“Father tells you don’t forget him now that he is old and frail.
“‘Ah, my hardworking boy,’ mother says. ‘How many jobs he used to do for me when I was ill. He even used to take me to the sea, on his bike, to have a bath’,” reads the back of one old photo.
In another one, a mother holds a photo, surrounded by her young daughter and her husband. It’s her young son depicted, that she lost.
She wanted to be pictured with him.
The photo was treasured in the old album by her granddaughter, now a 90- year-old Maria Frangou from Brunswick.
Every photo is a well of history of each one of the families, who left their native Cyprus to migrate to Australia.
Some of the photos were tucked in the old family albums, long ago forgotten, others lost behind furniture, rare ones selfishly treasured.
All of them, however, are one of the few remaining memories and reminders of the Cyprus these migrant families have left behind them, decades ago. Cyprus prior to 1950.
It took the effort, time and passion of Melbourne born Constantinos Emmanuelle for Cyprus, and the sensibility of the generation of his parents, to embark on a journey that will see Cyprus, as raw as it existed prior to 1950, documented in a photographic and art exhibition that will hit the gallery Chapel off Chapel at the end of this year.
The first of its kind, the exhibition pays homage to a way of life that existed on the island for thousands of years.
Through a collection of rare and beautiful photos Con collected while door knocking on the homes of Melbourne Cypriot families, and a series of his original drawings, he has been able to evoke distant memories about a time when people who had a lot less were much more grateful.
When Turkish and Greek Cypriots lived side by side, and the only difference between them was the mosque or the church they would go to.
A time when families stayed together and belonged to a real community, when people lived off the land.
For the Melbourne-based graphic artist and teacher, one everyday scene in the life of an Australian triggered it all.
“I was always fascinated by Cyprus, I was there as a young boy, before the invasion. I got to see Cyprus the way it was for generations, I got to experience it the way my parents did. I was fascinated by the culture.”
Four years ago, in the food court of a shopping centre, an overweight Australian family was eating KFC. As if that wasn’t wrong enough, Con remembers, they were all glued to their iPhones and digital devices.
“I was taken aback and thought – wow, that sums up everything that is wrong with our world today. It resonated with me. I went that day to visit my father, then in his late 80s. He used to joke that I used to interview him whenever I visited.
“I told him what I saw. Then he went on about what was wrong with today’s world. His idea was that everyone today is obsessed with vanity, with how they look, with money, greed – they don’t value family, communication, healthy life.”
It was enough for Con to realise that his father was amongst the last of his kind. Old members of the Cypriot community were dying off or had dementia, and with them went the memories of what it was like to live in Cyprus – of the raw Cyprus as it was before 1950.
In the week to follow, Con came back and captured his father in a video interview. An interview with his mother followed, then came aunties and uncles and other Cypriots in the area. Without realising, Con was conducting an extensive research and documenting what was left from the memories of old Cyprus.
“It dawned on me that I needed to document this and I had a limited time. My father was 86. This is cultural heritage, this is oral history – I thought to myself – these parents were never asked to describe life.
“They were more than happy to share their stories with me, and I knew I had to do something with it.”
The first idea that occupied Con’s mind was to create vintage travel posters as Cyprus has never had designed history.
With tourism entering the country as recently as in the 1980s, he decided to invent the past with a series of travel posters dating from the 1930s. At the same time, determined to celebrate the life of his parents and grandparents, he wanted to create a set of original drawings, based on the photos from the era, that would depict that life best.
Married and with kids, and big on the Cypriot tradition of keeping the family first and connected, it took many sleepless nights for Con to explore new techniques and to start preparing the exhibition.
While travelling through Melbourne with his portable scanner and door knocking for more stories, he was given permission from Cypriot families to feature their old photos in December’s exhibition.
“It’s pioneering, vintage photography; there is a whole beauty to the way the photos were taken back then. Not only were these photos rare, but it was also the only reminder for these migrants of the past.”
This year, the artist is embarking on his most ambitious and personal creative journey with a unique project titled ‘Tales of Cyprus’. This multi-disciplinary art project explores his parent’s homeland and its culture and traditional way of life.
His exhibition at Chapel off Chapel at the end of this year will depict and merge this Cypriot cultural heritage with contemporary notions of family, community and connections to the homeland.
It will feature large digital reproductions of rare old family photos, quotes from personal interviews and original drawings of traditional and iconic scenes from old Cyprus, based on his attempt to recreate the glamour of the travel poster from the 1930s.
“When you read the stories you don’t realise how raw life was back then. I now know what my mission is, what I want to do for the rest of my life – and that is to document the tales of Cyprus, document its life.
“The focus of my project is before 1950 and the reason I chose that as the end date is that after 1950 Cyprus changed forever. Like Greece with the junta. The Cyprus of my parents’ upbringing is gone; we’ll never see it again.
“This is why this is such an important story – not only is it the celebration of the past but also a warning to children and parents not to think that our western way of life, our modern society, is the better way.”
Having already approached Melbourne’s Immigration Museum to feature the exhibition, Con has some big plans for his project.
“This story has many levels – it’s the cultural history and origins, it’s celebrating the way of the past where the people lived off their land, but it also celebrates the beauty of photography and at the same time makes comparison with our modern world.
“This is a celebration of our homeland. It’s my tribute to my parents, paying homage to them and their past, their way of life – when they lived without modern conveniences but were more content.”
The exhibition will also present the Turkish Cypriot photography – as his project, Con says, dates from a Cyprus that the Turkish Cypriot minority lived in as well.
“This is not just a Cypriot story – but a Greek story and immigrants’ story. In one way it’s celebrating the way of life that has disappeared; people who had a lot less but were more grateful and more connected as a family and community.”