Growing up black in Cyprus proved difficult for one Turkish Cypriot artist who has now explored it in her work. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a woman who has shocked society with nude shots although her love of the sea meant she could not stay away from the island
I first met Serap Kanay during the Leaps of Faith exhibition that took place in Nicosia in 2005. The international multidisciplinary art project aimed to shake up and change the dynamics of selected public spaces, buildings and sites in the divided capital by encouraging a creative outpouring of alternative discourses that looked over and beyond the wall of internal issues surrounding the perennially locked in Cyprus problem, as inward looking and self-absorbed then as now.
Serap was exhibiting her works in a wonderful art deco hotel in the centre of the old town in north Nicosia. In the room assigned her by the show’s curators, rows of large photos hung from the ceiling. The men, women and children pictured in them were all Turkish Cypriots, each and every one of them of African descent.
“The most visible invisible group on the island”, Serap, a striking woman with an amazing purple and bottle green afro and clothes to match, told me at the time. Now, reminiscing, she recalls how “for years, nobody would talk about us”, this othered group seemingly without a fixed identity
“Even my parents would not explain to me when I was a kid why I was so different from other children. I used to curse my mother for marrying my father because my hair was exactly like his and children were always laughing at my hair at school. I didn’t realise at that time that my mother also had African blood in her veins.”
Asked about her age, Serap laughingly answers “I stopped at 55 but maybe I have few more”. She was born in Famagusta, one of four siblings, spending her first five years there, until her policeman father was transferred to Paphos. The family returned to Famagusta in 1975 but Serap, soon after graduating, set off for London where she studied at Guildhall University. She came back to the island in 2000 and has been permanently based here ever since. She is an accomplished artist, an excellent researcher, and an avid social media commentator. She also works as a tour guide.
Given her talent and independent streak, qualities I imagined would have sustained and prolonged her time in London, I ask why she came back. Her reply is short and somewhat poignant. “I missed the sea,” she says simply, with a smile and shrug.
“My blood didn’t flow in my body because I could not see the sea. I literally could not do it anymore. I had to have the sea around me.” She is silent for a moment, then offers more of an explanation. “The year 1999 was an important year for me. My grandfather died. He was for me the epitome of blackness in our family. Then my uncle died. Soon after, I attended this conference in London on Cypriot women’s voices. Among the participants were Katie Clerides, Katie Economidou, Aydin Ali Mehmet, strong voices all, and Katie Economidou was talking about some of the initial women’s meetings in Pyla and about how scared they had been to go but how they went despite their fear… So thanks to this conference and hearing these women, I decided to go back to Cyprus for a year and see what it would be like to be back.”
Was she nervous about going back? “Oh yes. I believed I could find tolerance everywhere in the world but not in Cyprus. I could see change everywhere but not in Cyprus. However, I also wanted to come back because I really wanted to be here. So I took my child and back we came and that was 19 years ago.”
Serap who met, married and divorced her husband in the UK admits to was finding the whole situation difficult; the challenges of single parenthood and the problems a divorced, independent-minded woman faces in a traditional society.
“It was very different to be a single parent here from the UK. First I and my daughter stayed at my parents’ and this wasn’t easy because for many years I was living on my own and there suddenly I was always asked what I was doing, where I was going… And then when we moved to my house suddenly I was completely on my own. I had my daughter Dilek 24/7. All my friends were in London and here I was alone. And I was different, not the type who makes house visits and drinks coffee. Plus, I was divorced. Here, staying in a marriage keeps you respectable. When you are not in this union, you are looked upon differently.”
Not that Serap was unused to being treated differently. In many ways that had been the story of her life. In telling me more about her childhood, I am shocked by her account of long-term school bullying and the isolation and exclusion she experienced, experiences she relates matter of factly. Her air of detachment tells more about the pain she had to endure than any outright show of emotions.
“People were always making fun of my hair and skin colour and yes, there was bullying. When I was five, a boy who lived in the street between my house and the kindergarten would lay in wait for me. As I was passing by, he would hit me. I don’t remember how often but looking back now I think it was daily. Then, at the age of six, at school in Famagusta, I had the same treatment from other children. And again when I was seven and we had moved to Paphos kids there would beat me up. Nobody wanted to sit next to me in the class. Boys would not want to hold my hand. But I was smart and very good at maths so gradually I learned not to pay attention. And then in the sixth year, there was this girl. She was in a different class and I saw something in her and decided that I wanted her to be my friend and it happened. She was my first friend, the first I chose to be my friend and she is still my friend to this day. I gave her name to my daughter.”
