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by Louli Michaelidou

Cyprus in Venice: Art, Politics, and Modernity at the Margins of Europe

Over the last decades, the representation of the Cyprus Republic[1] in the Venice Biennale has developed a ‘civilizational’ discourse merging the kindred categories of modernism and nationalism. This coupling served a two-fold function. On the one hand, it reproduced the system of cultural representation that came to support the transfiguration of the new state’s profile, drawing on those constituents that provided a powerful source of meaning for the modern, Greek Cypriot cultural identity. On the other hand, by connecting, at least up until the early 2000s, this conception of identity with the classical and universal values that were simultaneously Hellenism’s endorsed contributions to modern civilization, it attempted to prove the validity and relevance of Greek Cypriot artistic production to the broader international context of Western art. At the same time, it strove to assert the ‘authenticity’ of the ‘local,’ that is, a ‘local’ whose historical and cultural ‘weight’ also made it ‘universal.’

The approximate fifty-year span from the late Sixties until today frames a vigorous and intense modernization process for post-colonial Cyprus, which coincides with its problematic project of liberal democracy. An extensive body of mainly social anthropological research on post- colonial Cyprus which has developed over the last decades, has demonstrated the profound impact of nationalism on the modern history of Cyprus, an ideology whose dominance and resilience throughout and beyond modernity lies in its cultural roots. A relevant sociohistorical assessment has indicated that the construction of the Greek Cypriot identity in particular has been fundamentally informed by three broader, interrelated ideological discourses—Hellenocentrism,[2] Eurocentrism, and Western Hegemony—synthesizing a condition of ‘symbolic domination’ of the mind that has consistently prevented Cypriots from reflecting on their own colonial and postcolonial condition.[3]

As part of my research on these topics, I have focused on the official participation of the Republic of Cyprus in the Venice Biennale of Art from 1968 onwards,[4] a period coinciding with the island’s post-independence and postcolonial period. The history of the Cyprus Pavilion was taken as a case study of the relationships between Greek Cypriot art and the socio-political dynamics on the island during this period. I was specifically interested in how the presence of Cyprus in this major international event, calling for national representation, has been influenced by the dominant visions of Greek Cypriot identity and history, not only on an institutional and policy level, but also with respect to artistic and textual content, and whether these discourses have evolved across time; all the while, without losing sight of the problems surrounding the notion of ‘national representation,’ specifically for Cyprus, which is not a nation but a divided state, and more generally for the globalized art world where such political, ideological, and institutional classifications are steadily growing obsolete. This exploration attempted to illustrate a set of interactions between the local and the global context of art: in this case, the ‘global’ as contextualized inside the Western institution of the Venice Biennale (where Greek Cypriots seem to primarily desire recognition); and the ‘local,’ reflecting the emerging picture of Cyprus as a modern, independent society, striving to ‘reclaim’ its European cultural membership through the paradoxes of its postcolonial subjectivity.

My broader research aimed to situate the content and politics of the Cyprus Pavilion across time, highlighting the prevailing dominant discourses on a number of levels; at the same time, by employing ideas and methods in art and social theory, postcolonial studies, and anthropology (especially social anthropological research on Cyprus), all of which critique any notions of ‘the West and the Rest,’ it attempted to indicate and analyze how, in the context of art, many postcolonial societies like Cyprus are still caught in positions of self-degradation vis-à-vis the West. But given that the latter is not an identity or a destination to be reached, but “a historical construct that emerged within the context of colonialism and neo-colonialism as an instrument of division and power,” this becomes a “symbolic” and continuously self-defeating struggle.[5]

The 34th edition of the Venice Biennale echoed the social upheaval that was taking place generally in the world following the heated spring of 1968. It was at this pivotal moment for art and politics that the new Republic of Cyprus came to participate in the Venice Biennale for the first time, with six artists[6] and a small exhibition of paintings and sculptures at the back of the Giardini’s Italian Pavilion.

In 1968, eight years after the Declaration of Cypriot Independence, still no public institution for culture existed in the country, apart from “Community Assemblies” for the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities, respectively. The first national participation in the Venice Biennale was thus assigned to Tony Spiteris, an influential Greek art critic and academic working internationally. Spiteris had been appointed in 1966 by the first President of the Republic, Archbishop Makarios III,[7] to be independent governmental advisor of the Cyprus Republic on cultural matters.  

Makarios seemed to be well aware of culture’s instrumental role in constructing a positive profile of the newly founded State abroad. Such high-profile biennials, beyond their objective value as historical artistic platforms, and structurally built on the notion of national participation, also constituted a platform on which to project an identity for the ‘nation,’ or in this case the young state. The politically turbulent 1960s in Cyprus, marked by intercommunal violence and the precarious links of the Greek junta with local pro-unionists, possibly made this cultural opportunity a political one, too.

