A gallery owner in Nicosia is as well travelled as the maps on his walls. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a man who has repeatedly had to re-invent himself
In the Congo’s Eastern Province lies a crossroads not far from the Uele river. It is a significant turning point. Also a significant starting point. Turn left and you are on your way to what is now South Sudan. Take the right and you are on the road to Uganda. Its significance as a start-ing point is that this is where Aghis Philippides, art gallery and framing shop owner in Nicosia’s Pallouriotissa district, began life in 1942. To honour his sudden arrival, the locals dubbed it the Aghis Crossing.
“My mother went into labour and didn’t make it on time to the local hospital,” says Philippides sitting in his sprawling premises, walls cov-ered floor-to-ceiling with paintings, drawings and old maps. “So I was born on this crossing and they named the place after the event of my birth. I still hope to go back there one day to see if it still exists,” he says. His voice is suddenly charged with longing for the vast African horizon that only those who lived there can comprehend.
I try to picture this scene in my mind: a mud-brown river, Aghis’ fa-ther Costas driving an old Chrysler, his mother Thalia giving birth in the back of the car, the cry of a new-born baby piercing the surrounds. And I think that somehow there must be a link between Aghis’ screeching arrival and his ongoing journey through life with its recur-ring motif of travel.
From youthful days of driving the endless dirt roads of east Africa to the air routes interconnecting the Mid-East capitals traversed later in his working life, he seems to have always been on the move, seldom at rest. Philippides, a bundle of positive energy, bursting with vitality and enthusiasm, is always on the go and finds it hard to sit still.
He bounces up from his chair to take me by the arm and proudly show me key art works hanging in the vast space of his gallery. The words tumble out, the verbal equivalent of a Jackson Pollock spills as he ex-citedly explains how he acquired each piece and why it is that they are special, even unique.
Pointing to some of the rare, antique maps in his collection, he con-fesses a Tolkien-like fascination with the secrets of the mysterious world of old prints and paintings. “Knowledge of geography, love of art, lots of travelling and reading is the key that opens this world of wonders,” he says. And to prove his point, he starts talking of east Af-rica and its trading routes – a landscape he is as familiar with as the in-side of his own pocket. His eyes gleam with excitement as he skips be-tween the old colonial names and their post-independence reincarna-tions.
“We would transport coffee down river to Stanleyville-Kisangani”, he reminiscences. Then, without missing a beat, he jumps to his school days in Lapithos and Athens, “where I used to be the best at arts”. He is a voracious reader and notes that French authors proliferated because of his fluency in French – as might be expected given his francophone Congo background. “The best book on Turkey I have ever read was in French”, he insists.
Switching back to his collecting, he says the main focus is on the works of famous Greek and Cypriot artists. They form the core of his collection but he readily admits that what makes him “most happy eve-ry morning” is seeing his two paintings by “the well known Russian artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin” shrewdly bought at a London gallery “many years ago.”
This breathless exposition serves to underscore how Aghis Philippi-des, son of an ivory-trading elephant hunter and subsequent coffee plantation owner, has lived a varied life spanning many cultures and a world of contrasts. The Congo phases of his life – early childhood and early adulthood – fell either side of an interlude in Cyprus for school-ing and a subsequent sojourn in Athens where he studied accountancy.
Young as he was, those early Congo years left potent memories. To this day he has vivid recall of Kilimbo, a towering, broad-shouldered warrior, renowned locally for slaying a leopard that had been stealing goats from the Phillipides family plantation. Aghis can still tap out the drummed rhythms used back then to telegraph the tribal community of news of such matters as a death. Magical evenings often entailed visits to the plantations of family friends in the area.
Not surprisingly, being torn from this “paradise” at age four came as a major “shock” to the young Aghis. His parents had decided that their eight children needed proper schooling and brought them back to Cy-prus. “My friends in Cyprus had no idea about Africa and it was diffi-cult to explain to them my life there. I missed the Congo desperately.” He went through primary school in Cyprus, first in Limassol and then in Lapithos where his father’s parents lived. Next stop was Athens where he attended the same Jesuit-run gymnasium his father had once studied at.
On graduation from university in Athens, Aghis began preparations to return to the Congo to help his family run their ever expanding coffee plantation. It was while on a visit to Cyprus that he met a young wom-an from the Ayios Kassianos district of old Nicosia. They fell in love and were soon married. Once more it was back to Africa, this time with his young bride. “And she loved it,” he remembers, his eyes sparkling with pride while glancing at Eleftheria, his wife of 53 years, as she stands by a large table preparing some pictures for framing.
“A lot of women would be very afraid to go to this strange land… they would take it differently but Eleftheria took to it like a fish to water. We were very happy. She quickly learned the local languages – Linga-la and Swahili. Local people welcomed and responded to her. When she went for walks they would accompany her from a distance, keep-ing an eye out for her safety and wellbeing lest she have a chance en-counter with some of the dangerous animals that still abounded there.”
