Art and politics mix in Cyprus

On a theatre wall in Turkish Nicosia someone has used chalk to scrawl two stick figure men extending their arms to shake hands, but they cannot reach because their feet are separate, deeply entangled tree roots.

    The exhibition is being held in the world's last divided capital

    In the Greek Cypriot south of the city - the world's last divided capital - street signs are plastered with stickers reading "Cyprus: One Island Under Self-Control", credited to a Cyprus unionist party which does not exist.

    And, near the desolate UN buffer zone that has separated north from south for three decades, a football goalpost rests in an empty field.


    The netting has been removed and replaced with large coils of barbed wire, spearing several deflated soccer balls and suspending them in the air.


    "The idea is a game that turns into a barrier," said Katerina Gregos, explaining that these odd sights are not the work of vandals but part of an unprecedented cross-border art show she is curating in Nicosia this month.


    Leaps of Faith aims to address the division of Nicosia, partitioned along with the rest of Cyprus since 1974 when Turkish forces invaded the north in response to a Greek Cypriot coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.


    Uniting two cities


    But Gregos acknowledged that bringing together two cities that share only a sewage system and that do not have direct telephone contact is a feat that cannot be achieved with a simple art show.


    Katerina Gregos (L) and Erden
    Kosova (R) organised the event

    "People will stumble into it accidentally," said Greek-born Gregos, who is organising the project with a Turkish counterpart Erden Kosova. "We're not counting audience numbers."


    The curators worked with close to 30 artists from Greek and Turkish Cyprus, Mexico, South Africa, Britain, Lebanon and beyond.


    "I wanted to bring into the Cyprus context a different language, something visual and provocative that provokes self-reflection," said Rana Zincir, the project initiator, who was born in the United States to a Turkish father and Turkish Cypriot mother.


    The 13-29 May show cost $250,000 to put together and was funded by a number of organisations including the UN Bi-communal Development Programme.


    The art exhibit coincides with another event in Nicosia, the International Children's Film Festival of Cyprus, which aims to give children from both communities an opportunity to watch and talk about films together.


    Street art


    Installations from the Leaps of Faith show are not found in art galleries, but in empty storefronts, deserted hotels and garages on both sides of Nicosia.


    The exhibit is also set up inside
    the UN-patrolled buffer zone

    And in a first for Nicosia, the exhibits are also set up inside the UN-patrolled buffer zone, the jagged Green Line which stretches for 180km and in parts is only a few metres wide.


    In a work of performance art, a local art professor arranged for 37 of her students to wrap themselves in straitjackets and try to pass from north to south through Turkish and Greek Cypriot checkpoints.


    "I don't think of the straitjacket as a symbol of anything or as a metaphor, but they are a very strong image," said Anber Onar, 40, a lecturer in visual arts at the Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus.


    "They have lots of force, keeping people's hands tied so someone else can take care of your mental being, how they exclude and include people, how we decide what is normal."


    Her students marched in single file to the checkpoint, but many who carried Turkish ID cards but not passports were not allowed to cross into Greek Cypriot controlled Nicosia, so the students returned in two separate lines, Onar said.


    Open border


    In a major development in the conflict, the border between the internationally recognised south and the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was opened in 2003 and guards are supposed to allow passage to anyone with a passport.


    "For me, it's the heart of Nicosia that needs to be repaired... And it's putting people in the mindset that things can change"

    Katerina Attalidou,

    "The Turkish Cypriots who were not allowed to pass were very offended," said Onar. "They saw it as a judgment of their identity. It made them say, 'Yes! I am a Cypriot!'"


    However, while most artists in Leaps of Faith travelled from north to south to complete their research, no Greek Cypriot work is on display in the Turkish Cypriot sector, and similarly, no Turkish Cypriot art is on display in the Greek Cypriot south.


    Even Onar was sceptical about the outcome, saying: "I don't think it is solving anything at all."


    Inside a once-empty shop in southern Nicosia, Greek Cypriot artist Katerina Attalidou, 31, used one wall for her photographs of immigrants in Nicosia, and one corner to place a creation of her own: a large heart made of pink plastic garbage bags taped together.


    Beneath the plastic, a fan on a timer inflated the heart so that it filled with air, and its top nearly reached an iron-barred window. Then, the heart deflated, only to be filled again, over and over.


    "For me, it's the heart of Nicosia that needs to be repaired," Attalidou said. "And it's putting people in the mindset that things can change."



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