The creator of a series of controversial works that caused a storm in Cyprus last week tells AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY that they reflect the culture of the country
One Cypriot painter’s decision to post his art work portraying some of the island’s leading public figures in less than complimentary situations on Facebook and Instagram led to a heated discussion about an artist’s role in society.
I have long been an admirer of 60-year-old George Gavriel’s paintingsfrom the time I saw a large canvas, covered with warm red paint, with a huge olive tree in the middle and a tired man sleeping in its shade at the Diachroniki Art Gallery.
It was the early 2000s and ever since Gavriel’s portayals of Cyprus village life spring to mind each time I drive through the island’s remote countryside and see farmers going about their work, picking olives, pruning trees, watering their flocks or planting potatoes.
And as I think of Gavriel’s paintings at these moments, it is his unerring ability to catch just the right pose required for each of these tasks that (almost) stops me in my tracks. It is as if he has created a perfect matrix for the rural life, life on the land.
I confide this to him when we meet in his house in Kokkinotrimithia, the village that lies about 20-kilometres from Nicosia. He smiles, admitting that in many ways that is exactly what he set out to do.
“I have these scenes embedded in my head since I was a small child,” he says.
“My grandfather worked in the fields all his life. My brothers and sisters used to help him. And my mother… when she was alive so many times I asked her to pose for me when she was doing various daily tasks… I have all these scenes deeply implanted both in my memory and in many drawings and photos.”
Gavriel was born in the same village in 1959 and raised in a family of eight (five girls and three boys). He was the youngest child and they were poor, so poor, he says, that throughout his childhood he had to share a bed with his brother. Moreover, it never occured to his parents that any of their children should further their education beyond the local high school.
“My father was originally from Argaka in Paphos and as a 10- or 12-year-old he was sent by his parents to Nicosia to work for a family in exchange for just his food and a roof over his head. He later got a job at at Nicosia airport and after 1974 was moved to Larnaca,” Gavriel recalls.
“My mother was also a hard worker. She worked at factories and on building sites and also at a chicken farm here in Kokkinothrimithia. I would never see her. She was always working.”
Both parents were religious. His mother was a regular church goer. “But at the same time they were left wing – not in any organised way but because being poor working people, I think it just came naturally to them”.
In 1974, on the second day of the coup, a group of right wing men from the village (“Kokkinotrimithia is split in the middle in this respect even now and some of the men are still alive”) came to Gavriel’s house and took his father and brother away. Later that same day, they returned and took him as well.
“I was 14 and had no idea what was going on,” the artist remembers with a gentle half-smile that seems never to leave his face.
“They took me to a local police station and started interrogating me. They believed that my father had a gun in the house and wanted to know where. And since I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell them anything so they decided to scare me. They put me against a wall and starting shooting at me. I was very scared, I was crying. Some of their bullets made holes in my trousers.”
After this mock execution Gavriel’s oppressors decided to let him go and a couple of days later when the Turkish army invaded the island his father and brother were released by their captors as well. The political significance and meaning of that ordeal left indelible marks on the young boy.
“After this it was very clear to me that there are them and us and that we are enemies,” he says. “From that day I knew for sure that I am a leftist.”
Gavriel became very active in the youth branch of the local Akel unit and later the party itself. He went to a technical school in Nicosia to acquire a skill, joined the army and later started working in a local garage. But that was not enough for him.
“From the time I was a small child, I was always drawing and I kept on drawing in my spare time. Then one day I read somewhere that the government would be holding exams and that if I passed these exams I could go to study art in Moscow, so I applied.”
Gavriel passed the first of the qualifying exams needed for the government stipend but also went to his party mentors to ask if they might have a similar scholarship for him to study in the USSR.
“They said ‘yes’ so I didn’t have to sit the second of the ministry exams. The year was 1980 and I went to Moscow to study at the Surikov Art Institute. Suddenly I moved from my tiny Cypriot village to a city of eight million people. The contrast was enormous.”
Gavriel, however, was not alone. There were other young Cypriots studying in Moscow. Among his compatriot colleagues at Surikov were Hambis Tsangaris, Andreas Makariou and Kyriakos Tamanas.
“Surikov was a great school with wonderful teachers. It had a very classic, very strict approach to art. I was in the studio of the renowned artist and professor Klavdia Alexandrovna Tutevol. She was a monumentalist. I studied at Surikov for seven years. I graduated with a Masters degree. It took seven years because during the first year in Moscow I also had to learn Russian.”
After returning to Cyprus with a wife and a small child Gavriel started looking for work and when he could not find it started working on building sites. And then luck smiled on him and he got a job in the workshops of the Archbishopric, where for the next year, he restored icons.
