is also important to recognize the “effect of Cypriot art on Greece itself. Though no Cypriot pottery has thus far been found in the Attica region, we have observed that a number of changes in its ceramic style occur between 1075 and 1050 BC, both in shape and decoration…introduced to Attica by Cypriots.” The next advances in Cypriot culture came in the Iron Age.

The Iron Age brought about a geometric pottery style called Cyro-Geometric. Most of the artifacts found in the tombs appear to be gifts, which is again similar to Egyptian culture. The Iron Age transformed into the Arachaic period with “the ride of the Assyrians as a new political power in the Near East.” Not long after “the Egyptians replaced the Assyrians in the hegemony of the Near East… [Cypriot] artists opposed Egyptian influences by developing Greek artistic styles.” Similar bronze works of art found in Cyprus have also been found around Greece. Even though Cypriot artists rebelled against Egyptian influences, votive offerings found in Cypriot Sanctuaries resemble the same ideas of Egyptian votive offerings. Another stray from Greek influences was the combination of human torsos with animal bodies; very similar to Egyptian ideals. Karageorghis states that, “Bronze statues are rare, but Cyprus produced one of the most striking and best known: an over life-sized depiction of the emperor Septimis Severus. The artist decided to show him nude and athletic.” This choice was more influenced by the Greeks and less by the Egyptians who traditional show figures clothed. The flip-flop between Greek and Egyptian influences continued throughout the sixth century BC and finally ended when Cyprus came under rule by the Romans. The Romans influenced many mosaics and gave way to the next Cypriot influence; Christianity. Many temples, public buildings and cities were destroyed by two earthquakes in 332 and 342 AD. This gave way for the coming of Christianity and splendid basilicas.

Through the seven thousand years of Cypriot ancient art there are many artifacts that could be used to discover who the true first inhabitants of Cyprus were. Between the many Egyptian and Greek influences one could infer that Cyprus is in fact a true “melting pot” given its’ location and excessive trade. The ancient art of Cyprus not only can help us establish who the first true inhabitants of the island are but also reveals why the modern art of Cyprus is the way it is. Modern or contemporary Cypriot art differs though between the North and the South because of the 1974 event. What happened in 1974 to make this divide in the country and a separation of the arts?

Hostility, anger, resentment… the list of words to describe how both Northern Cyprus and Southern Cyprus feel towards each other is endless. July 15, 1974, Nikos Sampson took power and on hearing the news Turkey immediately sprung into action, knowing Sampson’s reputation for violence against Turkish Cypriots. Five days later for fear of the Turkish Cypriots, Turkish troops came ashore in hopes of holding Northern Nicosia. The end result is the Green Line. Which divides the island of Cyprus in half, the North being controlled by Turkish Cypriots, the South being controlled by Greek Cypriots. The North is extremely handicapped with hardly any running water or electricity and no economic system to support the people. On the contrary the South is economically stable with a large tourist attraction. With no resolution in sight, the two groups continue on living their daily lives with two different cultures, two different religions, even speaking two different languages. These differences are exemplified in the two group’s works of art.

There is no distinct form labeled ‘Cypriot’ art. One reason for this may be that “there are no schools of Fine Art in Cyprus.” Most Cypriot artists travel aboard for formal fine art training. For the Greek Cypriots living in the South, there are many programs and groups aiding the arts. For example, “the Artrageous group was formed by three Cypriot artists aiming to create a social-political manifestation that focuses on the role of the artist as an agent for public awareness who experiments however within a contemporary art context.” The group is highly influenced by the status of the country stating:

“What is common in the work of [Klitsa Antoniou, Panayiotis Michael and Melita Couta] is the way they balance the impact of the socio-cultural setting of their country with the weight of the international contemporary art scene, as both influence them, and how these two influences are linked to their cultural identity. The work of these artists embodies cultural and political issues pertinent to their country of origin, which help to identify characteristics in the artist’s work that document a shared regional aesthetic and conceptual affinity.”

The Artregrous group paves the way for other artists looking to express their discontent with the status of Cyprus through their art. Another program that is opening the door for Cypriot artists is the ARTos Foundation which was, “established in order to create a dynamic cultural presence in Cyprus and abroad by developing initiatives and participating in local, regional and international collaborations and programmes in the fields of culture and, particularly, in those of the arts and letters, modern creativity, research, science and the environment.” What differences lie between Northern and Southern Cypriot art?

The only Northern Cypriot artist to show their work at the “Coffee Break” Conference was Sarep Kanay. Unfortunately the only mention of him anywhere online is in Suzann Cotter’s Curator’s Diary. Another helpful website when searching for Northern Cypriot artists is the Turkish Cypriot Online Museum of Fine Arts. The website lists many Northern Cypriot artists and their works of art. One artist discussed on the website is Gönen Atakol who was “born in Nicosia in 1945, graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts). She won the Edwin W. Zoller Academic and artistic prize in 1971. She continued her artistic work in the United States from 1971-1985, and opened exhibitions in North America, Turkey, Europe, and North Cyprus. Her major works were exhibited in 1985 in an exhibition in Nicosia.” Even though there are not many programs or groups to aide in the art of Northern Cypriots, the artists of Northern Cyprus have paved their own way and became successful on many levels. On the contrary of Southern Cypriot art, Northern Cypriot art is less controversial and less political. In a way one might say that Northern Cypriot artists paint to make a living and for a sheer interest in it rather than to make their voice heard.

The art of Cyprus’ purposes all depend on which side of the Green Line one is standing. Cypriot art could be used as propaganda, it could have a specific function, or it could simple be something nice to look at. Even though there is no ‘Cypriot’ style or form to the art that does no mean that there are not distinct reasons for the art to be made. Ancient Cypriot art was made for specific reasons such as keeping records and for religious beliefs. For modern art advances in the South in the form of groups and programs are making the message of Southern Cypriot artists heard. Northern Cypriot artists are leading their own way and pushing past the events of 1974 to become successful in their own right. Being that there is no resolution in sight for these two groups both are pushing ahead and making their voices heard all over the world through their art. This brings about the question again; to whom does Cyprus belong? Modern Cypriots and the world hope for the day that there is no longer a Green Line. That hope is exemplified in the art of Cyprus because that is what truly tells the story of the first inhabitants. 

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