Life on a Divided Island: The Urgency of Contemporary Art in Cyprus - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Life on a Divided Island: The Urgency of Contemporary Art in Cyprus


While some people mistake Cyprus for a Greek island, others romanticize its status as Europe’s last divided country. But there is another Cyprus: it is young and vibrant and it doesn’t shy away from putting the finger into the wound.

Born and raised in Nicosia and Limassol, artist Peter Eramian and photographer Stelios Kallinikou belong to the younger generation of Cypriot creatives who are reinvigorating their country’s cultural scene. Together they run the cultural space Thkio Ppalies, whose slang name alone, a Cypriot expression meaning “chop chop.” breaks with local  expectations of an art space. Before translating their shared ideology into four walls, Peter was one of the publishers of The Cyprus Dossier, a free magazine that circulated an accessible and critical dialogue of the island’s cultural and political issues. Stelios, meanwhile, just released a book, Flamingo Theatre, which showcases his long term photographic documentation of the dreamy but controversial Akrotiri peninsula in Limassol, that to this day is the site of a British RAF base.

While the majority of the island is still attuned to the slower, Cypriot mentality of “siga siga” (“slowly, slowly”), Peter and Stelios set their own pace, preferring to do things more rapidly.

“Cultural institutions in Cyprus tend to imitate things from outside Cyprus, but we wanted to do something that feels more local.”

  • What is the idea behind Thkio Ppalies and what does its name mean?

    Peter Eramian: Thkio Ppalies in Cypriot slang means something like, “Let’s do something really quickly”, or how they say in English, “chop chop.” It actually translates almost directly, because Thkio Ppalies literally means to cut with a big knife. For us this communicates an energy that we want to give the art scene in Cyprus. We also picked the name because it is a slang term and breaks with people’s expectations about a gallery space. Cultural institutions in Cyprus tend to imitate things from outside Cyprus, but we wanted to do something that feels more local.

  • Is there a story about how you found this place? Is it what you were looking for?

    Stelios Kallinikou: It started with the idea of the two of us sharing an office, so we were looking for a place—not necessarily an art space. Then I came across a rent sign for this one and I couldn’t even imagine how it would look from the inside. So we called the owner, he showed us the place and we knew we wanted to move in. Coming back to the name and its origin: when we moved in we found a sticker outside advertising some kind of plumbing service, it said “Thkio Ppalies” to advertise how quickly they offered their services, and we immediately knew this was our name.

  • Thkio Ppalies was also established as a space to connect like-minded people. How would you describe the local creative community?

    P: I think the creative community in Cyprus is really powerful and talented. Most of the young creative people I know have studied abroad, so they are aware of what is happening outside of this island. At the same time, they are producing work that is uniquely local, independent and visionary.

  • Do you feel that being Cypriot plays a key role in the work you do? How do you see that in other artists’ practices?

    S: It definitely influences my personal work, but I don’t want it to be the main theme. Because being an artist in Cyprus is not an easy choice, I think the work produced here has a very specific quality, it is quite raw in a way.

    P: Within the circles of people we work with you find this sense of urgency. It is not a middle class lifestyle they pursue with making art. Their work is valuable on a social and personal level, because there is a necessity for it to be made. If you go to London or Berlin you can find a lot more institutional support, but then being an artist can become more of a lifestyle. Whereas here being an artist is a struggle, due to the lack of institutional support and lack of understanding within the Cypriot society about what an artist could or should do. It’s a challenge, but one we welcome and make the most of.

  • A lot of Cypriots study abroad, as you yourselves did. Some return, some don’t. You both came back—so was it ever a question for you either to return to Cyprus or live somewhere else?

    S: It’s not something that I can explain. Of course there’s always the option of living somewhere else, but I just really like being here. That’s also why my practice as an artist moves around themes connected to this place.

    P: While I was in London, I could feel that the arts had become saturated and commodified and were being consumed without much thought. In Cyprus the scene is still so new and uncultivated, so you feel that every contribution you make has a value and that it’s needed. It’s not that I have a problem with places like London, of course you can find a lot of incredible work and ideas in such creative centers, but I think generally the value of art has a lot to do with the context in which it is being produced and in which it is being presented. Sometimes I like to give this—admittedly bad—example: If you’re eating ten pizzas, however good the tenth pizza is, you’re going to be sick of it. During my time in London so much was happening but somehow at some point I wasn’t interested very much at all. In Cyprus a lot is happening as well, but many projects are completely self-initiated, artists feel the urgency to make things happen and are willing to struggle without any institutional support. Links and communities are being formed. And because Cyprus is so small, our actions feel much more significant and effective. I think that’s amazing.

“People come here and say: Wow, Europe’s last divided country. For us it’s not about that. What makes this place special are the things that are here, not the narratives that are constructed around this place.”

  • How does the political situation of living in a divided country influence your lives and work?

    S: For my work the circumstances play a crucial role. All my practices are developed around the issues present here. I’d like to think that the whole island is my art studio. But don’t get me wrong, this is not because I am Cypriot and I am living in a divided country. I’m not interested in my country in a nationalistic sense. It is more that I am trying to use the conflict here as a starting point to speak about something more general in my work, about the human condition, about how we as humans negotiate with the situations around us.

    P: The political situation in Cyprus is—and has been for a while—a bit of a cliche and so is talking about the situation. It’s always very easy to talk about things from a nationalistic perspective or a very simplified perspective. So what I think Stelios does in his photographic work is, instead of focusing on that core political narrative, he explores around it: What are the social effects? How can they be interpreted aesthetically instead of explicitly? How does this whole thing work outside this very dominant political narrative?