Thereafter he continued to work in various Cypriot churches, busily restoring existing iconostases and frescoes as well as painting new ones.
“In Moscow, I graduated from a monumental art department so I was trained in all these techniques. I know how to paint and restore icones, murals, frescoes and stained glass,” he explains.
Gavriel’s good relations with the Church continued after he became a state school teacher and later when he was employed by the ministry of education as a school art inspector.
“We did various projects with the Archbishopric at that time,” he remembers. “In one, for example, children from various schools came to the Archbishopric gardens and were taught how to paint in the Byzantine style.”
Did the Church realise that he was not religious? Gavriel smiles that gentle smile again.
“Cyprus is small. Everybody knows everybody so everybody knows that I am George Gavriel and that I was shot at when I was 14 and that I am left wing and that means I am not religious. But it is a personal matter. In my family I am the only one who doesn’t believe, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean I am against the Church. I have always kept Cypriot religious traditions inside me. They will be always in both myself and my work because this is the culture of my country… Byzantine culture, religion, village life… This is what I always show in my pictures… If you look at my paintings you will see many churches and many religious scenes in them, you will see people working in the fields with angels flying over them… I have never had problem with religion because I believe it is our pure Cypriot culture…”
Gavriel stops for a second and then adds that he also paints mosques.
“I just had an exhibition at Diachroniki and in my paintings shown there, there were both churches and mosques because they are also part of our history and our landscape,” he points out.
“I paint what I feel because this is what painters do. Artists should never be stopped from expressing whatever they want. Through their paintings they show their own life, everything they went through, their problems and dreams and what they believe in… And what I paint is inside of me. It is my life. Probably if I was living in Nicosia, I would paint differently… and if I was a capitalist, that would show in my paintings too…”
The village scenes have always been part of his output. Even his first exhibition, organised by his teacher Tutevol at Surikov featured works that he had painted during his summer holidays in Kokkinotrimithia.
And what of the more political subjects that have been causing such a storm on the island?
“Well, actually, the recent works are not the first,” he admits.
“In 2013, during the financial crisis, I did a series that showed what was happening to Cyprus and Cypriots at that time because of the haircut and the troika negotiations and all the suffering that went along with it. But the recent paintings were created just within the last couple of months and posted online only about two weeks ago. And yes, I did expect some noise around them but not as much as happened in reality.”
Together, we look at his controversial pieces. In one a man urinates on the monument of Grivas in Limassol. In another, a dog does his business on the Archbishop. In yet another a dog is relieving himself on the leg of a soldier in anti-riot gear. Urine seems to be a running theme.
Gavriel smiles agreeably and admits that every time he passes the Grivas monument he gets a similar urge. He is unapologetic in his belief that he was a catastrophe for Cyprus and responsible for bringing about the invasion. “I cannot understand why we build monuments to him,” he exclaims.
He has strong views about the clergy, accusing them of living in excessive luxury, and his provocative views are not confined solely to matters Cypriot. He is similarly dismissive of the French special forces that used excessive power in confronting the yellow vest protests in Paris. He also points to his paintings of Jesus Christ in unusual and contemporary settings: in the reception camp for refugees and asylum seekers in Pournara or riding on a motorbike.
“I prefer my Jesus to be simple and living among simple people. I am not a politician. I am just an artist but I can see every day what is happening in Cyprus. Some people cannot feed their families and the others are making millions if not billions. Of course, they would prefer to have their Jesus in a Mercedes…”
Gavriel shrugs his shoulders when I point out that some accuse him of merely seeking notoriety and infame.
“I really don’t care about it. I have been exhibiting for many years and really the only thing I want to do in my life is to paint. I have lots of ideas and many things that are still there inside of me that I want to take out. Now I am going to do much bigger canvases and it will be about people demonstrating and I will also put my Jesus Christ among them.”
Asked if he would paint the same themes if he had a different political orientation, he smiles again.
“I did it not because I am an Akel supporter but because this is how I feel. I criticise Akel as well,” he insists.
“I did it because I want life in Cyprus to be better. I am sure it is possible that an artist who supports another political party but also sees our reality clearly would do exactly the same. You know many people understand why I did what I did. They know me as a human being and that I have never hurt anybody. I am a school headmaster at present and my colleagues support me. They even wrote a letter to the ministry in my support. Ekate (the Cyprus Chamber of Fine Arts) supports me. In my village, people who know me, nobody said a word. So what I am planning to do now is to just continue living, maybe to work more and do bigger, more serious, deeper paintings… Because the current series was more a satire… and maybe they will understand bigger paintings better.”