Seeking Roots in Cyprus

Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean, is currently wrought with political corruption charges and devastating gentrification tactics. In an in-depth and personal approach, Rony Junior discusses the numerous issues brought to attention by a handful of Cypriot artists showing works at Seeking Roots, an exhibition on how some artists feel about being Cypriot today.

My name is Rony Junior El Daccache and I’m a second generation Cypriot of first generation Lebanese immigrant parents. As a child of the Lebanese diaspora, I find myself at a stage in my life where seeking the roots of my cultural identity is becoming more and more crucial to my personal growth.  When I heard about ‘Seeking Roots’ and the open-call approach taken by curator, Ioulita Toumazi, I attended on the lookout for relatability and shared experience. My intention was to channel the aspects of my identity that run deep but hardly ever surface.

The artists exhibiting were relatively young, stretching from 1990 to 1999. This allowed space for the amplification of youthful voices of the same generation as I. All artists exhibited within a variety of mediums, taking up their space in order to express vulnerable and personal experiences. The artists did not shy away from this opportunity to touch upon socio-political matters, as well as the obstacles faced regarding their Cypriot-ness.

Upon entering NiMAC, one of Cyprus’ oldest contemporary arts centres, I naturally gravitated towards Dize Krüker’s work, Bookcase of Lost Causes. Dize is a Turkish Cypriot artist originally from the South side of Cyprus but currently living in the North.1 Her participation in the exhibition exemplified the curatorial approach of the exhibition as the open call advertised online was for the whole island. Although the arts centre was only metres away from the border that separates the North and South of Cyprus, Dize, unfortunately, was not able to set up the installation herself due to the government placing strict COVID-19 measures resulting in the border closing for a whole year. The installation of the work came to be due to Dize and curator Ioulita digitally communicating.

The structure of the installation included an iron built almost castle-like structure consisting of a variation of Dize’s personal belongings – family heirlooms, cutlery, pots, family photographs, books etc. This also included a stoneware jug made by Baldasserides Bros which caught my eye after I realised that I own the exact same one; the only difference being that mine had ‘Cyprus Wine Festival’ engraved on it. This brought up feelings of nostalgia as I made sure to attend the Festival every year and not being able to attend due to COVID-19 made me realize how much I take certain annual traditions in Cyprus for granted. Dize found this jug in an abandoned house on the North side. The jug was a clear depiction of the shared heritage both her and I have.  Dize found a way to cement her presence and solidify her identity – an identity that she feels is repeatedly disrupted by external interpretation due to the unfortunate and regular eradication of the Turkish Cypriot identity. Bookcase of Lost Causes conveyed a deeply intimate and cathartic approach, igniting an emotional imprint in the gallery’s space.  

Calling forth an emotional continuum, Ioanna Sinclair traverses across Cyprus’ sociopolitical landscape with Getting to know my Cyprus. Ioanna placed multiple unfolded pieces of A4 paper spread all over a white wall which further sparked my curiosity. Viewers were given the opportunity to unfold the paper in order to reveal the photograph or text below. Several photographs on display were an array of Limassol’s new high-rise buildings and the multiple billboards advertising them. Other photographs were stills from Al Jazeera’s investigative documentary, “The Cyprus Papers”, on the infamous Cyprus Golden passport scheme exploring the controversy behind high-ranking politicians selling passports to foreigners. Due to the unfortunate success of this scam which began in 2013 and issued over 4,000 passports to foreigners who invested 2 million euros each, Cyprus was met with an influx of real estate investors – most of whom would never live here permanently. These photographs played as a reminder of the drastic changes that Cyprus has succumbed to over the course of the past few years due to this corrupt scheme. This allowed for me to feel an uprise of grief and disappointment surrounding the current state of Limassol, my hometown, as what once felt familiar about Limassol’s skyline, has completely transformed before my eyes.

Getting to know my Cyprus additionally features a screen grab, now turned nationwide meme, from the Al Jazeera documentary which heavily implicates the then President of Parliament Demetris Syllouris holding up a glass of wine and arrogantly winking at the investigative journalists – unsuspecting of their motives. This particular screen grab from the documentary brought back multiple realisations regarding Limassol’s expanding issue with gentrification. Although some may argue that the increased demand for construction workers has allowed for an increase in job opportunities, the detrimental after-effects overshadow this statement. Meanwhile, the cost to rent an apartment in Limassol is now almost the same as in London. 

The work also stood out even more when I realised it was a collaborative piece. Ioanna placed a piece of paper on the wall parallel to her piece with instructions on how anybody that visits the exhibition can send their own personal text or photograph to her email, to which she will then print out and add to her piece. This allowed for an increase of collective thinking within her approach. The essence of unifying thoughts and opinions with Ioanna’s work brought light to the importance of amplifying Cypriot voices. This coincides with the prominent rise in anti-corruption protests throughout the past year. For example, the first anti-corruption protest that came to be on the 14th of October 2020 was exactly 2 days after Al Jazeera’s documentary was released. On the 15th of October 2020, Demetris Syllouris stepped down as President of Parliament.

