Having lived through different worlds following an unusual upbringing, writer and artist Andreas Karayan became known for his provocative and erotic paintings but stresses the importance of laughter to Agnieszka Rakoczy
There is a 100-year-old wardrobe in artist and writer Andreas Karayan’s sitting room. Broad, magnificent and with a baroque style cornice, it was created by a Greek Cypriot craftsman for a Turkish Cypriot customer whose name is carved in Greek lettering on the upper part of its double doors. It is replete with painted panels, some with intricately etched floral motifs, others depicting Nicosia’s Gothic Ayia Sophia cathedral, including the twin minarets that were added in the 16th century.
When I enter the room, I am stopped in my tracks, recognising the wardrobe immediately, an unexpected but welcome encounter with an old friend. Eight years ago, I spotted this wonderful piece in one of old Nicosia’s antique shops and ever since dreamt that one day I might buy it. Alas, to no avail. Two years ago it disappeared from the window display and never came back.
“So you are the person who got it. It is so unique. Congratulations,” I say. My host responds with some surprise. Yes, indeed, he did buy it but that was many years ago, a polite if hesitant hint that my enthusiastic assumption that this was a serendipitous reunion might be misplaced. Had I perhaps seen a similar wardrobe somewhere else? As far as he knows, there were only two of this kind ever made – the one is in his possession and nobody knows what happened to the other.
“When I bought it my mother got very upset because it was so expensive,” Andreas recalls. “She could not understand why I spent so much money on it. I told her that it was the best investment of my life because this wardrobe was so beautiful it would bring me happiness for many years to come. I was right.”
I know exactly what he means and for a second feel pangs of regret that I never managed to acquire the other piece. I wonder who got it and what has become of it. Pushing the thought aside, I turn back to my host and realise that seeing this wardrobe as a centrepiece in his dwelling makes perfect sense, as Karayan grew up in a Nicosia where Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots lived together in harmony. “My mother’s best friend was a Turkish Cypriot lady,” he adds. Much of Karayan’s writing, like his glorious wardrobe, belongs to a different era. In his phrase, it is “multicultural belle epoque”, whether evocative of 1940s/50s Nicosia, the 1960s in Athens, or the 1970s in post-swinging London. Even his exquisite descriptions of modern Alexandria, where he lived for six years and still visits regularly, include hauntingly beautiful passages about its splendid, cosmopolitan past and its ghostly inhabitants.
“I was very lucky to have lived through all of this, all these different kinds of worlds that have shaped me as a human being,” the 76-year-old tells me. As one of Cyprus’ most renowned artists, he has twice represented the island at international art biennales – in Venice in 2001 and Cairo in 2006.
“My books are an image of the 20th century but I don’t write about politics. If my books are political it is because every action we take, as Herbert Marcuse said, is political. But my books are really about me and my family and of what I have lived through until now through the art, the erotic, and the social and political changes. This is how the art, politics and philosophy emerge.”
One man’s story but a story that embraces so much of what has happened in the region. Karayan’s childhood was spent in the old town of Nicosia, in “a beautiful middle-class neighbourhood and a very multicultural community of which no sign remains”. His mother Carmella Isseyek was a well-known hat maker and a Maronite. His father Ohannes Karayan – an Istanbul-born Armenian – was a violinist in the first Cyprus orchestra. And his biological father Nicos Theophanides – was a Greek Cypriot doctor, a paediatrician. Three persons and already an almost complete Cypriot mosaic of impossibilities and contradictions.
“Carmella was in love with Theophanides but, since his mother didn’t want him to marry a Maronite, nothing came of it,” Karayan explains with a patient smile, while I listen bemusedly.
“So Carmella, who was a great beauty, marries Karayan, a cosmopolitan Armenian Catholic, and a gambler and womaniser. After three years they agree that the marriage is not a success. Since as Catholics they cannot divorce, they get a separation of bed. It is at this point my father reappears and the love story starts again and I and my brother are born.”
Surely, Nicosia must have been pulsating with gossip, I venture. Karayan, who of course has written a book about it, smiles again, this time with a touch of nostalgia, and tells me that the Nicosia of that period was full of many things – music, ballrooms, cinemas, parties… “My milieu was very cosmopolitan, they all spoke French… my mother was an independent woman with her own business, all the British ladies were ordering their hats from her… I don’t even know if Karayan knew that we were not his children, something I only myself learned about much much later. But these three extraordinary people were inseparable for 12 years so I was brought up by three great characters and I am very proud of them.”
So what happened next, I interrupt, intrigued and impatient to hear more of this unusual story. Unhurriedly, Karayan continues his tale.
“After 12 years my mother finally decided to leave Karayan and we moved out and went to live in a hotel. Theophanides asks her to get married but a priest tells her that she would go to hell if she does so she declines his proposal and he leaves her. And then, as if this wasn’t enough, her hat shop burns down and we lose everything. So now we are in this hotel room, alone and without a penny, when Karayan enters and takes us all back and raises us as his own children. And I never see Theophanides again, and then on his death bed.”