Once he took office, Makarios pursued a policy of independence for Cyprus, which he saw as the way to eliminate inter-ethnic conflict and ensure more political stability on the island. To some extent, this direction was in line with Cypriotism, the de-ethnicized political ideology that emphasized the independent social, political, cultural, and economic interests of Cyprus. But even though Cypriotism contended the autonomy of Cyprus on all these levels, it rarely took the form of complete disengagement from Greece and Turkey, thus it never became a systematic movement capable of challenging the island’s ideological orthodoxy; furthermore, Makarios’ policy of independence was mainly supported by part of the right and the majority of the center, encompassing the clergy, the urban bourgeoisie, and the Greek-educated intelligentsia, who were the main carriers of Greek-Cypriot nationalism. It is then no surprise that the definition of post-independence Greek Cypriot cultural identity, on an ideological level, became imbued with Hellenocentric values. In fact, since enosis (union with Greece) could no longer be a political goal, the Greek nation became a cultural entity, and the ‘Greekness’ of Cyprus was mainly articulated through only one of its many possible dimensions, the cultural.[8] The fact that the policy of independence, similarly to Cypriotist positions, did not claim the existence of a ‘Cypriot nation’ was also accommodating to the longstanding popular and high-level conviction that Greek-Cypriot culture undoubtedly belonged to the greater community of the Greek nation and, by extension, also to Europe and the ‘modern world.’[9]

In this sense, the choice of a Greek curator to foster Cypriot representation in the 1968 Venice Biennale, also given the lack of Cypriot experts, would have seemed natural; so would, for example, the almost exclusive focus on Greek Cypriot artists throughout the next decades, or the enduring preoccupation with Hellenocentric ideas illustrated in the Cyprus Pavilion themes and discourses. Here are some examples from the works on show: Giorgos Kyriakou’s sculptures in the 1968 exhibition carried Greek mythological and epic symbolism, with names like Icarus, Phaedra, and Penelope, and Giorgos Skotinos’ surrealistic paintings depicted mythological creatures, summoning ancient Greek kingdoms of Cyprus; in 1986, Maria Loizidou presented her installation The Myth of Ariadne in Three Acts, borrowing its theme from Greek mythology and the story of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, in the Minoan Kingdom of Crete; Angelos Makrides’ sculptural installations in 1988 alluded to archaeological relics, mythical deities, or pagan rituals and made explicit references to ancient Greek history, philosophy, and mythology; in 1990, Nikos Kouroussis created an installation with video entitled Odyssey (Odyssia), taking Ulysses’ adventurous journey as a metaphor for personal and collective struggle, while Theodoulos Gregoriou’s Autofoto-Heterofoto for Aperto in the same year was a geometric rendition of Aristotelian principles; in 2001, Andreas Karayan introduced a series of large-scale paintings titled Personae, evoking the Egyptian Faiyum death masks—historically, a prestigious form of art, closely connected to Greco-Roman traditions and Byzantine iconography, witnessing the lingering influence of Greek settlements in the Faiyum area since the Ptolemaic period.

It should be said that there was often a disparity between this obvious pattern and the works themselves, in that beyond their loaded nominal symbolism, many of the pavilion projects were artistically ‘in tune’ - all artists without exception were trained in the “main art centres” of Europe, as the catalogue texts liked to stress, and they were selected to participate precisely for the perceived contemporary qualities of their work. Insofar as these works can be considered in retrospect as representative of certain artistic traditions, history, and heritage, their critical interpretation is a legitimate objective—after all, artists are themselves products and agents of specific socio-historical spaces. Nonetheless, I was much more interested here in the ideologically motivated interpretative narratives developing around their work, as well as the responsibility of the historian, critic, and theorist towards historical, cultural, and scientific awareness. As Robert Storr[10] argued, the exhibition-maker is a mediator between the art and the audience, and has a responsibility to make the messages as transparent as possible, “by facilitating this expansion of meaning rather than by containing it.” Extending, also, Edward Said’s arguments in Orientalism, and Barthes’ in Writing Degree Zero, beyond the realm of literature, a writer is always caught up in particular discursive and ideological orders and their historical and socially instituted traditions.

Spiteris’ language in the official Biennale catalogue in 1968[11] unmistakably illustrated the Eurocentric positions that have dominated 20th-century art, as well as notions of Western hegemony and symbolic domination.[12] That is, Cypriot art, suffering the isolation imposed by colonialism and the conservatism of the periphery, was finally—and rightfully—tuning into progress and contemporaneity as endorsed by the Western centers of art. At the same time, and in line with the pluralistic interpretations so common to art from the periphery, he was highlighting particular characteristics of the island’s culture as embodied in the artists’ works. Spiteris’ official assignment was evidently driven by a set of broader cultural assumptions. It is worth noting, however, that it was executed from an independent and informed perspective and, despite the force of internal contentions, establishing a set of conditions that for a long time the Cypriot participation was striving to reinstate and preserve.

