Secular art in Cyprus only begins to appear in the late 1800s. As historians state, until then, the only prevalent forms of artistic production belonged to the realms of the religious and the folkloric. These creative traditions reflected the history of the island from prehistoric times to Hellenisation, through the Byzantine era and onto the Frankish and Venetian periods, ending with the 16th century Ottoman conquest, which lasted for three centuries. Cyprus was ceded by the Ottoman Empire to Great Britain in 1878; it was declared a British colony in 1825 and remained so until the conclusion of the Liberation Struggle in 1959.
These historical circumstances meant that the island, always at the crossroads of civilizations, followed a very idiosyncratic path through what is known as early, classical and late modernity, and had less direct contact with the ideals of the Renaissance and later those of the Enlightenment, the cultural and intellectual movements which laid the foundations of modern societies as we understand them today, at least in the West. Furthermore, throughout the 20th century Cyprus had to deal with the conditions of western hegemony as well as with a number of grave internal problems, amongst them military conflict, consequent loss of life, displacement, territorial division and the impossibility of inter-communal exchange. The particular social, political and economic conditions shaping local life during this period are crucial to the understanding of the particular ways in which art has been produced and experienced so far, both within the island and in relation to the international scene.
Historiographers trace the first samples of signed artistic work to the naturalistic representations of Cypriot nature and local people created by amateur painters travelling from England in the late 19th century. Despite the very limited documentation, during the first decades of the 20th century there is some evidence of occasional solo shows by British artists either visiting Cyprus or settling as administrational and military officials. There were also exhibitions by Greek artists coming to teach in public schools, and the first local artists returning from their studies abroad. According to the available sources, the first organized group shows were set-up in the 1930s. They were open to all amateur and professional artists living on the island, and gave them the opportunity to show and sell their work for the first time.
Their immediate successors engaged in a more dedicated and consistent production, some as young graduates of acclaimed foreign art schools, others as self-taught artists sometimes making a late start, leaving a strong mark on the course of this period, both through their teaching and their individual artistic contributions. The most significant figures of this generation are widely considered to be Diamantis, Kanthos and Pol. Georgiou. Although their personal idiosyncrasies and artistic practices were distinctly different, they all combined their knowledge of European modernism with the local colour and reality of Cypriot life. These artists captured the turbulent history of over half a century leading up to Independence in 1960, and exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of Cypriot artists.
One very important figure making his appearance at this overwhelmingly transitional stage for the island is Christoforos Savva, who staged his first shows in Nicosia in the mid-1950s while still a student in the UK and in France. Too progressive for the local scene, Savva was not well received initially, only to be celebrated some years later - after his premature death - as the most significant precursor of Cypriot contemporary art, as an extremely charismatic personality and as an activist situated at the heart of the first intellectual, interdisciplinary movements making their presence in Nicosia in the early sixties.
In 1968, Cyprus participated in the Venice Biennale of Art with six young artists, whose work in many ways expressed the new State’s gradual transition into the spheres of modernism and abstraction. This first Cypriot appearance was put together by a Greek Venice-based art critic called Tony Spiteris, then acting as the General Secretary of AICA International. In 1966 Spiteris had been appointed by the Archbishop and first President of the Republic of Cyprus, Makarios III, as an independent governmental advisor on cultural matters. In this capacity he used his international influence to help establish connections with some of the most significant international exhibitions, like the Biennials of Venice and Sao Paolo, and the Paris Biennale of Young Artists.
At the time, and for years after the Declaration of Independence, still no public institution for culture existed in the country, apart from the Greek Community Assembly, which began its work in August 1960, under the Presidency of Constantinos Spiridakis, and which handled all matters of education and culture for the Greek-Cypriot Community. A similar Assembly handled respective matters for the Turkish Cypriot Community. Following the 1963-64 intercommunal conflicts and the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from central government, the Greek Community Assembly was replaced by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Cyprus. This was established in 1965 based on the ‘right of urgency’, and incorporated a small cultural department (Morfotiki Ipiresia) which gradually started to develop policies to support and promote Cypriot art within the island and beyond.