    S: Our generation can look at the history of Cyprus’ division from a distance. It’s been over 40 years now and this distance gives us the opportunity to view it differently than our parents could. A lot of people from the previous generations were displaced, living the life of refugees in their own country and their trauma also shapes how they currently talk about the situation. I feel I can speak about the topic with more immediacy. I’m interested in the now and how the now is showing itself in really nuanced ways within our everyday lives. I’m not trying to educate anyone or use my work to raise awareness. I want to reach people on a rather personal level.

    P: It’s not just about shooting the Green Line or the barriers any longer. This has almost turned into a rather touristy thing. People come here and say, “Wow, Europe’s last divided country!” For us it’s not about that. What makes this place special are the things that are here, not the narratives that are constructed around this place.

At the apartment of Stelios

  • What was it like to live through the time of the financial crisis in 2012 and 2013?

    S: Of course the crisis influenced our lives dramatically. Things have been more difficult but at the same time also new opportunities opened up for artists. It also taught people to appreciate and utilize the things around them.

    P: It humbled down a lot of people—but in a good way. Cyprus was seeking this kind of European identity, a lot of money came in, real estate was flourishing, the island was booming. Then the crisis came and however much we should be critical of the source of the crisis, its effects made people rethink the value of that expensive car or third house they were thinking of buying, and realize that Cyprus after all isn’t so bad, we can find pleasure in simpler things, in each other, we can work with what we have here—in our own way.

  • You once said that The Cyprus Dossier would receive cynical remarks stating that there isn’t an audience in Cyprus for such a journal. Why would people say that?

    P: In Cyprus people are sometimes afraid to analyze things too much. Which is okay—sometimes I’m afraid to analyze things too much as well! But people here often think of intellectual discourse as either intimidating or pretentious. But actually The Cyprus Dossier was always free because we wanted to make it as accessible as possible. You might think it’s pretentious, but then it is free—so you might as well just pick up a copy and decide for yourself!

“We like the idea of moving, doing different things, changing paths. Also with this space: it’s not about a bigger plan, we just go with the energy of the space, with the now.”

  • Peter, you started The Cyprus Dossier in 2011 and by the end of 2015 you announced that the journal would not be continued after nine successful issues. How did you feel about The Cyprus Dossier coming to an end?

    P: It didn’t end for any specific reason other than the fact that it wasn’t working practically anymore. We (Marios Menelaou, Entafianos A. Entafianos and I) had all sort of grown up and committed to other jobs and projects. Nine issues seemed like a good circle for us. Right now we’re looking into the possibility of creating three hardback volumes with selected contributions from all issues of The Cyprus Dossier, an anthology of sorts. The content we collected and published over these four years is certainly very important historically as well as socially for this island, I think it will benefit greatly being published in a more durable and archivable format.

    I’d like to believe that The Cyprus Dossier in fact made intellectual conversation more accessible and that it gave the Cyprus problem an angle that was different from the mainstream political narratives in the news everyday. Also in terms of graphic design, thanks to our designers Piero Di Biase and Alberto Moreu (of studio Think Work Observe), I think it introduced a style that was not present in Cyprus back then and inspired a lot of young graphic designers.

  • Is Thkio Ppalies a continuation of these efforts in a different way?

    P: I think it definitely is. Not necessarily in a similar way, but with the same intensity. I personally wanted to transition to something more physical and direct. Finding a balance between the intellectual and physical state of my work, or rather translate the one into the other. Because this is what Thkio Ppalies is: an intellectual project translated into a physical space.

    S: We like the idea of moving, doing different things, changing paths. Also with this space: it’s not about a bigger plan, we just go with the energy of the space, with the now. People sometimes complain that our exhibitions change too fast, but it is almost out of our control, because people come to us with such interesting projects all the time. And helping others to realize these projects is also a healthy learning process for us as artists, almost like a second university.

Point Centre for Contemporary Art

Situated between the charming old city of Nicosia and its modern but worn down commercial centre, Point, directed by Andre Zivanari, showcases contemporary work by Cypriot and international artists and supports cultural production from various disciplines and practices.

Moufflon Bookshop

Moufflon has been around for longer than the country has been divided. Run by Ruth Keshishian, the bookshop offers a wide range of antiquarian and specialty publications relevant to Cypriot history and culture, in English and other languages.

Neoterismoi Toumazou – exhibition space

Since 2011 Neoterismoi Toumazou (Neo Toum) has been an evolving space for exhibitions in the heart of Nicosia’s old city. It begun as Maria Toumazou’s grandfather’s old clothing store and in 2014 along with artists Marina Xenofontos and Orestis Lazouras was turned into a gallery space with a curated program of emerging local and international artists. Neo Toum also produce fashion stories, editions and multiples related to the shop’s clothing stock. The products explore an alternative art funding model and are part of a larger concern that resonates with the obsolete local consumer industry which had once sustained the space.

A κχoffee Project

The third wave of coffee finally swapped over to Cyprus. Whoever likes to enjoy artisan coffee—whether hot or cold—will come to κχoffee Project just little outside of the old city.

Thank you, Peter and Stelios, for showing us around your hometown and giving us such an immediate insight into your work and lives. For everyone interested in their work, visit Peter’s and Stelios’ websites. All 9 issues of the Cyprus Dossier can still be read online, and to find out about the current exhibition schedule head to Thkio Ppalies’ website.

Interview & Text: Vanessa Oberin
Photography: Panagiotis Mina