The narratives of ancestry and uniformity that lie at the heart of the broader rhetoric on Greek identity are also typical of the texts on Greek Cypriot—and Greek—art, and the tautology of ideas in the excerpts is more than symptomatic. The literary language we come across in the 1986 Cyprus catalogue texts by the Cypriot commissioner/curator and a Greek art historian[13] exemplifies, in Bhabha’s terms, the “romantic and excessively metaphorical” (one could add here the “metaphysical”) way in which the myth of the nation emerges as a historical idea,[14] in this case being reproduced at least on three levels: the linear continuity with the Classical past, the artist as agent of historical purity and truth, and the artwork as bearer of a universal and absolute (classical) aesthetic. Such renditions are, of course, full of paradoxes, one of the greatest being that nationalist historicizing renders history itself ahistorical; as Fabian[15] and Herzfeld[16] remarked, in this type of rhetoric, history is not described as an “open cycle” but as a “finite linearity,” which is predestined and exists outside time. As time is compressed, the transient nature of social realities, on which identities are constructed, also becomes suppressed.

The quintessence of a “peripheral though internationally competent” artistic production, bringing the ‘local’ and the ‘international’ to a successful synthesis—this is how artist Angelos Makrides was appraised in 1988. On a single page, the catalogue text[17] condensed many of the ideological schemata underpinning the writings on Greek Cypriot art, from the modern cult of the artist and the isolation from Western values, to notions of pure art and identity—the latter acquiring regional and national (classical) projections, through a mainly stylistic assessment.

The 1990 theme by Kouroussis provided the opportunity to rekindle one of the most classic literary concepts in the Greek-speaking world, further popularized in modern times in Constantine Kavafy’s poem Ithaki (Ithaca). The text, by a frequently contributing Greek art writer,[18] takes Odysseus’ (Ulysses’) epic journey as a poetic allusion to the artist’s long and arduous creative endeavors, heightened by the parallel national struggles of his native place and its (Greek Cypriot) people for ‘return’ (i.e. to the north, under Turkish occupation since 1974).

The treatment of myth outside its socio-cultural context and its equation with reality and history, illustrating a fundamental premise on which the nationalist rhetoric is founded, also outlines the poetic analysis of Theodoulos’ work for Aperto ‘90, as does the glorification of the artist as a source of “eternal,” “primary light” (autofoto) and the agent of an absolute “truth” that “lies beyond.”[19] Barolsky contextualizes these ideas in his insightful analysis of the “modern cult” of the artist that has dominated the Western history of art, tracing its origins in imaginative literature, poetry, and fiction, and indeed in Homeric and Hellenic tradition. Far from the Hegelian-inspired, scientific investigation of artistic development, in this model—which began to form with Dante and Vasari, and blossomed with 19th-century Romanticism—the idea of the artist is rooted in the epic poet; here, art history is not treated as an academic discipline, but as a literary form, a kind of “artful storytelling about art, which aspires, however imperfectly, to ascertain the historical truth.”[20]

The Commissioner’s text on Glafkos Koumides in 1999 reasserts the ethno-Eurocentric narratives on the catastrophic effect of Ottoman times on Hellenic culture; the dubious infusion of Cypriot art with Eastern folk elements during the Byzantine era; the triumph of Neoclassicism through the reunification of Greece—and subsequently of Cyprus—with the European West; and, finally, the tradition-breaking postwar alignment of Cypriot art with mainstream modernism, which was subverted by the trauma of the Turkish invasion forcing artists back to their local roots.[21]

The writings of a Greek art historian[22] on Andreas Karayan in 2001 exemplify the poetic mechanisms employed in the fetishization of history[23] and the resolute adaptation of these interpretative schemes for the analysis and validation of Greek-Cypriot art, among others, as an extension of Greek art, and of Hellenic culture in the broader sense. The eulogizing, epic nature of the language, combined with the exaggerated aestheticization of form, draw a long axis that take in every possible literary stereotype of Greekness, from antiquity and the romantic love of ruins to the sacred ecstasy of Greek Orthodoxy, fixed together in a pre-modern celebration of art as divine perfection. Epitomizing the paradigms of Bourdieu on bourgeois taste, and of Barolsky on the modern artist’s cult, this is the kind of oppressive, ideological discourse that has framed the evaluative codes of Greek art for much of the 20th century and beyond, filtering into the realm of Cypriot art.

