How to make a positive contribution is the driving force of a Nicosia art dealer and former physics teacher. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man surrounded by art of all kinds, driven to choose the good path over the bad
What is art? All the paintings, prints and antiquarian maps ranged around Diachroniki Gallery in old Nicosia fit the bill, certainly – but that’s not the end of it. A cube of sugar is also “a work of art,” declares Christofis Kikas; see how perfectly aligned its molecules are! Christofis is the owner of Diachroniki, having opened the place after coming back from England in the early 90s – but he also spent nearly four decades as a Physics teacher, so his worldview is a bit more expansive. He straddles worlds not often straddled.
We talk quite a bit about the past, which is understandable. His life has always been full; even now, at 66, he’s not slowing down. On Monday he’s flying to Brussels with the senior-citizen arm of the Cyprus Green Party, for a tour of the European Parliament. Where others watch TV to relax, he does online courses on the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC) or the relative merits of pre-Socratic philosophers. Still, this bustling present isn’t quite as exciting as what came before – and it’s also true that Diachroniki isn’t one of the trendy Nicosia galleries, in the sense of being a hub where potential buyers go to see and be seen. “Our buyers are normal people,” as he puts it. “Educated, usually, and people of some integrity. I can tell you for sure that we don’t have as customers corrupt people, very rich people, or the so-called big names of Cypriot society. They are not our customers.”
Christofis’ aim in opening the gallery was to open something more than a gallery: he was trying for a grown-up version of the Cultural Youth Club he launched in the 60s, as a teenager in Dali – a place where lectures and debates could be held, surrounded by art. Just last week, he screened a documentary on early Spanish art (there’s a screening every Wednesday, followed by drinks and a discussion) and joined Dr Yiannis Christodoulou, a former philosophy professor at the University of Nicosia, in a comparative analysis of ‘Schooling and True Education’. He’s impressively vigorous – yet he may, now and then, also wonder if he’s really fulfilled his potential, looking back to his nine years as Head of Physics at South Hampstead High School for Girls (one of the best schools in Britain, “ranked second in the country for A-Level results” in 2011 according to Wikipedia) or even further back, to his glittering teenage career capped by a scholarship to Imperial College. “At the time,” he recalls with a smile, “I was the highest-earning 18-year-old in Cyprus.”
He’s certainly unusual, a shrewd, compact man with a round face and bald pate, fringed by a halo of white hair. He speaks softly, as if to himself. He’s determinedly poker-faced, one of those people who purposely withhold the expected reaction, as if to keep you on your toes: he’ll tell a joke without smiling, pose for photos with a totally blank expression, lower his voice for emphasis instead of raising it. He’s not given to false modesty; his stories tend to end with the other person admitting “I should’ve listened to you”. Yet he’s too un-emphatic to appear vain, or embittered. The overall impression is of a high achiever aged, like fine wine, into quiet idiosyncrasy, a man who no longer tries – or expects – to sway the majority, but only to meet his own exacting standards.
He’s been dealing in art since his teens, yet is happiest in the world of ideas. I ask about artists who blew his mind as a young man, but he makes no mention of Van Gogh or Caravaggio: “For me, it’s always been the philosophical aspect of life. How to conduct your life in the best possible way,” says Christofis. (His English is near-flawless, one of his three languages along with Greek and German.) “And to make a positive contribution to any society you live in.” The stories he tells often deal in people’s indifference, and his own attempts to make things better. He recalls breaking up a fight between two tramps outside Bayswater Tube station – he was quite an athlete in his youth, a star of the 200m – and the throng of dead-eyed people who just stood there watching. He recalls seeing a young boy beaten bloody by police in a post-coup student protest in Athens, in 1974, and being threatened with a gun when he tried to intervene.
So he’s always been quite idealistic?
“My heart was, is, and will always be for the underdog, the downtrodden, the vulnerable people,” he replies, using the question as a springboard for a statement of principle. “But I’m very much – from the age of 15 or 16, when I realised how rotten society was becoming – I’m very much in favour of meritocracy. In the true sense of the word. This, unfortunately, has never happened here, ever since we had –” he hesitates, looking for the words – “our new rulers.
“Because, having escaped from the Franks, the Venetians, the Ottomans, the English, I was hoping that the people who rule us would look after us, would fend for us, would try their best for us and, if need be, would fight for us – instead of fighting us instead! Unfortunately the latter is happening and our right to be served by them, they pervert into an obligation to chase after them, and to beg them for what is rightfully ours. If you’re not involved with the sinful political parties – which manage somehow to squeeze their own people into all posts, whatever their capabilities – if you’re not one of them, you’re on the periphery of our society, you are pointed out as a ‘wrong’ person. Whereas it should be the other way around.”
Is that Christofis’ secret history? A man who started out in the mainstream of society – his grandfather was a former mayor of Dali – and gradually moved to the periphery, mostly through refusing to play the game? He’s always been conspicuously moral, “very much taken” as a schoolboy by stories of Hercules choosing the good path over the bad (the teacher used to call him ‘Aristotle’) and flummoxing the headmistress of South Hampstead High by enquiring about the “ethos” of the school before accepting the job – yet that same moral code may have got in the way occasionally, making him balk when another man might’ve gone with the flow.
