The Cyprus we left behind

Artist Con Emmanuelle presents an exhibition about Cyprus before 1950, inspired by the stories of his compatriots in Australia

“Old photos, possibly taken over 80 years ago, hide in their ‘scars’ the story of Cyprus. Our story. These photos we can literally touch.”

This is the message artist Con Emmanuelle wants to put across, with his uniquely vibrant and emotionally charged exhibition, entitled ‘Tales of Cyprus’.

The vintage photographs, video testimonies, posters and paintings exhibited show a Cyprus before 1950. That very Cyprus is what Con’s family and friends left behind to migrate to Australia.

The idea that instigated the project hit him while he was walking in a shopping centre and stumbled upon a family. They were all devouring their junk food silently while scrolling down on their mobile phones, almost cut off from the outside world – estranged even from one another. As he was observing the family he began to wonder what ever happened to the authenticity and spontaneity of human relationships? He started thinking about the life span of all these digital memories which get ‘buried’ under the constant status updates of our timeline. Thousands of photos can be stored in the memory of a mobile phone, yet they can be erased with a single touch.

“That scene in the food court had a profound impact on me,” he tells Neos Kosmos.

“Later that day I went to visit my father and told him about my food court experience. ‘E bellanen o kosmos’ (the world’s gone mad) my father muttered to me. My father and I then spoke for over an hour comparing the past to the present. A week later I returned to interview and record my father’s stories and memories of Cyprus. An idea had formed in my head.”

Con started going through the story of his own family. His work started as an individual journey but soon it turned into one of the most important documents on the history of Cyprus before 1950, and the Greek Cypriots of the diaspora.

The artist documented his parents’, relatives’ and friends’ stories on video. Then he managed to collect numerous vintage original photographs of the period prior to 1950, creating a file that provides information on the socioeconomic status of the Cypriots, the effect of migration on both the migrants and the Cypriots who stayed behind.

Con’s photographic file is a very important database on Cyprus’ cultural history. When he realized the importance of his research, he appealed to the Greek Cypriots of Australia, asking them to share their own migration stories, their own Cyprus, their own original photographs.

“As I travelled across Melbourne with my laptop and scanner I discovered that many families only had poor quality reproductions of any original photographs,” he reveals.

“When I asked about the originals, I was often greeted with reservations as to their whereabouts but sometimes an admission would be made that a sibling had taken them and was unwilling to share with others.

“My decision to bring my scanner to the homes of the diaspora was also a major factor in establishing trust. For example, the safety that their precious photos will not leave the family home.”

Many people were curious and perhaps understandably cautious when Con requested to scan their originals. Once he explained that he was planning to showcase the beauty of the photography in his exhibition as well as develop an archive of images for future generations to enjoy, the families were more than happy to share their precious photos.

‘Tales of Cyprus’ is also a story of migration; a story of how the Cypriot diaspora has managed to keep the customs and traditions of the past alive in a way their relatives back home are struggling to uphold and maintain.

“I came across several difficulties. Many original photos dating prior to 1950 were carelessly lost or thrown out by family members who did not recognise their worth or value. It was rare to find original photos taken before 1950. It would appear that photography was a luxury that most village folk could not afford or did not have access to,” says Con.

“People did not have the time or money or personal inclination to spend on photography. They were migrants. Especially in the northern part of Cyprus, original photos were left behind after the Turkish invasion of 1974.”

To Con, there is an obvious charm and beauty to be found amongst photographs that bare the scars, tears and scratches of time.

“Ever the coffee stains or burn marks add a distinctive quality,” he said.

“The hand-written messages found on the back of some of these photos added to their value.

“Even the way people are posed in these old photos with their proud expressions and finest attire suggests a higher degree of respect, importance and care was taken with this craft.”

Placed alongside the vintage photos are unique one-off paintings by Con.

The 12 paintings on display explore the traditions and cultural heritage of the island and feature some of the most beautiful landmarks and iconic symbols of Cyprus.

“Before I created my drawings depicting life in Cyprus, I spent a year exploring and experimenting with a variety of traditional media and techniques,” he says.

“I decided after much internal debate that the monochromatic tones of graphite would best express my depiction of a bygone era.”

To add to his drawings, Con also created tourism posters of the era, that acted as an enticement to would-be travellers to visit far away exotic locations during the first half of the 20th century. While the rest of the world was enjoying a vibrant influx of tourists, Cyprus remained relatively unknown to many people during this time.

“With this first series of poster art, I have attempted to invent a historical past that hopefully promotes Cyprus as a popular tourism destination,” Con says.

As he readies to launch the exhibition next week, Con is already thinking ahead.

“Firstly, I would like to create an archive of vintage photography to help preserve these rare and beautiful keepsakes,” he muses.

“Secondly, through my art, I would like to spread the message about how special the island of Cyprus was before 1950 during my parent’s childhood.”

He stressed that he would like to embark on a nationwide tour with ‘Tales of Cyprus’ to meet the Cypriot diaspora who live in other Australian towns and cities. Then, he would like to spend a year in Cyprus, travelling from village to village, interviewing the last remaining residents from his parents’ generation and scanning their old photos before they disappear.

“My ultimate goal will be to stage my ‘Tales of Cyprus’ event in the capital Nicosia in 2016. That is my goal”.

The exhibition will be held from 10-20 December and from 5-11 January at the Chapel off Chapel gallery, in Prahran, Melbourne.

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