By Alix Norman
“It changes you,” says Andros.
“Yes,” nods Paula. “I can’t think of any place I’ve ever been that makes me feel so desolate.”
“It’s lost in time,” adds Ruzen, “waiting. Just waiting.”
We’re talking of Varosha, of course, the abandoned resort on the eastern coast of the island: a dreamscape of a city, untouched by time or circumstance,and uninhabited now for 40 years. Empty-eyed, its buildings stare out to sea, a reminder of the conflict that has left it devoid of occupants – other than a handful of Turkish military and UN peacekeepers. And yet, despite its abandonment, for the last few months Varosha has been the subject of a lively collective artistic endeavour between writer Paula Closson Buck, Greek Cypriot artist Andros Efstathiou and Turkish Cypriot artist Ruzen Atakan.
“Although we haven’t been able to go into the abandoned quarter, we’ve been very close on several occasions,” explains Paula. In Cyprus on a Fulbright Scholar Grant – which has enabled her to complete the propsed project – Paula is a published poet and author of international renown. And creating an exhibition based on the town of Varosha along with artists Andros and Ruzen was her idea; a project born of a shared love of community, of art in all its forms and the ability to see the potential in everything. Even the most desolate of places.
“I’d had the idea for this project long before I arrived on the island,” Paula explains. “I’d done some research on Varosha and had been thinking about dead spaces and living spaces, and then I contacted Andros, whose work I’d discovered through the Cyprus College of Art website; I said ‘I just want to talk with you, and then I’ll write poems and you paint and we’ll see what happens’. I wasn’t thinking about the reopening of Varosha, or the political aspects – I was just drawn to the place. It’s a city that evokes a lot of different emotions, an apocalyptic feeling, but also a sense of mystery and hope. It’s a dead zone, and yet a zone that the imagination could begin to inhabit before the people returned.”
The project – which has yet to be named, though there’s been a suggestion it be titled simply Varosha – is to be presented in December. A mixture of installation, paintings and words, it’s still a work in progress. But some of the pieces are almost finished, and there’s a mesmerising power and beauty to these snippets of poetry snaking across Andros’ evocative canvases. Ruzen’s work – which is more brightly hued, more populated than her colleague’s starkly beautiful creations – is still to come: the last of the three to join the project, her arrival was a natural progression in response to the changes happening with regards to Varosha, explainsPaula.
“I’d been on the island for three weeks before the news broke that the talks would resume,” she says. “And suddenly I began to wonder what I was doing here – all these people emerging with very personal stories about the place near which they had grown up; it made me feel kind of an interloper. So Andros and I agreed that what would make sense would be to bring in another perspective, that of a Turkish Cypriot. It’s part of history, and the model for negotiation, that we should have different people, different communities involved.
And as soon as we met Ruzen, I began to feel a lot more comfortable.”
Ruzen, a well-known artist and art teacher, was more than happy to join the project: “I’ve been in many bicommunal projects before,” she says, “but this one is different for me. As soon as I talked with Andros and Paula, I knew I wanted to work with them, wanted to make something that would evoke the idea of a place lost to time.” And she hopes, she adds, that the project will transcend the political to truly represent the human experience behind Varosha.
“We’re trying to say something through our art, using Paula’s words to inspire us,” says Andros. “It’s a very positive project, an effort to encourage re-communication and the understanding that we are one country, together.” Perhaps the most outspoken of the three – he is, after all, the man who created the toilet/tombstone installation outside the Central
Bank during the financial crash – Andros appears very emotionally moved by the project. “Art has a strong voice and, hopefully, with this exhibition, we’ll allow people to see the problems in a different dimension, from a different point of view.”
Ruzen concurs: “Varosha has an honour which we want to defend. It was a living place once, and through our work we’d like to help bring it to life once more. When we started the project, I tried to find out as much as I could about this place. But I discovered that there’s very little that’s actually been written about Varosha in its entirety… maybe this project will help change that.”
It’s been an exciting and emotional journey for all three of the artists involved, and with the final results going on show this winter, the group have worked closely throughout, despite their different approaches to their work. “Language has been the hardest thing,” Paula grins, “and these two have made noble efforts to understand what I write. And we do have different ways of approaching things: I’d present Andros with pages of ideas and he’d say ‘let’s just keep it simple’.”
The three roar with laughter and camaraderie at this recollection, their dynamic suggesting that this is a project that – as well as having a positive effect on its viewers – is the cause of a deep and lasting friendship between its protagonists. It’s rather wonderful, I think, as I take my leave, that a place so desolate should be the cause of such amity between three such different people; theirs is a bond that will no doubt last a lifetime. But then, this is what Varosha does. It changes you. As will the exhibition.
The Varosha exhibition
By Paula Closson Buck, Andros Efstathiou and RuzenAtakan will open at the Famagusta Municipal Gallery on December 13, moving to the Cornaro Institute on December 16. For further details of the project and the artists’ work, contact the Cornaro Institute on 24 254042 or visit www.artcyprus.org