Interestingly, some of the texts by non-Cypriot or Greek curators have also partaken in the discussion (and eulogies) of Greek Cypriot artists’ works as exemplifying the classical Greek spirit, a notion that is otherwise in line with a long tradition of Westerners (and Greeks) treating Cyprus as part of the Greek world. [24]

What these examples serve to illustrate is that, up to as far as the start of the millennium, the national pavilion has tended to reflect the ideological orientations of the broader Greek-Cypriot society, promoting a peculiar mix of traditional and nationalist identity scripts alongside internationalist ideas, and progressive expressions next to archaic grand narratives.

Often in this context, it was the approaches to art—informed by Greek Cypriot bourgeois perceptions of superior Western culture—rather than the art itself, that have been more infused by unexamined ideas like the classical canon and the norms of taste.

What a broader look into Cypriot mainstream art texts and catalogue introductions of the past decades would, in fact, reveal is that they tend to oscillate between eulogy (i.e. of artists and works, of the spirit of the Greek nation, of Europe as civilizational destination) and dismissal (i.e., of Cyprus as backward, isolated, and not in touch with true, commonly Western ideals of progress). But as it has been demonstrated,[25] eulogy and dismissal are dialectically linked (e.g., eulogizing the West means dismissing Cypriots as not Western enough, etc.).

Thus, beyond its nationalist assumptions, the mainstream rhetoric of Greek Cypriot art also remained largely preoccupied with stylistic genealogy and teleology, dictating that art must be ranked within a hierarchical system that keeps striving for Western validation. It is arguably the same civilizational presumption that feeds many of the desires and expectations of the Cypriot art community in the Venice Biennale, insisting on a senseless, Sisyphean mission that remains unfulfilled.[26]

Evidently, the Cypriot national representation in this event spontaneously became a vehicle for the promotion of the dominant perceptions around Greek Cypriot cultural identity, while expressing certain genuine needs in the midst of uncertain and turbulent times: on a civic and institutional level, the need to define a historical, cultural, spiritual, and politically autonomous territory, under the roof of the nation-state; on a more intimate level, to articulate a script of belongingness to a distinct particular identity, based on which individual agents could locate themselves in the world and discover their ‘authentic selves,’ often coming to replicate, under the specific circumstances, Greek national identity repertoires. The almost unique opportunity provided by the Venice Biennale to present autonomous national exhibitions of contemporary art, thus highlighting national fulfillment and self-determination and linking the international political and artistic society on equal footing, composed a double paradox for the Republic of Cyprus: a Republic which starkly illustrates the problematic though widely employed conjointment of ‘nation-state’ where at least one side claims to be a different nation with its own (unrecognized) state.[27]

More recent participations in particular, pursuing a closer dialogue with broader artistic debates, started to introduce to the Cyprus Pavilion an alternative range of discourses around cultural myths and absolute notions of identity, stressing the role of artists and cultural agents in challenging social realities.[28] Often, these discourses placed Cyprus in the lens of the broader center–periphery discussions, addressing the notion of the ambivalence of postcolonial modernity.

Panayiotis Michael’s I Promise, You Will Love Me Forever was a subtle critique of the Cypriot ‘present,’ developed around notions of deception, heterogeneity, and illusive consciousness, nonetheless opening to the possibilities of constructing alternative worlds and trajectories for thought and action. Sharing the 2005 pavilion with Michael, Konstantia Sofokleous’ short and uneasy animated films spoke of disorientation and otherness, and our need to create new worlds in order to deal with our human precariousness and vulnerability. [29]

The following show, Old Earth, No More Lies, I’ve Seen You in 2007, presented the work of Haris Epaminonda and Mustafa Hulusi—the only artist of Turkish Cypriot origin to participate thus far in the national pavilion. Again, the visual and textual topics emphasized fragments rather than wholes, uncertainties over absolute truths, and disruptions over continuities, reflecting the ambivalence that has dominated modernity, and certainly that of the Eastern Mediterranean periphery to which Cyprus belongs. Drawing on the writings of critical philosophy and literature, the show explored the delicate semiologies perforating the artists’ research, citing the critical transcript of an incomplete modernity that calls for new historical readings.[30]

The ambivalence of the Cypriot political sphere was a central feature in Socratis Socratous’ Rumours, for the 2009 Pavilion. Through an elaborate series of installations, photographs, film, and staged performances, the work stood as a striking metaphor to illustrate the absurd politics of separation between the two ethnic Communities of Cyprus, and the cultural stereotypes these politics cater for domestically and in relation to the outside world.[31]As it negotiated notions of identity, history, culture, politics, conflict, and propaganda, it came to verify—via the great stir it caused locally—how the political space of this divided island diachronically provides fertile ground for the ‘infestation’ of rumors and twisted politics.

Socratis Socratous, Rumours, 2009, Poster for the Cyprus Pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition  – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Socratis Socratous.

Socratis Socratous, Rumours, 2009, Poster for the Cyprus Pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Socratis Socratous.