Karayan grew up attending some of Nicosia’s best-known schools – Ecole St Joseph, Terra Santa and finally the Pancyprian Gymnasium. Then his mother insisted he should study medicine – “I was always a book worm and I loved art but she didn’t want to hear about it. My father was a doctor and she wanted me to be one as well”.
So to make her happy he did, setting off for Athens where he studied medicine amid the 60s “renaissance of arts and literature”, where he married a promising young Cypriot pianist. Six years on and they moved to London where he hoped to specialise in psychiatry.
But that was a London still oscillating in flower power and free love. Karayan realised very quickly that everybody around him was doing their own thing and that so could he. Medicine fell by the wayside and he enrolled to study art, first at the Camberwell School of Arts and then at the Central School of Arts. “My mother stopped talking to me,” he recalls. Meanwhile, his wife continued her piano studies with London’s reigning grande dame of pianism.
Karayan and his wife lived an exciting life, meeting the young and the talented, many, like Kiri Te Kanawa and David Hockney, who would later shoot up to fame. Gradually, however, the young couple grew apart since, as Andreas frankly acknowledges, he was coming to accept that he was more and more attracted to men. He tellingly describes this phase of his life in his book Immoral Tales: London- Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey, a mosaic of people, stories and love affairs like a pointillistic painting.
It is with tender appreciation that Karayan still remembers and recounts how his wife “was very good about the whole situation and accepted it”. Although they divorced, they remain close friends. “Even now she is one of the most essential people in my life,” he says. Through it all, Karayan continued painting and studying, further expanding his horizons. Then, in 1978, the elder Karayan died and Karayan had to come back to Cyprus to take care of his mother.
He fully understood that his return would not be easy and so opted to prepare for re-entry by initially introducing his works in Athens. “My paintings were provocative and erotic, and I knew there would be problems.” Gratifyingly, that first showing in Athens got a very good response. Thus bolstered, he set about preparing for his first ever exhibition in Nicosia, at the Gloria Gallery, only to hear that the church might intervene and stop it from taking place.
“So I went to the then Minister of Justice and asked him to come and see my works and decide whether they are just provocative or real art, and he did and he liked them and actually inaugurated my exhibition,” he remembers. This was however just the first step that Karayan took in joining the fight to revoke the old law, inherited from the British colonial times, that still made male homosexuality a criminal offence (finally removed only in 1998).
“I started writing articles about human rights, and together with Roxane Coudounari from the Green Party pushed for organising the first discussion on homosexuality at the Cyprus Psychiatric Association,” Karayan says. “It was very difficult and my mother was always very upset with me. But the good thing was that, since officially I was also a medical doctor, I always signed my articles as such, which helped a lot…”
Karayan continued painting, building up a reputation as “a figurative artist depicting scenes of everyday life with particular reference to the eroticism and the alienation of the male form”.
In addition to his articles, he also started writing autobiographical novels in Greek, four of which have been published: A True Story, Immoral Tales, Obscure Tales, and Incessant Laughter. He is currently working on the fifth, entitled The Great Laughter because, he notes, “even at the saddest point of my life, I will laugh – this is what I have learned”. Only one of his novels, Immoral Tales, has been published also in English. However, plans are in place to translate the others.
“All told, it is the story of a young man who grows up in Cyprus, and discovers that inside of him there are secrets that are not socially accepted, so he strives to understand himself as well as the society around him. The man reads a lot and has a difficult time. He feels cut off from society but this serves to help him develop critical thinking. Finally he reaches a point where he realises that the world around him is constantly changing and evolving, and this continues up to the present day.” In this matter of fact way, Karayan sums up what his books are about, mentioning in passing that he has twice been the recipient of state literary awards
So how has he changed in the course of all these years of change? “Well, I was always a person of light, an optimist you might say. But of course, I have changed and now look at many things in a different way. I don’t act my life any more, something I used to do a lot before. Now I look at it and I enjoy it. I am happy that I have had all this experience and I look at the things that once I found tragic with laughter. I believe that at the end of everybody’s life the angel of God comes and says: ‘I gave you this and this and this. What have you done with all these gifts?’ And if you answer ‘Nothing, I spent my life working’, you go to hell. But if you say ‘yes, I painted, and danced, and played music’ you go to heaven. So this is what I will say.”
And then he pauses to think for a minute before telling me the last story of the day, the most poignant and most personal one.
“When my mother was dying of cancer in one of Nicosia’s private clinics, I learned that my biological father Theophanides was in the neighbouring room, also dying. So he is in one room and my mother in the other and there is just a wall separating them. We don’t tell them about each other. But I go to my father and tell him that I want him to recognise me as his son and he does. Three days later he dies, and my mother who until then was feeling reasonably ok passes away few hours later.” He falters momentarily before continuing: “That has affected me a lot… because how can you explain something like this? You can’t…”
Andreas Karayan’s latest exhibition featuring his landscapes will open on November 27 at the Apocalypse Gallery in Nicosia. Chytron 30, Nicosia. Tel: 22 300150