Was all of this connected to the fact that she looked so different from other children? Well, mostly. She hesitates, before continuing. There were some other girls of African origin in her class in Paphos but even they seemed to think of her as being different. Perhaps it was because their hair was different, she muses. Or maybe they never really thought of themselves as black?
“Lots of people in Cyprus have African features but they don’t think about it. This is one of the main reasons why I have been working on the African heritage project. Because this is not something that we talked about and owned up to. Yet, because of this project things are changing. People come out who would not have accepted before that they have African blood. Now they want to be included. They send me photographs of their grandparents, saying ‘our dede [grandfather] was like this’. Change always happens slowly but if you work on something real and truthful it will come to be accepted eventually. Ultimately, I would like to do work on the same subject on the Greek Cypriot side as well. But for now, even though I did find some people there too, they don’t want to talk about it, not just yet anyway. So I am still looking.”
So after all Serap’s work and research about her origins, has anything changed or altered this feeling of difference?
“It is still there but not in the same way,” she admits.
“For many years I didn’t accept the word ‘other’ on various governmental forms now I own up to it. I use it to my advantage. Yes, I am the ‘other’, I am the ‘village idiot’ and it is good because it is like having artistic licence and I can use this licence. I have given myself permission to use it.”
Serap continues: “I think that it is an artist’s job to hold a mirror up to society. Actually I think we are all a kind of mirror reflecting the society we live in but the artist has a duty to hold up a bigger mirror than the others. And this is also my licence.”
Serap’s exploration and freedom of otherness is increasingly visible in her work. This was especially true of her latest exhibition entitled Bakma that took place earlier this year at the Rustem bookshop in north Nicosia.
“Bakma comes from the Turkish word ‘bakmak’, which means the action of looking. Both in Turkish and Turkish Cypriot ‘bakma’ is actually an order not to look. But in Turkish Cypriot it is also used as a shorter version of ‘bakmak’,” Serap explains in revealing the complexity and meaning of the exhibition’s title.
“So this title is talking in general about the process of looking while at the same time criticising the way that look manifests itself and can be disturbing by demanding one not look. This double meaning is obvious in the Turkish Cypriot dialect but difficult to translate into English.”
The exhibition, the first ever in north Cyprus to show a female artist’s photographic works that focus on her own nudity, stirred some strong reactions. “Actually it all started in it the middle of September last year. One day I woke up, the weather was beautiful, the sun was streaming into my bedroom and the pink bougainvillea flowers were coming in as well through the little slots of the half closed shutters. I opened my eyes and this was the first thing I saw and it was so beautiful I decided I should take a picture,” she tells me.
“So I got up and saw my own naked reflection in the glass and also the pinkness of the flowers and I decided to try to capture all these images together. And it looked so innocent and natural I actually called it ‘Nature and Natural’ and sent it to some friends who thought it beautiful and eventually posted it on my Instagram account.”
What happened next surprised Serap and made her realise that perhaps this was the time for her to start working on a long planned project of creating a series of works focusing on her body.
“A lot of people liked it and some friends who are professional photographers also sent me some comments in private asking me to pose for them and I thought ‘hmm, I don’t want to be choreographed by anybody else when I can change it into my own project. So next day I took some more pictures and then each day for the next 28 days, an important number for me since women are child bearers and I have a child and the menstruation cycle is 28 days and so is the moon cycle…”
All the photos Serap took were shot on her mobile, always in the same limited space between the window and her bed in the hours from 6am to 9am. Each day of the ensuing 28 days, she posted one of these pictures on Instagram. She received lots of comments praising the beauty and innocence of her work but there were also other reactions less aesthetically focused.
“At the beginning when taking these photographs I wanted to explore and experiment with light and shadow and to learn more about photography. But as the time passed I started to think more about how various people reacted to my photos, how some people were looking at them but only writing to me in private about them, and also about the level of hypocrisy existing in our society that some of these private comments exposed.”
So is this is where the title comes from?
“Yes, and it comes back to my belief about an artist’s role in society. Because in our society there is still this understanding that a woman supposedly exists and does everything for the pleasure of a man. But it is not true. We are free agents. I am not here for you.
“I am here for me and even if the things I do might affect you in bad or good way, the truth is they have nothing to do with me. There is no right for you to come and bother me, to attack me and, especially in the case of a woman, to isolate me… This is what I want the message of this project to be now that I am older and wiser and have the experience finally to use this power of being the other to my advantage.”