Christodoulos Panayiotou’s work is best known for discursively exploring the forged narratives of history, while a substantial part of his research constitutes a critical investigation of hegemonic historiographies and dominant ideologies in his home country. In his solo exhibition Two Days After Forever at the 2015 Cyprus Pavilion, the artist, through an act of meticulous staging and adopting a multidisciplinary approach, articulated a critique of modernity’s hyperbolic and aspirational fabric and its inconsistent notion of progress.[32]

Christodoulos Panayiotou, Untitled, 2015, painting and gold on wood, 85 x 125 cm. Two Days After Forever  – Cyprus Pavilion at the 56rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Aurélien Mole.

Christodoulos Panayiotou, Untitled, 2015, painting and gold on wood, 85 x 125 cm. Two Days After Forever – Cyprus Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Aurélien Mole.

Christodoulos Panayiotou, 2008, 2008, shredded paper (Cypriot pounds), dimensions variable. Two Days After Forever – Cyprus Pavilion at the 56rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Aurélien Mole.

Christodoulos Panayiotou, 2008, 2008, shredded paper (Cypriot pounds), dimensions variable. Two Days After Forever – Cyprus Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Aurélien Mole.

Two years later, Polys Peslikas’s painting exhibition The Future of Colour set the stage for a series of artistic exchanges in the various city spaces it occupied with local and international guest artists[33], over the course of the project. The show “invoked the spirit of the Eastern Mediterranean as a zone of travel and trade”, where poetic knowledge has the potency to contest “the false securities of catastrophic thought”, while “paying homage to the vibrant insecurities of life and the trade of ideas”, rendering past and future in new colours.[34]

Among the things these more recent approaches serve to highlight are the general and specific absurdities surrounding the notion of ‘national representation’ in the Venice Biennale, as well as the implausible individual and collective dreams it continues to breed.[35] At the same time, Biennale directors have been tackling the notion of the ‘national’ as a problematic key of address in every new edition. Bice Curiger called it a “taboo” and a “great anachronism” in the globalized art world, so revealing and interesting for art at the same time.[36] Two years earlier, Daniel Birnbaum stated that while the format of national representation may seem obsolete, in reality it seems to work, providing a perfect platform to challenge notions of cultural and political identity.[37] The Venice shows, inside and outside the main exhibitions, are filled with artists who are often based outside their native countries, while national pavilions by now possess a substantial precedent of both ‘native’ and ‘non-national’ artists who critically challenge the national format itself, often in antagonism with the official positions (and histories) of the sovereign states and nations they are invited to represent. In 2013, Cyprus and Lithuania collaborated, co-commissioned and co-produced a joint pavilion, featuring a number of national and international artists of different generations.


Christodoulos Panayiotou, 2008, 2008, shredded paper (Cypriot pounds), dimensions variable. Two Days After Forever – Cyprus Pavilion at the 56rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Aurélien Mole.

Maria Hassabi, Intermission, 2013, live installation. (In the background: Phanos Kyriacou, Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, 2013, installation): oO -Joint Pavilion of Cyprus and Lithuania at the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Robertas Narkus.

oO, 2013: Poster (Cyprus) for the joint Pavilion of Cyprus and Lithuania at the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

Constantinos Taliotis, The Day the Landie Stood Still, 2013. Sculpture. oO - Joint Pavilion of Cyprus and Lithuania at the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Constantinos Taliotis.

Lia Haraki, Tune In, 2012: Solo movement performance. oO - Joint Pavilion of Cyprus and Lithuania at the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Haris Antoniades.

Although up to that point multinational presentations were common to the Venice Biennale, this was the first concrete example of two countries joining together to challenge the longstanding national format of the event.[38] Evidently, when it comes to tackling the polemics of national representation, it appears that such issues have so far been better articulated through the national pavilion exhibitions, rather than the official shows.

Indeed, the national remains substantial and relevant beyond the global centers where such debates become mainstreamed. As so many theorists have argued over the years, it may well be too soon to declare the “postnational moment.” As Rebecca Bryant argued in the context of Cyprus, for instance, the postnational vision of the postmodern, globalized world did not replace the national but in fact supplanted it dialectically.[39] Within contemporary art, a biennial of this nature and scale offers something both precious and powerful: a “social space” where “cosmopolitan, nomadic and local communities overlap,” creating “new imaginaries.”[40] This overlap can also create a space for the national, not as representation, but as critique.

An analysis attempting to situate the case of Cypriot art in the frame of cross-cultural survey beyond the ‘West’ inevitably returns to the big question of modernity as an unrealized project. It illustrates how this ambivalent space at the margins of Europe reflects the notional dichotomies between national-international, traditional-modern, East-West and local-global, asserting these paradoxical and non-linear relationships as key features of Cypriot postcolonial modernity and art. In its concluding reflections, it asserts the view that the ‘contemporary problem,’ in the Greek Cypriot art context, is essentially a ‘problem of the modern.’ Nonetheless, it is one that contains the potential for new understandings, through a multidisciplinary approach that assists the critical rethinking and reconfiguration of one’s flustered history. This position raises again questions of sociopolitical agency in curatorial practice.

