An exhibition in Nicosia this week sees pages from a teenager’s diary during the coup and Turkish invasion posted on the gallery wall. ALEXIA EVRIPIDOU meets their author Driving around busy streets in the midday heat of Nicosia, I am relieved to spot the large slightly dated banner reading ‘Avakian Residence’. It is a welcoming sign and full of pride. It couldn’t and shouldn’t be missed. In the right place, I knock on one of the two front doors where a petite 84-year-old lady informs me that Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss lives next door. The lady hesitates and then opens her own door. Victoria’s aunt Verginia then ushers me through her cozy home, round the back into the garden and shouts through an open door to her niece. A similar looking diminutive lady with dark hair and an alluring smile pops her head out and greeting me with a beam she excitedly beckons me into her small and atmospheric home. Like the sign in the front yard, the house is friendly. The house is a home and it is evident that love lives here. Reminiscent of a bygone era, a Cyprus that used to be, the walls are decorated with many stories to tell. There’s an ease and warmth amongst these strangers, they seem used to having people through their doors.
Finally, a tall, strong, attractive woman wearing pomegranate earrings and necklace enters the kitchen, reaches out her hand and introduces herself as Victoria. The smiling lady is her mother Takouhi. Born to an English father and an Armenian mother and a resident of Cyprus since she was two, Victoria grew up on the island. Asked if she defines herself as Cypriot, she answers “if I take you by the hand past the airport, passing the Greek Cypriot checkpoint with UN soldiers with us. And up on the hill there is a Turkish flag – that’s the Armenian cemetery where my great grandmother, great-great aunt, my grandmother, grandfather, my father and uncle are buried. Some of these people came from Ourfa in Turkey, others from England and they are all buried on this little plot of land in no-man’s land between the Greeks and the Turks. So in answer, I’m not sure because what is a Cypriot? Someone who is born here or who has lived here and is buried here? Because that’s who we are, that little patch of no-man’s land”. Her eyes swell. Victoria is a family person down to her core. She nurtures relationships for decades and grew up with a ten-strong family team. Living virtually in each others’ pockets in the very house whose door I had knocked earlier, her family moved to the island in 1936, escaping the Armenian genocide, where they set up the successful family business Akavian making and selling shirts for customers including several generations of Cypriot presidents: Makarios, Clerides, Vassiliou, Kyprianou and Papadopoulos. Calling herself a performance artist, Victoria has acted, danced and spent the last ten years writing books. She’s now turned her creative hand to sharing her diary written during the 1974 Turkish invasion with others through a multi-platform exhibition. Taking the written word and exhibiting it like an art installation, she is a true artist; Victoria doesn’t do things for money, she does them for art’s sake. Starting her career as an exotic dancer, she went on to have a 20-year-career as an actress in television, theatre and now as a voice over artist. Although now married to a commercials producer and living in Los Angeles with their two sons, her visits home to see the family are frequent. We move straight to her old bedroom where her story began on that fateful day, July 15, 1974. With her 45-page teenage diary in tow, Victoria’s visit to Cyprus was intentionally timed to coincide with today’s 40- year anniversary of the Turkish invasion. She is armed with a vision and a mission. Her mission is to share with the collective consciousness of Cyprus the private diary she kept as a 13-year-old girl. Her vision is to one day see Cyprus without any borders. “I’ve experienced in my lifetime no borders to a border that you couldn’t cross and now to a border that you can cross but need a passport to do so. Hopefully we can get back to a time when everyone in Cyprus just lived, whether Greek, Turkish or Armenian; when there were no borders”. Victoria sees her exhibition as a platform for dialogue; an opportunity for people to see the events of 1974 through the eyes of a young girl and a space where they can share their own stories too. Reading her diary will evoke further memories and stories have poured out from those reading it. People’s life stories matter to her. “It’s only through dialogue that you move forward,” she says. The exhibition’s opening successfully took place on Monday, 40 years minus a day after the coup by the Greek junta which opened the doors to the Turkish invasion. People turned up in droves to read the blown up words printed on 1970s vintage fabric. Saved from her grandfather’s shop, the material was originally used to make collars for elaborately designed shirts. The eerie atmosphere captured the sentiment. Set in a worn down shop turned gallery in the old part of Nicosia nearby Cypriot and Turkish soldiers guard their checkpoints with guns while Islamic prayers ring overhead from the distant mosque with no man’s land passively keeping people apart. Visitors to the exhibition’s opening night were treated to talk, drinks, dance performance and street party. With small torches enabling them to take in the difficult memories by candlelight, people read the words, momentarily transported to their own memories. “It’s an intimate and personal experience,” says Victoria. Following ten years completing a trilogy about four generations of women in her family, Victoria