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Day to day battles

It’s a time of new beginning for artist Andros Efstathiou, perhaps best known for his toilet protest outside the central bank last year. THEO PANAYIDES meets him

 

Every ending a beginning, every beginning an ending. March 21 is the equinox, the first day of spring, the start of the astrological year – but this year it’ll also mark, for Andros Efstathiou, the completion of his first half-century on Earth (and of course the start of his second half-century), the day he turns 50. I talk to him two days after another, sadder ending – the funeral of Stass Paraskos, not just a fellow artist but an inspiration, and a very dear friend with whom Andros worked closely for the past 15 years. Yet, as he sits sipping coffee in the Nicosia Hilton (his studio is in Larnaca), our talk also turns to a new beginning – especially when it comes to politics in Cyprus. “I feel there’s a change in the air,” he tells me. “Obviously I don’t think there’s going to be a total transformation – but the change is there, you can feel it.”

You may wonder why I feel the need to ask an artist about politics – but in fact the question is inevitable, given Andros’ best-known (if atypical) artwork. We actually meet four days earlier at the Loukia & Michael Zampelas Art Museum in Kaimakli, where Michael Zampelas introduces us. I have no idea who Andros is, and in fact he could be anyone – the lavish, three-storey museum is a veritable who’s-who of Cypriot artists – but Mr. Zampelas jogs my memory. “Remember the toilets?” he asks with a twinkle. “The toilets outside the Central Bank?” Then he indicates Andros, who looks both proud and a little chagrined to be known as ‘the toilets guy’.

It was quite a big deal at the time, however – the time being last June, when officials at the Central Bank came in to find 20 hand-made toilets ranged on the pavement outside their premises. The toilets were made of plaster, viewed from the back they looked like tombstones, and of course the whole thing was a protest against the greed – especially the greed of the banking system – which had led to the bail-out and haircut.

The story was picked up by delighted media all over the world (you can watch a video of the installation on our website, at http://videos.cyprus-mail.com/toilet-protest-june-10/). US website travelfreak.com later selected Andros’ toilets among the five best ‘sculptural protests’ from all over the world, calling it “probably one of the most clever and hilarious uses of sculpture ever” and adding: “The people of Cyprus are not happy about their economy having gone down the crapper (to phrase it politely) and this sculpture is probably the most accurate way to illustrate that sentiment. This is the most awesome literal representation of a potty joke ever.”

Andros himself prefers not to dwell on the literal interpretation, claiming he “can find all kinds of symbolism” in the toilet/tombstones – but admits that the protest “came about quite impulsively, due to anger and disappointment … I wanted to protest, and I just did it”. He didn’t ask permission, which wouldn’t have been forthcoming anyway – “I just got up, left Larnaca in a pick-up truck with a friend, so he could help me. We got here at 5 in the morning and put [the sculptures] up right under their noses”. By the time the cops and municipality people arrived, ordering him to remove the toilets, the TV channels were already there (Andros had told a friend at a newspaper what he was planning to do: “I wanted a reporter there, so I could feel some protection”) and he felt sufficiently empowered to stand up to them. The installation stayed up all day, and became a talking-point; the Central Bank later issued a terse, embarrassed statement, saying they disagreed with the message but supported every artist’s right to express himself.

I suspect Andros’ bearing also had something to do with the authorities deciding it might be best to leave him alone. He says he’s a calm person, barring the occasional “explosion” – but in fact he looks fierce, almost thuggish, with his shaved head and stubbled bulldog face; even the green-grey eyes are lively rather than gentle, ranging from intensity to amusement without stopping at pathos. One might say he looks like what he is – a village boy and refugee (he was born in the village of Larnaca Lapithou, near Kyrenia, and fled with his family during the invasion) who’s always had to struggle, and learned to face challenges head-on.

The infamous toilets outside the Central Bank
The infamous toilets outside the Central Bank

Andros studied in New York, at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture. What did his folks say, back in the 90s, when he told them he was going to study Art? The answer is that he didn’t tell them – because he wasn’t sure it was going to happen himself. He’s the sixth of eight children; his parents were farmers, and his dad worked as a farmhand after 1974 while his mum took various odd jobs in restaurants and kitchens. Growing up, much of their food and clothing came from welfare. Clearly, there was no way he could follow his dream with family support – so instead he just went for it, raising enough money for the plane ticket to New York, staying with friends in New Jersey and working on construction sites while he built up his portfolio and finally applied to the Studio School. Then he kept working (mostly in restaurants) to pay the school fees – then kept working again, back in Cyprus, while he made enough to set up his studio.

Was Art a sort of escape from what sounds like a harsh early life? Oddly enough, he doesn’t think so: as a teen, “it was just a passion, something that made me feel good”. Even now, painting is an end in itself, not a salve for some real-life disappointment; “It’s so exciting just to create something”. Yet it’s also true that his style as a painter is consistent (and has nothing to do with toilets that look like tombstones): he mostly paints human figures, “but not in a realistic style. There’s an abstract quality. And the reason is because I’m excited by the thought that during the creative process the painting might transport me to a place I don’t know … I’m interested in the final image taking me to another dimension, beyond the image that I see”.