In the expanded field of production, the blurred boundaries between artist and curator force us to revisit the notion of authorship and renegotiate the distinctions between creativity and facilitation. In certain settings, both curatorial practice and the discussions around it have been exhausted to such an extent that the exhibition may no longer represent an absolute end, but merely a stage in the curatorial process. In other cases, curatorial activity may concentrate purely on academic research. These interesting shifts are certainly symptomatic of the complex nexus of problems perforating the realm of contemporary art and culture, and the increased theoretical, historical, and analytical capacity required to deal with them effectively.

However, concentrating solely on alternative modes of curatorial activity and these broader notions of what constitutes an exhibition may weigh differently in places where fundamental discussions (aesthetic, historical, social, and political) are only just emerging. Thus, the ground to be covered by curatorial practice that delves into modernity and its histories remains vast; the experience of projects such as Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924-1968) at the Cyprus Pavilion in 2019[41]—a gesture that pointed among others to the need to understand and acknowledge the validity of Cypriot artistic modernity, as part of a multiplicity of artistic modernities, so frequently neglected in dominant narratives—serves to highlight this reality.


Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968), 2019, installation view. Cyprus Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Rachele Maistrello.

Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968), 2019, installation view. Cyprus Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Rachele Maistrello.

Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968), 2019, installation view. Cyprus Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Rachele Maistrello.

Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968), 2019, installation view. Cyprus Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Rachele Maistrello.

Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968), 2019, installation views. Cyprus Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photograph by: Rachele Maistrello.

And while affirming the interdependence of contemporary curatorial practice and theoretical research, such surveys can also demonstrate how art, politics, nation, and modernity can be linked substantively through a curatorial project. This pairing certainly opens to a vast range of discursive and analytical potential for contemporary art, while possibly expanding the discipline’s scope to cultural intervention on these and other loci of enquiry like gender, sexuality, class, and migration, consistently overlooked in peripheral sites throughout modernity. Extending the arguments of Edward Said and Stuart Hall on the need for contemporary historiography and theory to revisit the ‘modern’ in its cultural specificity, reconfiguring the modern moment as a historical category, the scope of curatorial practice within the convoluted dwellings of the postcolonial, postmodern periphery can entail a vision of practice with a transformative force.  

Louli Michaelidou works at the Cyprus Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (Visual Arts). She has a background in the social sciences (ISU, LSE) and holds a PhD in Curating Contemporary Art (RCA). Her research draws on social anthropology, postcolonial theory, and art criticism to consider issues of art, politics, and modernity in post-independence Cyprus. She has co-curated and produced a number of survey and contemporary art shows and has been commissioner for Cyprus at the Venice Biennale since 2003. She is currently involved in the set-up of the new State Gallery of Contemporary Art – SPEL, Nicosia and the establishment of the Cyprus Museum of Contemporary Art.


[1] ‘Republic of Cyprus’ refers currently to the effectively Greek-Cypriot controlled south of the island.

[2] Cyprus has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and over the centuries it was influenced by a variety of Eastern Mediterranean civilizations. However, the crucial point of reference for official Greek Cypriot historiography is the 14th century BC, when Mycenaean settlers arrived on the island. Another key period is the Byzantine era, connected to medieval Greece and the ‘glorious’ years of Christian Orthodoxy, and in the 19th and 20th centuries the founding of the Greek nation-state. For a thorough analysis, see Yiannis Papadakis and Mete Hatay, “A Critical Comparison of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Historiographies (1940s to the Present),” in Cyprus and the Politics of Memory: History, Community and Conflict, eds. R. Bryant and Y. Papadakis (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012), 27-50.

[3] Research by social anthropologist Vassos Argyrou explores the ways in which Cypriots have become Western subjects, adding another layer to the already complex nexus of the colonial, but also the postcolonial condition. He argues that, even before the experience of British rule, a different kind of Western colonization took place on the island, whose effects were much more subtle and effective than political or economic domination; he calls it “symbolic domination,” referring to a process whereby the West partly maintains its hegemony through others’ recognition of its superiority. In this context, Cypriots tied themselves to a particular identity that could only be fulfilled through the objectified, superior authority of the West. See Vassos Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean: The Wedding as Symbolic Struggle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 17; Vassos Argyrou, “Postscript: Reflections on an Anthropology of Cyprus,” in Divided Cyprus Modernity, History, and an Island in Conflict, eds. Y. Papadakis, N. Peristianis and G. N. Welz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 216; Vassos Argyrou, “Independent Cyprus? Postcoloniality and the Spectre of Europe,” Cyprus Review 22, no. 2 (Nicosia 2010): 43.

