Hambis Tsangaris: History and fable in print

Hambis Tsangaris the celebrated printmaker, story teller and chronicler of the Cyprus’ modern political history, talks to MELISSA REYNOLDS exclusively for Neos Kosmos.

Legendary printmaker Hambis Tsangaris loves stories. His enchanting illustrated tales of heroes and dragons, fairy enchantresses and nocturnal demons have delighted readers and earned him critical acclaim. Equally skilled in chronicling life’s harsher realities, Hambis’ work has drawn inspiration from love, war and nationalism. His candid and expressive works provide a visual narrative of time and place infused with a range of raw emotion, from grief and pain to sensual pleasure.

<p>”All the symbols are the same, right and left, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots and their feelings to be together. On both sides the women dressed in black cry for the war, there are destroyed homes and two doves, the symbols of peace in Cyprus. These are my feelings and I hope that this day will come.” – Hambis Tsangaris -</p>

Born in the now occupied village of Kontea in 1947, Hambis grew up in an age of political upheaval, a young witness to the tumultuous events that changed the island’s social landscape forever.

The son of a farmer, Hambis began making sketches and prints while working in the family fields, later drawing inspiration from politics and war.

Some of his earliest work deals with the military takeover of Greece in 1967 and is featured in a six-metre long triptych, ‘After the Independence,’ chronicling almost every pivotal political event in the fourteen years between Cyprus’ independence and its invasion in 1974.

The Greek dictatorship placed severe constraints on the arts leading to a decisive meeting between Hambis and A. Tassos, a preeminent Greek printmaker who came to exhibit his work in Cyprus in 1971 at the request of President Makarios.

The printmaker extended an unprecedented invitation to Hambis to study with him in Athens.

“He really changed my life, I became a printmaker because I had his help,” he says of his teacher who got him ‘completely hooked’ on printmaking and prepared him for six years of disciplined graphic art study at the Surikov Institute of Moscow.

Hambis was in Moscow at the time of the Turkish takeover of Famagusta in August of 1974. Desperately worried he travelled to Cyprus by ship for a brief visit in October, bringing with him a tent and vital supplies for his displaced parents and sisters “living under the trees” in the village of Xylotymbou.

After graduation Hambis returned home to a divided country working for a short time as a culture and arts writer for Haravgi newspaper although his thoughts were never far from his artistic aspirations.

Hambis continued to document political and social events in his own way, paying homage to martyred patriots and illustrating the collateral damage of war.

He depicts a grim tragedy that will never be salved; of death, grieving mothers, refugees yearning to return home and of the missing for whom hope has all but vanished.

On a personal level an anguished self-portrait of 1979 reveals his own emotional state at the time and he describes an experience familiar to many, “I lost a lot of my pictures, everything. But the place and the pictures are nothing.

What is really lost are our loved ones who were killed in the war and the people who are still missing.

We hope there will be a solution but nobody can bring back the persons missing or killed, so it’s nothing that we lost some things.”

Like many refugees Hambis has crossed the checkpoint to make the pilgrimage to his childhood home but is frustrated to view it as a mere outsider, sadly reminiscent of a life he remembers consigned forever to the past, “I went there and saw the village and my house – it was very hard.

Everyone understands that a lot of memories return and all our lives before 1974 are in our memory and we never forget this,” he says.
Hambis produced a series of prints which serve as an unofficial record of that time, using sketched memories of the old days working in the fields of his father’s farm, of buildings, the Catholic church and even village football matches which the entire community once gathered to watch.

Many of his later series reveal his desire for peace, the imagery capturing the emotional bond between the communities, particularly women, who have reached beyond politics to reconnect through a shared sense of loss.

“All the symbols are the same, right and left, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots and their feelings to be together,” he explains,”On both sides the women dressed in black cry for the war, there are destroyed homes and two doves, the symbols of peace in Cyprus. These are my feelings and I hope that this day will come.”

Reluctant to speculate on the outcome of the country’s current settlement negotiations, Hambis is firmly committed to his personal dream of reunification, “Some like partition and some don’t; I am with the people who would like my country to be one part.”

Hambis demonstrates remarkable creativity in drawing from a diverse range of muses, from war and erotica to folk tales and in doing so generates new ideas and techniques in printmaking.

“If it was not for the coup and invasion my inspiration, my thoughts, would have been on other things. For example for many years I have made a lot of prints about the villages and traditions of Cyprus. I hope that there will never be another war to make prints because it is a normal situation to be (inspired by) what is around me,” he explains.

His treatment of old folk tales has identified Hambis as a master storyteller, his beautifully illustrated books of myth and legend treasured by adults and children alike. The first, Spanos and the Forty Dragons, was published in 1986, followed by The Prince of Venice, The Fey Enchantress, and two volumes of Kalikandgiari stories. His tale of the Leprechaun and the Plaything was awarded the state prize for literature in 2007, an accolade bestowed on his illustrations for Kalikandgiari – Cypriot Tales, the following year.

Influenced by ‘the language of the story,’ Hambis’ illustrations are in perfect harmony with scenes and characters and have become their accepted incarnation emulated on stage and in film.’ He has conferred on each a unique style, from black and white linocut designs for Spanos, to bold Prince of Venice collages designed to reflect the splendour of the city in which the tale unfolds.

His last, skilfully recounts the testimonies of the old generation and their brushes with the Kalikandgiari, the spectral imps which terrorise housewives and create mischief during the twelve nights of the dodecameron.
In 2008 Hambis finally realised a long term dream of establishing a national printmaking centre and museum to share his skills and promote the art form in Cyprus,

“It was my need to make this museum, to teach people about what I have learned about printmaking,” he says passionately.

The remote Turkish Cypriot village of Platanisteia is an unlikely location for one of Cyprus’ most intriguing art collections and printmaking school, yet Hambis was instantly attracted by its beauty and solitude as a place ‘to be free to create.’

Until just a few years ago the buildings were in ruins.

Today the tranquil ambience and light-filled space provide creative stimulation to students and visitors who flock there to learn from the great printmaker.

In August the centre offers free classes in honour of Tassos and hosts an annual documentary and animated film festival organised by Hambis’ son Yiorgos.

The museum houses a global spectrum of contemporary artworks along with prints and tools dating from the 16th century illustrating the history of printmaking techniques.

A second exhibition space is a convergence of works by Greek, Turkish and Cypriot artists, featuring striking prints by Stelios Votsis, Tilemahos Kanthos and Costas Averkiou along with several by Hambis’ own students.

Managing the museum and school is a full-time job for Hambis and his wife Helen, and though the demanding schedule leaves little time for creativity he has set himself the ambitious task of completing another book of folk tales while continuing his ‘My Friends,’ portrait series.

To date Hambis has completed nine personalised tributes to cherished friends including President of the Union of Cyprus Journalists, Andreas Kannaouros, and President of the Republic, Demitris Christofias.
Their relationship goes back years, including their time as fellow students in Moscow.

Hambis strongly believes his friend has both the strength of character and determination to lead the country to an appropriate solution to the Cyprus problem, “I believe in him one hundred per cent, he’s a real patriot; he loves the people, he loves Cyprus and all Cypriot people. I am sure about this.”

These days Hambis is happy to leave politics to others preferring to focus on the museum and the future, “I have quieter thoughts, I have other things in my head,” he admits.

Despite past adversity the artist dwells on the positive aspects of his life which he summarises in just a few simple words, “I feel very good. I say many times that I can die anytime happy because I have so many experiences of life.

I am happy with my work and I will never stop working,” he vows, “I feel fulfilled.”