The ongoing corruption has potentially caused irreversible damage to our socio-political and ecological climate here in Cyprus. The protests intensified the need for inquiries about the ecological consequences of these high-rise buildings that are a stone-throw away from our coastlines, particularly with the dumping of construction waste in swimming waters.

Panayiotis Andreou’s Senza Titolo is a plea to become climate conscious, voicing issues around climate change on the island. As Cyprus continuously faces impending ecological disaster due to short-sighted money-hungry politicians overlooking sustainability for quick profit, issues around climate change are becoming ever-more important. Panayiotis created four monotypes on wood and crafted his work in a way in which it carries a connection to the climate’s effects on the earth. The dark and cavernous engravings mimicked the same effect of the cracks in dried up land during a typically scorching Cypriot summer overtaken by drought.

It comes as no surprise that there has been an uproar in environmental consciousness on the island especially over the fate of the Akamas peninsula, one of the island’s most biodiverse areas and part of the European Commission’s Natura 2000 Network, which is continuously being targeted by government officials2. In addition, The City of Dreams in Limassol, named one of the biggest casinos in the whole of Europe, is currently in the works only metres away from the salt lake area and has already threatened Limassol’s biodiversity by tearing down hundreds of healthy trees that are home to many indigenous birds, insects, plants and animals. Monumental areas such as Akamas and the continuous attempts of it’s dissemination coincide with the eradication of Cyprus’ natural beauty which is a big part of the island’s identity. This plants yet another seed in these multitude of attempts to gentrify the island.

The efforts taken by public demonstrators, petitioners or protesters have proven to be a formidable opponent to the Cypriot government which seems to be taunted by one the bigger independent protest groups, ‘Os Dame’. ‘Os Dame’, originally a Cypriot saying meaning ‘enough is enough’, is a literal manifestation of the Cypriot dialect being used to empower its citizens. With our voices, comes the language we use. 

Nefeli Kentoni encapsulates the importance of language in her well-crafted and epigrammatic short film, Fragility of Language, featuring three women dining together and literally consuming tongues. While viewing the film a handful of times in a black cube, I’d taken into account the traditional Cypriot towels used by the 3 women as they drank traditional Cypriot coffee. This steered my focus to the carefully directed depiction of interpersonal relationships and cultural behaviour derived from Cypriot lifestyle. Coffee being one of the largest social phenomena in Cyprus added to the film’s significance in Cypriot traditions. 

In one part of the poem written for this film, Nefeli writes “my language is not a language”, indicating the unique and potentially oppressed nature of the Cypriot dialect. A language that originates from Modern Greek and Turkish but consists of completely different phonetics, grammar and vocabulary, Cypriot, still doesn’t receive as much media representation and is not taught in schools in Cyprus. An example of the constant suppression of the Cypriot dialect is the criticism of the aforementioned protest group ‘Os Dame’, by the Minister of Education, Culture and Sport. In a news article, the minister stated that the group’s title is incorrectly written, when ironically, the Ministry never integrated the Cypriot language in any school syllabus. 

Cyprus has two official languages, Greek and Turkish, with many vernacular languages such as Arabic. Cypriot Maronite Arabic, or else known as ‘Sanna’, is considered an endangered language by Unesco and is only spoken by approximately 800 to 1000 Cypriot Maronites residing in the village of Kormakitis in the North as of today. Being a Cypriot Lebanese Maronite myself, this was a pleasant revelation as it made evident the diversity within languages in Cyprus and how they coincide with diverse cultural significance, much like the cultural influence of coffee – which Stelios Kapnisis explores in his poem, Kahve.

Stelios, whose poem is featured exclusively in the exhibition catalogue, encapsulates the cultural significance of coffee with ‘Kahve’, – coffee in Turkish. Kahve, reminds us of the repercussions of Cyprus’ division. Being one of the few nations in the whole world that is divided, both sides carry cultural components such as coffee. Turkish, Cypriot and Greek coffee are inherently the same, but grinded to different textures. They are both made in the same way and served in the same way too. Stelios cleverly embodies coffee in a manner that’s maneuvered so that the reader interprets it as a failed love story. It contains a sense of eroticism, referencing the dysfunctional nature between the South and the North of Cyprus besides the similarities that play hand in hand.

“Don’t you forget who was there when you only slept, who picked you up and who will always stay the same, stay the same flavour for you, so you at least have one familiar place you can come back to…”

Kahve, Stelios Kapnisis

This final line brings to light the many comforts and familiarities that come with the ability of calling somewhere home. Sometimes this embraceful feeling can come from something as symbolic as a warm coffee or a traditional song. This final line also acts as a sentimental reminder of my entanglement with Cyprus. When I regularly visited Lebanon growing up, I was always asked if I preferred Cyprus or Lebanon, as if there was this sense of an impermanence with both places. However, the more I grew into myself, the more I came to realise that Cyprus and Lebanon will both always be my home.

This text was sponsored by the Youth Board of Cyprus.

  1. Cyprus is currently divided since the 1974 invasion of Turkey – see this link for more information.
  2. For more information please visit Save Akamas Facebook page here

Rony Junior is currently undertaking a BA in Art Direction & Curation at Kingston School of Art. He is practicing writer, visual artist, art practitioner and cultural worker with an interest in queer politics, cultural identity and sociology.

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