[4] The first participation of the Republic of Cyprus took place in 1968, but it was not continuous. The country was absent from the 1970 edition, and in 1972 Cypriot artists were only accepted in one of the thematic international shows. In the aftermath of a turbulent 1974, Cyprus only resumed participation in 1986, only missing a consequent edition in 1995. From 1986, the national participation was organized by the Ministry of Education and Culture, with Eleni S. Nikita—cultural officer and art historian—holding the dual position of commissioner and curator until 2001.

[5] Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity, 177; Vassos Argyrou, “Is ‘Closer and Closer’ Ever Close Enough? Dereification, Diacritical Power, and the Specter of Evolutionism,” Anthropological Quarterly 69 (1996).

[6] Christoforos Savva (1924-1968), Giorgos Skotinos (b. 1937), George Kyriakou (b. 1940), Stelios Votsis (1929-2012), Costas Joachim (b. 1936), and Andreas Chrysochos (b. 1929).

[7] Makarios III, one of the most iconic figures of the modern Cypriot state, was also Head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. His dual position is an indication of the essential role the Church has had historically in the affairs of the island.

[8] In the 1940s and 1950s, Makarios was actively supporting enosis (the Greek Cypriot idea of union with Greece), like many Greek Cypriot public figures and the majority of the Greek Cypriot population, including leftist groups. Following independence in 1960, Greek Cypriot Cypriotism became more closely associated with right-wing political elites with vested interests in independence, and immediately after 1974 it went as far as becoming the official state ideology. For extended analyses, see Caesar V. Mavratsas, “The ideological contest between Greek‐Cypriot nationalism and Cypriotism 1974–1995: Politics, social memory and identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 20(4) (October 1997): 717–737; Y. Papadakis, N. Peristianis, G. Welz, eds., Divided Cyprus: Modernity, History, and an Island in Conflict (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

[9] See Argyrou, “Independent Cyprus?”, 43.

[10] Robert Storr, “Show and Tell,” in What Makes a Great Exhibition?, ed. P. Marincola (Reaktion Books, 2007), 14–31.

[11] Tony Spiteris, “Cyprus” (Commissioner’s text), in Catalogo Della XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d’Arte Venezia [22 giugno-20 ottobre 1968], (Venice: Fantoni Arte grafica impr., 1968), 73–74.

[12] As described in Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity, 177; Argyrou, “Postscript: Reflections,” 216; Argyrou, “Independent Cyprus?,” 43.  

[13] Eleni S. Nikita, “Maria Loizidou: The Myth of Ariadne in Three Acts”; Efi Strouza, “The Myth of Ariadne in Three Acts,” both in Maria Loizidou: The Myth of Ariadne in Three Acts. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion in the 42th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art - La Biennale di Venezia, eds. Eleni S. Nikita and Maria Loizidou (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture-Cultural Services, Pierides Museum of Modern Art, 1986).

[14] Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990).

[15] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[16] Michael Herzfeld, Anthropology Through the Looking-Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, Paperback ed., 1989).

[17] Eleni S. Nikita, Commissioner’s text in Angelos Makrides, Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion in the 43rd International Exhibition of Contemporary Art - La Biennale di Venezia, eds. Eleni S. Nikita and Angelos Makrides  (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture-Cultural Services 1988): 2.

[18] Efi Strouza, “The Odyssey of Nikos Kouroussis”, in: Nikita, E.S., Kouroussis, N. (Eds.), Nikos Kouroussis: Odyssey. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion in the 44th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art - La Biennale di Venezia, (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, Cyprus Popular Bank, 1990a): 71.

[19] Efi Strouza, “A Planetary Journey towards the Light,” in Theodoulos - Aperto  ’90 (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education, Cultural Services and Cyprus Popular Bank, 1990b), 25–26.

[20] Paul Barolsky, A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2010), 45–58.

[21] Eleni S. Nikita, ”Post-Byzantine Imagery”, in Glavkos Koumides - Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion in the 48th International Exhibition of Art - La Biennale di Venezia, eds. Glavkos Koumides and Eleni S. Nikita (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, Cultural Services, 1999), 10–13.

[22] Nikos Xydakis, “What was really precious—his form,” in Andreas Karayan - Personae. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion in the 49th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art - La Biennale di Venezia. (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, Cultural Services, 2001).

[23]   Some indicative analyses in: James D. Faubion, Modern Greek Lessons (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995); Michael Herzfeld, “Transforming. Lives. Process and Person in Cypriot Modernity,” in Divided Cyprus, 30–46; Christopher Hitchens, Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger (London, New York: Verso, 1997).

[24] Argyrou, “Independent Cyprus?,” 43; Argyrou, “Postscript: Reflections,” 216.

[25] Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity, 176-177; Argyrou, Closer and Closer, 206.