The fates must have been on his side to have found a woman like that, I mused. “Oh yes, very lucky indeed,” he says, his eyes suddenly very serious. “You know, I think, getting married is a chance, finding the right person is a chance. You have to face everything together, even economic difficulties. And we did. We faced huge economic difficul-ties when our life in the Congo finished.”
This was yet to come. For the time being, the Philippides family was doing extremely well. With the advent of Congo’s independence in 1960 they added to the plantations they owned by securing a lease on a huge tract of land enabling them to buy the produce grown by local farmers. In an attempt to give me a sense of the scale of the thriving business, he tells the area was as big as Cyprus.
“We used to buy all their produce, everything from rice and peanuts to palm fruits from which we processed palm oil. The area was huge – 280 by 300 kilometres. Some 30,000 people lived there. It was like a small republic. We built new roads, maintained the old ones. We in-troduced a new type of a palm tree (imported from Bolivia) that in-creased the palm oil production capacity. There were 3,500 people working directly on our plantation and in the factories. We paid their health and pension schemes. Everything we bought from the farmers was at prices set by the government.”
In 1973, it came to a sudden end and with it the end of Aghis’ “first life”. President Mobuto Sese Seko, less than a decade after coming to power, decided to nationalise or “Zairise” the country’s natural re-sources. With one stroke of the pen, Mobuto took back from the for-eign entrepreneurs their flourishing enterprises and placed the thriving economy under the guardianship of the state.
It was sudden, shocking and earth-shaking, Aghis recalls. Government officials made an inventory of the family’s plantation and factories in November 1973. The warehouse tally is imprinted in his memory. “We had 400 tonnes of coffee, 6,000 tonnes of palm oil, 12,000 tonnes of rice. By March 1974 we were back in Cyprus. We left Congo empty-handed.”
By his account, what they left behind them in the Congo had an ap-proximate value at the time of $15 million. Within two years all the family had worked to achieve over the years had been, in his word, “wasted”. Summing it up, he says that “Mobutu’s people” took what-ever money and assets existed, went on a spending spree in Kinshasa and proceeded to “just ruin the country.”
Aghis and Eleftheria had neither time nor money to waste. Not with three children to raise and support. Eleftheria was soon back running the family-owned hotel in Lapithos. Aghis, meanwhile, set off to Swit-zerland where he became Middle East agent for a manufacturer of sub-limation tunnels for dry freezing. Just as they were starting to make headway, another lightning bolt struck. The tragic events of July 1974 and division of the island deprived the Philippides yet again of their properties, this time in Lapithos.
“And the irony of all of this”, Aghis notes, was that being Congo-born and a British passport holder he was never recognised “as a refugee.” Refusing to give in to the latest setbacks, he forged ahead with life number two and was soon operating out of Beirut, selling his sublima-tion tunnels all over the Middle East. He was laying the foundations for a successful business career until the outbreak of another conflict intervened, this time in Lebanon. “I woke up one morning in Beirut and realised I could not cross the road to go to my office because they were shooting. So I left for the airport to travel to Cyprus and there I met Greek tycoon John Latsis and he offered me a job.”
Just like that? The Greek billionaire was once listed among the world’s richest tycoons. Latsis, in his time a major figure in shipping, oil, con-struction and banking, and, of course, was also owner of the much headlined yacht Alexandros, the luxury vessel on which the Prince of Wales spent both of his honeymoons.
“Well, not exactly, but we had a chat and he asked me about my life and I told him about my education and that I speak fluent French and English and some Arabic and he decided he might have a niche for me. So he invited me to Athens for further discussions and soon I was on my way to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where he had a major port expan-sion project. The next thing was the executive in charge of his dealings with Petromin [state- owned Saudi Arabian corporation specialising in lubricant oils] in Riyadh fell sick and I was sent there.”
Never afraid of hard work, Aghis rose to the new challenge and quick-ly developed warm relations with members of the Saudi royal family, various governmental officials and diplomats. It wasn’t long before Eleftheria joined him in Riyadh. Always charming hosts, their house-hold fast became a fixture in local social diaries, not least because of Eleftheria’s cuisine.
“But then I had enough,” says Aghis. “Being separated from our by now teenage children was too high a price to pay for whatever success I enjoyed. I felt strongly that we should be with our children and not in some foreign country where I could see them only once or twice a year.” So it was that this optimistic and good hearted man quit Riyadh in 1982 to start his life yet again, this time back in Cyprus. “We came back to Cyprus, opened our first framing shop that soon also became an art gallery and thankfully we have never looked back.”
And this is how Aghis’ third life started – the one he lives so content-edly today. It is hard to believe a personal voyage as epic as any navi-gated using those ancient maps hanging on his gallery walls resides alongside and among them in the heart of Nicosia.