spent her time putting on this important exhibition. She was adamant about enlisting the help of old friends from the 1970s and together they brought the exhibition to life. Victoria drove to Polis to enlist the creative expertise of an old friend who handmade the 45 framed pages and another who printed them. Even her mum got involved, helping Victoria cut the cloth. The well received exhibition will be running until July 27. Back in the bedroom of her traditionally kept childhood room, Victoria looks out of the window, bringing her attention to where her bed used to be, nestled in the corner under the window, where she was awoken from a bizarre dream on July 15 1974. “I was woken by a sixth sense dream where I was at the Ledra Palace banquet hall and Makarios was giving a speech. No sooner had he finished the speech than he pulled out a grenade and threw it over his shoulder towards the north of the island”. Next thing she knew, Victoria was shaken awake by her mother warning her to get up, as the sound of real bullets whizzed past her bedroom window. This was no ordinary day for the 13-year-old Victoria but a point in her history that would, like others experiencing the same day, affect her for the rest of her life. Feeling invincible she, her brother and her cousin, who she refers to as her other brother, spent the days watching the bombs flying overhead from her balcony a stone’s throw away from the Presidential palace. Her first ever diary entry was made that morning, the day of the coup and her father’s birthday. It started at 8.30am when she was woken to the sound of artillery fire. Victoria comments on how removed her younger self was from the whole experience. The diary is all very factual, withdrawn tale almost as if her younger self saw herself as a journalist taking notes on the big adventure happening outside her window. Unfortunately this adventure resulted in a loss of many friends, if not directly from the war then as a result of emotional damage that came afterwards. She recalls her experiences holding tears back, because now it’s different, she sees it through a mother’s eyes. Victoria recalls witnessing hysterical mothers having their 18-year-old sons dragged out of family cars to go and fight. She struggles with these memories. “We didn’t know what was going on. My father left the Avakian factory and walked up Kyriakos Matsis street with the soldiers and their tanks on their way to the Presidential palace”. The family still lives very close. “They told him they were marching to overthrow Makarios and it was a coup. As an ex military man, he ran home and took the necessary measures, forcing everyone to fill up the bath and any container with water in case they shut off the water supply. “My mum tried to go out of the kitchen to see if her sister Verginia was ok but as soon as she stepped out of the door, a bullet screeched by, nearly taking her”. Creeping out in the garden between attacks to pick up stray bullets once cooled was a favourite game for the three kids. “I wasn’t aware of the dangers at such a tender age”. But even to a child unaware of the news and politics, Victoria still had the sensation that something was brewing. Now, 40 years on she feels for her 13-year-old self who was forced to leave her family behind after Turkey invaded for the second time. The three children were sent to the British base of Dhekelia during the heavy bombardment. There her family was divided into the members that had British passports and those who didn’t. Her mother and grandparents were not allowed to leave and her father decided to stay to protect their property. Victoria and her brothers could not leave the country for several days during which they were kept away from their mother, sleeping on the tennis court until they left without even saying goodbye. They had nothing on them except for the clothes on their backs, which they’d slept in for five days. On arrival in England, her cousin’s aunt took all of their clothes and burnt them. She stayed in Cornwall with relatives until June 1975 when she was told schools on the island would be reopening, nearly a year after being separated from their home and family. She remembers it all vividly. A free spirited, deeply emotional and creative soul with a love for pomegranates, Victoria was always curious about life even as a young child. Known to some as a rebel and known in her youth by the CID for some minor misdemeanor or another, Victoria decided to head to London for a new life at the age of 19, where she began her life as a dancer at the Raymond Revue bar, a theatre and strip club. “Let me put it this way, the better a dancer you were the more clothes you were allowed to keep on… I wasn’t a very good dancer”. She did it to get her equity card and got her first three TV jobs while working there, including on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. After four years she decided to take acting seriously and got accepted on a three-year course at RADA as a mature student aged 26. She continued acting until getting married. Chasing the Hollywood dream with her husband it was there her two sons were born, starting the next chapter of her life as a mother and writer. “We may not be very rich but in terms of family, we feel incredible wealthy,” she says. For Victoria no matter where the creative road takes her it is always about family. Cyprus Summer 1974 Exhibition of the diary kept by Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss as a teenager living near the Presidential palace. Copies of her entries have been printed on fabric from the 1970s. Until July 27 at Apotheke Gallery, Kleanthis Christofides street, Nicosia. Daily 7.30-11.30pm. Tel: 99 764816