[26] Jusdanis’ analysis is relevant. He argues that, especially in peripheral societies, modernization remains “incomplete,” not because it deviates from the correct path, but because it can never faithfully duplicate Western prototypes: Gregory Jusdanis, Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991, 1st ed.).

[27] Following the 1974 military offensive, Turkey occupied about 37% of the island’s territory and later, in 1983, established the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north, which to this day has not gained international recognition.

[28] It is worth noting that from 2003, a number of reforms were implemented by the organizing authorities (Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture), such as the establishment of an open competition for artists and the collaboration with independent curators and writers, internationally.

[29] Chus Martínez, “Gravy Planet: One Can Only Think When One is Not Alone,” in Gravy Planet: A World Drawing by Panayiotis Michael and Konstantia Sofokleous. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion at the 51st International Exhibition of Art - La Biennale di Venezia, eds. Chus Martínez, Louli Michaelidou, Sue Brownbridge (Berlin: Revolver, 2005), 20–24.

[30] Denise Robinson, “The Risk of Art,” in Old Earth No More Lies I’ve Seen You: Haris Epaminonda, Mustafa Hulusi. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion at the 52nd International Exhibition of Art - La Biennale di Venezia, eds. Denise Robinson, Jalal Toufic, Brian Dillon (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, Art Books International, 2007), 11–16.

[31] Sophie Duplaix, Louli Michaelidou, eds., Socratis Socratous: Rumours. Catalogue of the Cyprus Pavilion at the 53rd International Exhibition of Art - La Biennale di Venezia. (Nicosia: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, 2009).

[32] Omar Kholeif, Christodoulos Panayiotou, eds., Christodoulos Panayiotou, Two Days After Forever - A Reader on the Choreography of Time. The Cyprus Pavilion at Biennale Arte 2015 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015).

[33] As conceived by curator Jan Verwoert, the pavilion show acted as a host to a series of contributions and exchanges by the designated guests: artist group Neoterismoi Toumazou (Maria Toumazou, Marina Xenofontos and Orestis Lazouras), Lebanese-born, New York-based artist-writer Mirene Arsanios, and legendary Cypriot ceramist Valentinos Charalambous.

[34] Polys Peslikas, Jan Verwoert, eds., Umm Kulthum Faints on Stage. The Cyprus Pavilion in Biennale Arte 2017 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).

[35] See Jan Verwoert. “Forget the National: Perform the International in the Key of the Local (and vice versa)! On the Experience of International Art Shows”, in Biennials and City-Wide Events, eds. Dutton, S., Griffin, J., (a-n The Artists Information Company, Newcastle upon Tyne): 10–11.

[36] Barnaby Drabble, “‘We Are Working with Art Here’: Bice Curiger on the Venice Biennale,” Metropolis M, June 11, 2011, accessed April 27, 2020, http://www.metropolism.com/en/features/22642_we_are_working_with_art_here.

[37] Sam Thorne, “Daniel Birnbaum talks about curating the Turin Triennial and his role as Director of the 53rd Venice Biennale,” Frieze, January 1, 2009, 131.

[38] The joint project of Cyprus and Lithuania at the 55th Venice Biennale, entitled oO, was conceived by curator Raimundas Malašauskas as a “sequencer”—a series of mental and physical pathways where “concepts are made, or discarded subsequently” by the visitor. The shows and events unfolded inside Palasport Arsenale, a Brutalist ‘70s building operating as Venice’s municipal gym, and around the city. The Biennale jury conferred a special mention to Lithuania and Cyprus for “an original curatorial format that brings together two countries in a singular experience.”

[39] Rebecca Bryant, Imagining the Modern: The Cultures of Nationalism in Cyprus (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 5.

[40] Maria Hlavajova, “How to Biennial? The Biennial in Relation to the Art Institution,” in The Biennial Reader, 304.

[41] Christoforos Savva (1924–1968) was a groundbreaking Cypriot artist whose wide-ranging international and local practice played a pivotal role in Cypriot society and the local artistic system that was being organized at the time. Savva died prematurely in 1968, having just represented Cyprus along with five other artists in its inaugural Pavilion at the 34th Venice Biennale. Beyond being a due homage to a major figure in Cypriot art, bringing his work back to Venice fifty years later provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the processes that have shaped the post-independence image of the new state and the course of its art. The project’s first iteration was a large-scale survey show at the new State Gallery of Contemporary Art – SPEL, in Nicosia. Both shows were curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, commissioned by the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture and collaborating institution Point Centre for Contemporary Art, Nicosia.
Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, ed., Christoforos Savva: Untimely on Time (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2019). Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, ed. Untimely, Again: Christoforos Savva (1924–1968). The Cyprus Pavilion at Biennale Arte 2019 (Berlin: Bom Dia Boa Tarde Boa Noite, 2019).

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini