How an exhibition on women in antiquity is linked to the Cyprus problem

An exhibition featuring the role of Cypriot women in ancient times has served as a catalyst for a new way of illustrating to the world questions surrounding the Cyprus problem.

The classic scenario has usually been printing out leaflets that list information about Cyprus’ history surrounding the invasion, according to the director of the press information office (PIO) Aliki Stylianou. This is because the PIO is tasked, among other things, to bring to light the Cyprus problem, not only for the island but across the world too.

The exhibition titled ‘ELLE – Cyprus in the Feminine’ was showcased at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, in the presence of dignitaries from the United Nations and OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

It contained images captured by photographer Stefanos Kouratzis, which present sculpted depictions of deities and female figurines from the 4th millennium BC (Chalcolithic period) to the Roman era.

The pictures “clearly show that Cypriot women had a significant role to play in ancient times,” Stylianou proclaims. “When I first saw them around July 2022, I was so moved, I can’t even begin to explain.”

feature andria visitors at the exhibition in vienna

Visitors at the exhibition in Vienna

And thus began a journey, bringing to light contemporary issues about feminism and the role of women. The exhibition drew many enthusiasts, who then got the opportunity to learn more about Cyprus’ more modern history, she explains.

“We roped people in and gave them food for thought.”

Over the course of three days the exhibition was at the Austrian National Library, there were 500 people there that saw the sculptures images, she adds.

Helga Schmid, secretary-general of the OSCE said “the images demonstrate an evolution in stereotypes and a change in the way we see the role of women,” while adding that space is being created for women to take on different roles and move towards gender equality.

What the PIO effectively did was ensure there were leaflets about the Cyprus problem available at the exhibition but the allure this time was different: it wasn’t just that they were handing out leaflets. The people that came to the exhibition already went on a journey through time.

First, the exhibition highlighted themes related to history and feminism, drawing in enthusiasts, and secondly, as they went on their historical journey, they also got to learn more about the Cyprus problem.

“It shows that women were and are fighters. This is proven when we follow the course of history.”

Stylianou said another successful feat was that it attracted young people as well. Interior Minister Nicos Nouris, who was also attending, described it as “a hymn to women everywhere and their virtues”.

feature andria aliki stylianou with interior minister nicos nouris

Aliki Stylianou with Interior Minister Nicos Nouris

Behind the scenes, the role of women was also crucial in ensuring the exhibition came to life, it seems. First, it began by Stylianou seeing the images and wanting to do something about them.

“The statues that were photographed, I was told are at Cyprus museum in Nicosia and the archaeological museum in Limassol. However, they are simply kept in storage rooms. The photographer had to request special permission from the antiquities department to view them.”

Stylianou was inspired to share the experience the images evoked for her to more people, starting first with an exhibition in October 2022 at the Nicosia International Festival, which she described as a huge success.

A few months later during a briefing with foreign ambassadors, she expressed the idea of having the exhibition abroad and found it well received by numerous attendees.

Nonetheless it was the ambassador of Cyprus in Vienna Maria Michail that suggested a thorough plan, and off to Austria the team went.

As the team was preparing everything at the library in Austria, it emerged the library curator had three ancient maps of Cyprus.

“I picked one of the three at random and then it emerged that one of the library historians had done some research on this one specific map.”

feature andria map of cyprus

The map of Cyprus

The map, titled Acamantis Insula hoggidi Cipro, dated 1696, was dedicated to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia – believed to be the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree.

“There were so many coincidences that brought this together, that the exhibition took place in Vienna, that I picked that one specific map, that there was a researcher there that was an expert on the topic. It was really moving for me.

“And it made me realise, Cyprus history is bigger than itself. Cyprus has so much history that we don’t know about.”

Since the exhibition in Vienna, Stylianou says she has been awash with requests to take the art across the world, ranging from Australia, Madrid and Athens. “Cypriots want to see it abroad.”

Stylianou – her enthusiasm evident – says she will try meet all these demands to have the exhibition featured in cities around the globe, but the art has inspired her to have a follow up photographic exhibition that will also feature ancient women – though a lot work is currently underway and more details will be revealed at a later time.