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Pulling up a chair to Cyprus craft

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A simple piece of furniture is testament to the island’s cultural heritage. Paul Lambis speaks to one woman involved in keeping a tradition going

The mediaeval villages of Cyprus provide an environment where history and the present coexist. However, behind the stone walls, Byzantine churches and vibrant village squares are the people preserving the island’s traditions, not only for their own sense of identity, but also for future generations.

The picturesque village of Phini in the Limassol district is well known for its setting in nature, but for hundreds of years it has been a hub of local arts and crafts, and is now a UNESCO site and part of Cyprus’ intangible cultural heritage. Central to Phini’s role as a crafts makers’ village is the Dio dio Collective, a grassroots team of creative individuals who work and research in the fields of handicraft and fine art.

“My work is an organic evolution driven by the desire to live an ethical life,” co-founder of the Dio dio Collective Konstantina Achilleos said.

Dio dio handicraft shop

Achilleos established the Dio Dio Collective in 2015 with fellow artisan Tuomas Venalainen – who splits his time between Finland and Cyprus – when they wanted to merge their skills in traditional handicrafts, fine arts and cabinet manufacturing. “Our passion is to make jewellery, unique puukko knives, kuksa cups and other items using reclaimed bone, wood, recycled silver, all chosen with ethical criteria,” Achilleos said.

The process begins with gathering local raw materials such as wood and reclaimed bone, and then shaping the materials using both hand and electric tools to produce a high-quality product. “The designs we make are inspired by the environment and culture that surrounds us and made from the materials we have in hand.”

But what the collective is best known for is the Phini chair, which led to Dio dio’s Phini Chair initiative, inspired by her fascination with a traditional chair of her great grandparents made from materials unique to Phini. It has seen the revival of the village’s chair-making, raising appreciation for the local craft and teaching skills involved in its manufacturing process, she explained.

The number of Phini chairmakers had declined over the years, Achilleos said, and Phini chairmaking became a fading craft “as there are no longer local craftspeople who have knowledge of this skill, even though this historical item is appreciated by Cypriots in general.”

The Phini Chair initiative consists of research into this specific type of chair, including the materials used, its origins and techniques, as well as documentation of the manufacturing process and teaching individuals interested in learning the craft.

Phini chair

“In December this year, we will be publishing a book about the tradition of chair making in Phini and the cultural connections surrounding it,” Achilleos said. “An exhibition has also been planned to showcase our perspective on the Phini chair.”

Achilleos was born in Limassol in 1989 and attended Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, where she studied sculpting and fine arts. She subsequently continued her studies in traditional handicraft and culture at the Sámi Education Institute in the indigenous territories of the northern Scandinavian Peninsula, with Venalainen.

Achilleos moved to Phini after her studies abroad and decided to focus on the preservation of local traditions, which she described as a vital part of her life and the purpose of her existence.

“Creativity has been passed down to me from my family, who also taught me the importance of studying,” she said. “The knowledge of the chair-making craft is largely achieved through the research of the Dio dio Collective into the fading art of chair making in Phini, which we have been doing since 2018.”

Phini chair

Achilleos had originally set out to find a chair master, “since the village was known for this craft, but we were too late.

“There wasn’t anyone doing it professionally anymore, so we thought we would use our experience from craft revival projects and techniques of experimental archaeology to bring this craft to life,” she added.

Achilleos feels that these traditions should be preserved since they teach us about our environment and help us live better lives. “Traditional methods of chair making teach us social, ecological and cultural sustainability – skills that are vital to contemporary living,” she said.

And the Cypriot culture, she maintains, is something the younger generation is interested in learning about. “Although generations in the past had moved away from traditions and local culture, there is a strong interest today, especially in the age of faceless mass production, where people yearn for elements that connect and provide meaning to life,” she explained.

Konstantina Achilleos

Achilleos said the response to the Phini Chair initiative has been overwhelmingly positive, indicating a desire among people to reconnect with their roots and traditional practices. “The challenge, however, is the lack of support creatives receive,” she said.

“Members of government often praise our work when we meet face-to-face, and although we are highly appreciative of the support shown from many people, that from certain ministries, cultural policies are discouraging,” she said. “More needs to be done to support the preservation of our cultural heritage.”

When it comes to her work, Achilleos appreciates the community’s support, particularly “the loving network of incredibly skilled creatives who are scattered across the globe.

“The Phini Chair initiative is built on knowledge sharing. We have been transparent about the information we acquired since the beginning, while teaching the craft as we continue our research, in the hopes that someone may do something with the information and breathe new life into old traditions in their own way.” •

To learn more about the Phini Chair initiative, as well as the Dio dio Handicraft collective, visit: https://diodiohandmade.wordpress.com

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