The incidental art of Nike Savvas

The world renowned artist talks to Neos Kosmos about her art works, one of which led to a major incident between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot governments

In 2001, Nike Savvas was about to unveil The Green Line Project, named after the imaginary line that divided Greek and Turkish Cypriots. An area of 82 x 47 metres was filled with 10,000 balloons in the colours of the Cypriot flag, set to be released into the north of the island, occupied by the Turkish military.

Attached to the balloons were personal hand written messages from Greek Cypriots who lost homes, villages and loved ones in the 1974 conflict. At the time Savvas was due to unveil her art installation, Greek Cypriots were forbidden to enter the occupied territories.

Not just one week before the work’s official unveiling, the leader of the northern occupied territory Rauf Denktash contacted the UN to lodge a formal complaint in a bid to halt proceedings.

“If I had gone ahead with this work Turkish troops from the occupied territory would have shot the balloons down,” Savvas revealed to Neos Kosmos.

“The UN called me and I got lectured by them for two hours. They said that people were going to die because of my work and if I was responsible for that I should think again before doing it.”

Denktash took exception to the work and the messages, but Savvas says her intention was not to incite conflict but to start a dialogue with Turkish and Greek Cypriots in a spirit of reconciliation.

“It was confounding,” she says.

“It was for Turkish Cypriots across the border to read messages from the Greek Cypriots in the south, to hear how they missed their homes. At the end, the note said ‘P.S. Missing You’ with room for the Turkish Cypriots to write back.
“I went to the Presidential Palace where I was told that the Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides had called for an urgent meeting of his ministers to discuss the work and they decided that it should be postponed. Postponed meant an unofficial cancellation. I was surprised that the Cypriot President was concerned about my work as the Presidential Commissioner Manolis Christofedis was in full support of it until this point.”

Artist Nike Savvas. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Savvas is known for art installations such as ‘Atomic: Full of Love, Full of Wonder’ which is made up of over 50,000 polystyrene balls that represent the colours of the Australian desert landscape.

Although critically acclaimed within art circles, Savvas revealed that her family is also a driving force behind her art.

“So there are a lot more layers to my work than most people know,” she says.

“I have had a lot written about me but one thing no-one has asked me about is my family history.”

Savvas was born in Australia to Greek Cypriot parents and spent some of her childhood in Cyprus. Her mother is from Kaimakli in Nicosia which is in the Greek half of the capital, while her father’s village Trachoni Kythreas lies to the north.

The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus had a horrific effect on Savvas’ father who during the conflict had a number of his close family members go missing with their tragic fate unknown until recently.

“His mother and sister were murdered during the Turkish invasion and his brother went missing,” Savvas revealed.

“My grandmother’s body was only found in 2013 in a mass grave of 125 people. She was given a formal funeral by the UN and the state, and her body was finally laid to rest. My aunt remains to be found and my uncle is listed as a missing person.”

Before the 1974 Turkish invasion, Cyprus had been under British control from 1914 to 1960 and Savvas revealed that at one stage her mother was involved in the resistance.

“In the late 1950’s she became a freedom fighter and was part of the movement to liberate Cyprus from British rule,” she says.

“At the time the British police came looking for her she had just married and left for Australia. We were only made aware a few years ago that my mother was a freedom fighter when she was awarded a medal by the Cypriot government for her contribution to the cause.”

With so much family tragedy, it’s not surprising Cyprus would be the inspiration behind Savvas’ art work, such as the 2008 installation ‘Atomic: In Full Sunlight’.

“This work refers to the Cypriot landscape in the springtime when all the hillsides are coloured in the beautiful yellow Lapsana flower,” she says.

“That flower is what my ancestors harvested and sold to make a living. In his own words my father came from the poorest house in Cyprus. He arrived in Australia in 1949 and after a short time moved to Canberra. He was such a good, virtuous and very honourable man. He was generous and supportive, he gave to the church and he gave to the stranger on the street. He passed away in 1997 and was very much loved by his community.”

In the last two years Savvas’ art has appeared in 12 shows, some on her own and others in a group, across Australia in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney, and in Chile and Mexico. Three significant works of note include ‘Perpetual Present’ at the Gurner Flatiron Building in Brisbane, the installation ‘Papillon’ shown at Barangaroo in Sydney, and the ‘Living On A Promise’ exhibition at the Arc One gallery in Melbourne.

She has a number of forthcoming shows to close 2018 and throughout 2019, but one particular project has got Savvas’ creative juices flowing.

“I have rediscovered something in art and I can’t contain my excitement,” she says.

“It has totally energised me. A lot of art in this country is so safe. A lot of it is so bourgeois, done by bored people who live here. They don’t have anything to fight for, they don’t have anything to say. But I have an opportunity that I’ve been given that makes me feel how I felt as an art student. I can’t tell you anymore, but I’m so excited.”

Catch Nike Savvas’ work at the forthcoming shows:
• Shoreditch London: ‘Mustafa Hulusi: Posters’
• Bathurst Regional Art Gallery: ‘Curiouser & Curiouser’, 14 December, 2018-10 February, 2019
• Group Exhibition, Deakin University Art Gallery Melbourne: ‘Echo Chambers: Art and Endless Reflections’,
13 February-29 March, 2019.