The big turning-point in his life was his return to Cyprus from the UK, mostly for personal reasons: he was nearly 40, he’d just met his Cypriot wife and they wanted to come back and start a family. (They have a son, Michael, now 26 and finishing a Master’s in Theoretical Physics at UCL.) His nine years at South Hampstead attracted the attention of the English School, his alma mater – but he clashed with “political-party people” at the interview, and walked away. It didn’t really matter, since he wanted to focus on the gallery anyway – but Diachroniki, too, has been largely ignored by the System, never receiving much in the way of official largesse. “I had a very unpleasant experience with the Ministry of Education and Culture,” he sighs, recalling how a member of the state committee responsible for buying paintings made a disparaging remark about one of his artists, which led to an argument. It’s unclear whether, and how far, fences have been mended since then.
He doesn’t strike me as an angry person – but I suspect he can be stubborn, when it comes to matters of principle. Even the artists he champions at Diachroniki “have to have a good character” as well as talent, and can’t expect to command top prices until they’ve “served an apprenticeship,” as he puts it. So why don’t they defect to other galleries, which might offer more? “Here they get protected as well,” claims Christofis. The gallery will sometimes buy paintings from its stable of artists, to keep them going (“Nobody else does that”), just as he once bought back some paintings from a UK customer who needed some ready cash after his divorce. Is he even making money out of this? “It’s difficult. Because whatever little extra we sometimes make goes to the artists… That’s why they choose to stay with us.”
We’ve been sitting upstairs in the gallery, Christofis scuttling down to the entrance and up again whenever a customer comes in (leaving him out of breath and causing him to clutch at his heart on one occasion; he’s not a teenage athlete anymore!). One of the interruptions is by a local mother whose son he’s agreed to coach in Physics – which he still does now and then, always unpaid and as a favour, unable to desert his true vocation. There are several sides to Christofis Kikas: the art dealer, the moral philosopher, the scientist and physicist. He’s even dabbled in politics, standing for MP with Simaia, a small ‘social movement’ that flourished briefly during the crisis. If you had to distil him down to one aspect, however, it would surely be Christofis the teacher, helping people “achieve their potential”.
That’s what he did in the UK, going from one of the worst schools in London – “Ladbroke School for Girls, my colleagues used to call it Ladbroke Zoo for Girls” – to one of the best, and excelling in both. That’s what he did after coming back, the English School’s loss being the American Academy’s and GC School of Careers’ gain. That’s even what he did as a teenager, finding himself with 58 students, many much older than himself (he’d initially been an assistant, taking over the class when the teacher left), whom he charged £2.50 a month to help them pass their exams; at the time he was also selling insurance for Universal Life and had a job (paying a princely £38 a month) at the UN supply store, which explains his status as the island’s highest-earning 18-year-old – and of course he was also doing his A Levels, and learning German and running the 200m. Did he even have a social life? “Well, we had the youth club,” he replies (which doesn’t really answer the question), “and I was their president”.
Christofis Kikas has done – and continues to do – a lot, for a soft-spoken man running a not-very-trendy art gallery; “My life has always been full of action,” he admits, “ever since I can remember”. He bought and sold 19th-century art while still at uni, then later, in the 90s, founded ‘Deipnos kai Logos’ (‘Dinner and Discourse’), a kind of salon whose members used to meet and “discuss philosophy, politics, religion, all these important issues”. (Making his own art is the only aspect that’s eluded him; he dabbled at painting but, he says, lacked the talent.) Maybe it’s his teacher side, urging him, as it does his students, to work hard and do good deeds – though it’s also, I suspect, his physicist side, keenly aware that every system (and what’s a human life, if not a system?) “faces a formidable foe: entropy”.
Take that cube of sugar, the one we mentioned earlier, the “work of art” with such beautifully laid-out molecules. Put it in a glass of water and it instantly starts to dissolve, the molecules drifting apart as the structure around them collapses; this is entropy, the “tendency for all systems to tend towards chaos” (the molecules may theoretically re-form into a new cube of sugar, if left alone for X billions of years; but it’s unlikely). This is the way of the world, muses Christofis. “Entropy takes over. But it cannot take over your spirit, which is pure energy. Which is not a physical system. And perhaps our purpose in life is to cultivate the spirit to such a high level that it remains pure, pure enough to join the Creative Force”.
Scientists have a reputation for being boring materialists – but physics is slightly different: the more we learn about how everything works, in the age of quantum mechanics, the weirder and more mysterious it seems. Christofis isn’t religious per se, but he does believe in a ‘Creative Force’ behind the universe – and does believe that “this all-pervasive power is out there, in the form of some kind of pure energy, which we join if we ourselves become like that”.
How to ‘become like that’? By trying to do good, not being indifferent, making “a positive contribution” to the world. By promoting art, perhaps, art being undoubtedly an outpouring of some type of Creative Force. By trying to help others achieve their potential, whether it’s struggling Cypriot artists or the girl from a nearby comprehensive (a “timid little mouse”) whom he took into his A Level class at South Hampstead High and steered to success in the exams – then met on the Tube five years later, when she thanked him with all her heart and told him she was graduating in Medicine that same year. Or maybe just by persevering, even when society is corrupt and your work seems increasingly “on the periphery”.
Almost time to go. Christofis suggests a glass of wine, which I regretfully decline, then he goes downstairs to greet customers. A family of Scandinavian tourists come in briefly, take a look around, then exit with the slightly abashed smile of tourists everywhere; he smiles back, a quiet man in late middle age. I recall what I asked him earlier: Does he still have faith in human nature? “I would say yes,” he replies, “simply because – even in the most dark of darknesses – when you light a candle, it still shines”. I leave him to it, trying to light a candle in a dark world, surrounded by art of all descriptions.