Art, in other words, has the power to transcend drab reality, which of course is a form of escape – but maybe Andros Efstathiou doesn’t see it that way because he’s not the escapist type. Again and again, he talks to me of old-fashioned words like “honesty”, “pride”, “cowardice”, “responsibility”; I get the sense of a man who relishes the day-to-day battle, not a shrinking violet who’ll retreat to his studio when things get rough. “Honesty” is the thing he values most; Stass Paraskos was the exemplar of honesty, along with an unquenchable will to create. “Pride” is what he wants his child to feel, pride in his daddy. Andros came late to fatherhood (his wife Nadia, a graphic designer, is quite a bit younger) and has a four-year-old son, though Nadia is also three months pregnant with their second child. Another new beginning.

As for responsibility, or the lack of it – well, that’s partly what led to his toilet protest. “I understand everyone’s way of life,” he notes patiently. “And I’m talking about everyone – politicians, bankers, everyone. I understand that the competition to do well in society, and the adrenaline, and everyone’s constant battle for self-esteem, all this creates injustice – these are things I accept. Injustice is part of society. But what happened in Cyprus,” he goes on, his voice rising, “has nothing to do with all that. It was totally a matter of greed, and irresponsibility about the problems they’d create for other people!”

‘Injustice is part of society’: not everyone would make that assumption – but Andros has spent his life facing various forms of injustice, which others might complain about but he simply seems to accept. The injustice of losing his home. The injustice of growing up poor. The injustice of Paraskos’ Cyprus College of Art, which (he says) has never received the state support it deserves. The injustice – if that’s the right word – of Andros’ own life, constantly battling to make ends meet. He makes his living selling paintings (a profession made much harder by the crisis) and teaching students, partly at Paraskos’ college – though in fact he’s in his studio most days from 8am to 6pm, which doesn’t leave much time for teaching. How does he manage, with a young family and a baby on the way? “I believe we’ll make it. One way or another, I believe we’ll make it.”

Last June the injustice got too much, so he crafted 20 toilets out of plaster (which actually took a few weeks), put them in a pick-up truck and came to Nicosia. Mostly, however, the man behind the well-known protest sculpture isn’t widely known as a protester, or indeed a sculptor – nor is he daunted by the big 5-0 coming up in a few days. “I’m happy with myself,” he tells me. “Certainly, I won’t stop trying for something more. You know, every man’s always searching for important reasons to keep his life interesting for another day – and Art, for me, is an important reason. I’m not scared of turning 50, and I’m not scared of growing older – I say that truthfully!” he adds, as if his honesty might be impugned – “because I’m always waiting for the next day to dawn so I can create something new, and discover something new.”

He used to be restless, says Andros Efstathiou; he couldn’t have become a dad before, he wasn’t “ready” – but now, with his first half-century waning, he’s more at peace with himself, more aware of who he is. “My ‘wants’ have become very few,” he explains, “but they’re so intense, and I want them so badly. When I was 30 I had many ‘wants’, so I did a bit of this and a bit of that. Now they’ve been reduced, but I live them so intensely.”

A more recent artwork
A more recent artwork

What are those ‘wants’? “My studio,” he enumerates. “My family. And the sea, which is how I get away. I’ve got a boat down at Zygi, and I like to wake up at 5am every now and then, take the boat and go out to sea, then I do some fishing and I come back”. It’s his only real hobby, he explains; he hasn’t been abroad for ages, not even for work (though he tries to keep up with the art world), and his time for trivial pursuits like theatre and cinema is severely limited. The art is all-consuming.

How long does it take to finish a painting? Andros laughs out loud, as if I’d asked some profound existential question (and maybe I have). “A painting might take a month, where you just have it there and keep working on it – and another painting twice the size might take shape in half an hour, or 45 minutes. It’s a strange feeling,” he muses, “there are times when I go in the studio and I feel quite calm, I work, I know what I’m doing, there’s a kind of silent dialogue with myself – you just work calmly and the day goes by well enough – but then again, there are other days when you go in the studio and there’s this energy…”

He pauses; he can’t quite explain it. “There’s a control over your materials – I feel I’m in control of my materials, the palette with my paints, the big canvas, there’s that energy I love, that kinetic quality, the ‘gestural’, the ‘expression’ [he says the words in English], a kind of self-expression that knocks out the work in half an hour and there’s a freshness to the work, and you feel good!”. Andros Efstathiou shakes his head at the mystery of creation. “I wish I could have that energy every day. But it isn’t easy…” I leave him in the car park, already thinking of the road back to Larnaca. One conversation ending, a new one beginning.

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