Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

A tribute to the past

The world is shrinking with every passing year. We travel for business, for pleasure; we holiday in foreign countries, explore new places and even emigrate to different continents with barely a thought for what we’ve left behind. But it wasn’t always so. Half a century ago, moving to another village – let alone an entirely different country – entailed a life-changing decision. And yet, in the early part of the 20th century, thousands of courageous Cypriots left their homes and their families to journey half way round the world to Australia. Many ended up in Melbourne and today the city boasts the second largest Cypriot community in the world: 300,000 at the last count, many of whom are second and third generation Australians. But what of that first, intrepid generation who made the long crossing to a foreign land… What prompted the exodus? How have their lives changed over the years? And what do they recall of the home they left behind, half a world and a half a century away?

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Constantinos Emmanuelle holds the answers. An Australian-born Cypriot based in Melbourne, this graphic design artist and professor has spent the last five years interviewing the people behind the migration, finding out who they are, what prompted their departure, and what life was like in the Cyprus they remember. It’s a massive undertaking – a project Constantinos refers to as his ‘magnum opus’ – which has involved endless interviews and countless photographs, and has yielded several design projects, an exhibition, and an utterly fascinating website. It’s called Tales of Cyprus.

“I think what originally prompted Tales of Cyprus was the realisation that the world, and especially Cyprus, has changed so much over the last 60 years,” says Constantinos, speaking from Melbourne. “As a society we may be richer in terms of material wealth, but in many ways we’re poorer than past generations. When you speak to Cypriots who remember what the island was like between 1920 and 1950, you get the sense that they had a wonderful life; they were poor, things were hard, but they were content with what they had. That seemed to be the primary message, and once I realised that Cyprus in the past was a whole different world, I had to go and investigate…”

Focusing on the period pre-1950 – “I deliberately chose a time which ended before the troubles, as I didn’t want to get into the political issues” – Constantinos has built up an incredible archive of footage, images, interviews and artwork all related to the Cyprus that once was. “I think it largely began when I myself became a parent, and developed a renewed respect for my father. I’d been pretty dismissive of his life before then: ‘what do you know, you were just a shepherd before you came to Australia,’ I’d say. It took a certain maturity for me to realise that both my parents belonged to a unique culture, a unique period of time in the island’s history.”

Beginning with a lengthy interview with his own father, Constantinos discovered a world very removed from his own experiences. “My father arrived in Australia in 1949, after the war, seeking a better life. Three years later he saw a photo of my mother and decided to bring her over. It was an arranged marriage, which was very common at the time, but I have to say they really made it work. There was a respect and love that you don’t often see nowadays.”
Having visited Cyprus a number of times, Constantinos admits that the island and its unique past have been “hugely influential on my life. And, of course, on the project, as I unearthed the recollections of those who remembered what the island was once like. This was a very creative generation who made the most of what they had,” Constantinos explains. “It’s not that I’m romanticising the past; things were undoubtedly tough – malaria, infant mortality, disease – but there was a connection between people and communities, and that’s the essence of what I’m trying to evoke with Tales of Cyprus.”

But if the past was so rosy, why then did so many people leave? Why pack up and move to a completely unknown country, leaving your family, your community, your way of life behind? “The majority left Cyprus due to unemployment, a lack of a viable means of making an income,” Constantinos explains. “Many of my 40-odd interviewees revealed that they had left the island to alleviate the burden of poverty on their parents. And Australia, they’d been told by those who had already made the trek, was the promised land.” And yet, Constantinos adds, in every interview he conducted, there was a real sense of loss…

“There were a lot of tears,” he says. “For many of my interviewees, this was almost the first time they had really spoken about their past; often their children just weren’t interested or didn’t have the skills to find out about the Cyprus of old. So opening up about their homeland was an emotional experience: there was a sense of loss; loss of the life they once knew. Many of them still missed village life, talking about it with such fondness. There was a real sense of nostalgia for a past that no longer existed, even should they return.

“For me, it was very bittersweet,” Constantinos adds. “To hear first-hand the accounts of the island’s past; to be welcomed into these people’s homes was a real privilege, such a sweet moment. But many of my interviewees were living pretty lonely lives: the kids had moved on, they didn’t have many visitors, especially people who were willing to talk about the past. I do try to go back whenever I can,” he adds, “but it’s very difficult when you have a family and a full-time job. And of course, many of the people I’ve interviewed over the last few years have since passed away…”
Constantinos’ video interviews have since become “almost priceless to the remaining family,” he continues. “In some cases it’s almost the last recorded message from their loved ones.” But it must be some solace to know that the memories are now preserved, the stories recorded and the testaments to lives now closed are part of such an enduring entity.

“Tales of Cyprus has evolved into what it is almost by itself,” says Constantinos. From the first Facebook page in 2011, to the interviews, the scanning of the old photos and the resultant art and exhibition, the project has become “a tribute to the past: stories and artwork and photos”. Along with the interviews, Constantinos scanned any pre-1950 images he could get his hands on, using them as prompts to find out more about the past as well as “both the inspiration for a series of drawings which somehow encapsulate the world these people talked about, the Cyprus that existed before 1950, and a set of retro travel posters.”
Twelve months later, the Tales of Cyprus exhibition appeared in a Melbourne gallery, and the response from the community was “amazing. I think we had over 1,500 people come through. The majority were from the diaspora – both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, because Tales of Cyprus is absolutely inclusive,” Constantinos explains. “I’ve always been interested in getting people together, and Tales of Cyprus was always going to happen – this is the project that, as an artist, I was always meant to do. And it hasn’t finished yet…”

This October, Constantinos plans to visit Cyprus, “travelling through the villages and interviewing as many people as I can. I’m hoping to make connections in Cyprus, document more photos and create more artwork. And then, in 2017, I’d like to bring the exhibition to the island. Tales of Cyprus is such a positive thing,” he concludes. “It’s a wonderful connection between Australia, Cyprus and the past. And ultimately, I want to bring my parents’ generation, their stories, back home. To the place from which the journey began.”

Tales of Cyprus
A project by Australian-Cypriot Constantinos Emmanuelle which encompasses video interviews, stories, an art exhibition and an archive of images of life in Cyprus before 1950. Much of the material is online, and can be seen at www.talesofcyprus.com and the Facebook page ‘Tales of Cyprus’. For more information, email [email protected]

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