Despite the thorny internal political conditions, Cyprus in the 1960s was filled with optimism and light as the new state entered a stage of rapid transformations. At a moment when Cypriot art was starting to leap into academicism and introspection, a new group of dynamic and forward-looking artists, graduates of art schools that were stirring up the social and intellectual life of Europe at the time, brought back to the island the new discourses of abstraction in painting and sculpture, stimulating for the first time a kind of critical dialogue that sought to question the artistic and social status-quo. No one can tell where this empowering new beginning would have led, if it weren’t for the shock of the 1974 Turkish invasion, which resulted in great human and material loss, as well as large-scale displacement. This intensely traumatic period also had an overwhelming effect on local artists, who often responded by regressing to more realistic forms, or with a prolonged abstinence from creative production altogether.
The post-war era, leading into the 1980s, was filled with developments, as well as contradictions. The fast economic advancement of the island raised the standard of living and provided increased mobility and access to higher education. This is the time when the first professional galleries and modern cultural centres started to appear, while state-supported participation in various artistic events abroad resumed. The spirit of internationalism started to spread through the work of an expanded group of artists, who re-activated the local scene with their contributions and introduced new media and technologies, as well as new visual vocabularies connected to their respective places of training. Nevertheless, in a post-colonial society facing identity crisis, political instability and cultural and territorial division, the dominant mentalities remained conservative and introspective. A complex set of psychosocial workings dictated that art remained to a large extent socially and politically disengaged, concentrating instead on aesthetic and formal qualities, often through an individualistic and existential lens. It was certainly a time of insecurity, and a time for reflecting on the notion of belonging and the potential for progress and change.
During the next decades, and as the new West set-off to “discover” the critical peripheries outside the mainstream centres of art, there was a noticeable effort to bridge the gap between the local and the outside world. The new generation of artists, technologically informed and well-travelled, seemed more interested in world politics and global socio-economic phenomena. They started to use art as a means to make socially relevant statements and to deconstruct the traditionally dominant discourses. Likewise, there was a noticeable turn to the collective, both in terms of artistic content and practices. This was at least evident in the formation, from the 1990s onwards, of some artistic collectives staging multi-national group shows and happenings, as well as in the choice of new themes, which were increasingly preoccupied with an effort to constructively address the political reality in Cyprus.
The diversification of the Cypriot contemporary artistic scene is more visible today than ever before, with a broadened range of interdisciplinary activity and an increased participation in international events, collaboration with galleries and foreign museums, and the materialization of residency programmes abroad. Local artists, more self-reflective and critical of their own environment and employing an increasingly sophisticated language, are part of the global artworld and better equipped to take up its challenges. Accession to the EU in 2004 has opened up new communication networks and possibilities for institutional funding, boosting artistic mobility and promoting the values of diversity and multiculturalism.
Despite these huge transformations, however, the art sector in Cyprus is still facing a number of serious problems and shortcomings, both on the level of infrastructure and policy. For example, the state carrier for culture – the Cultural Services of the Ministry of Education and Culture - remains too small and under-staffed for its ever-growing mission. This is all the more discouraging considering that, in the absence of private sponsorship and a thriving art market, both individual and institutional activity is heavily dependent on state funding, which cannot fully support the continually expanding needs of the annual agendas. Nevertheless, the prospective upgrading and extension of the current State Gallery to a new space in the heart of old Nicosia, and the programmed establishment of an Art School, are expected to further support art-historical research and documentation, encourage the development of theory and criticism, and create more substantial platforms for analysis and self-evaluation. Furthermore, the planned creation of a General Directorate for Culture may gradually help to remedy some of these insufficiencies, re-affirming art and culture as crucial elements of socio-economic progress, particularly in a European State that remains so blatantly divided.
Sources on the first decades of visual arts activity in Cyprus:
Chrysanthos Christou, Short History of Modern and Contemporary Cypriot Art, Nicosia: Ministry of Education and Culture (1983) / Eleni S. Nikita, (Introduction) Collection of the State Gallery of Contemporary Cypriot Art, Nicosia: Ministry of Education and Culture (1990) and Visual Arts Activity in Cyprus from the Beginning of the Century up to the Independence, Nicosia: Ministry of Education and Culture (1997) / Rita C. Severis, Travelling Artists in Cyprus 1700-1960, London: Philip Wilson Publishers (2003).