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The history of Cyprus in a single pot

Ceramic artist Souzana Petri

Connecting the past to the present, one ceramicist is giving tradition to future generations. Eleni Philippou meets her

Through moulding clay, full-time ceramic artist Souzana Petri preserves part of the history of Cyprus and records that being made today. Walking down Ermou Street, once the commercial hub of the capital, I turn a corner to head to her workshop.

It is situated among the few remaining craftsmen of the neighbourhood and new artisan studios. As I walk in, she is head-down among half-finished ceramics, painting a piece before it goes into the kiln for firing. She puts the final touches to it, a ceramic reindeer in preparation for the Christmas season – a busy and important time for artists.

A decade has passed since Souzana began her ceramics journey, starting out with a deep interest in the history, identity, culture and traditions of Cyprus, something she focused on for her 3D Design & Crafts degree in Brighton. She specialised in ceramics and metallurgy, keeping the island’s history close.

Ceramic artist Souzana Petri

“During university,” she said, “my whole practice was based and inspired by the traditional handicrafts of Cyprus. I researched basketry, chair weaving, straw weaving, metallurgy and so on. Every time I came back to Cyprus, I researched local traditions and history at museums and did artist residencies in local craftsmanship. My practice in ceramics came after and was based on archaeology. But first, I had a whole understanding of our traditions and crafts.”

This foundation, and a deep passion to know her Cypriot roots and where past generations came from, led her to making ceramics that tell a story. “In my pottery, you can understand the time period the figures come from and their historical background. From just one pot, you can learn the history of Cyprus and connect the past and the present.”

Ancient ceramics are important finds for archaeologists. The drawings, carvings and materials used are windows into a past civilization and the everyday lives of past inhabitants. Passing on the insights ceramics offer is a part of Souzana’s work, as she collaborates with schools and museums to teach the island’s history through clay.

Knowing the past is important, she said, so the history of your land can be used to be critical about what is going on in the world around you. But what about tradition? Is it dying, evolving or already forgotten? Souzana’s work looks back on tradition and includes today as she sees evolution as important.

Ceramic artist Souzana Petri

“Tradition is something you give to the next generations. It’s good to preserve the techniques, to know the history but we can’t just reproduce the same thing. We have to add to it.”

While at university she had an exchange with well-known Cyprus singer Alkinoos Ioannides on the meaning of the word in Greek. “I was the art director of the Greek community at university and during a Greek festival, Alkinoos was invited to perform. As we chatted, he asked me ‘What is tradition for you?’ and I told him it is our history, our identity and I am trying to preserve it and revive it. Then he said ‘You know in Greek when you break down the word tradition (paradosi) it means to offer something to the next generations’. This tiny comment changed my perspective and helped me justify where I am and what I want to do.

“Nowadays, I think people tend to appreciate it more and realise that it helps the country. If you know your traditions and how to preserve them, it gives you an identity,” she added. Projects led by big organisations on reviving local traditions have also helped in this mindset shift, but the responsibility lies also on the people, not just the artisans and government bodies.

“I think with all the efforts to provide people the chance to get involved with tradition, they’ve started appreciating it, giving it a new life.” Which is what Souzana is doing; practising an age-old Cypriot craft and including more contemporary elements to bridge history and today. She adds shoes to the figurines her ceramics depict, modern clothes and colours.

But to survive as an artist, diversification is needed, she said, so she teaches, does custom orders and art pieces, designs educational programmes and joins European platforms. It is not always dreamy. Running a ceramic workshop has proved to be an entrepreneurial journey.

“Being an artist is a business. You have to deal with the taxes, the payments, the making, ordering, accounts, be the advertiser, the graphic designer, it involves a lot of skills and you have to be very consistent and focused,” she said. Which is why she is doing a second Master’s now, an MBA.

While ceramics currently enjoy a moment in the sun, Souzana is aware that it needs to be sustainable. Trends come and go but for Souzana ceramics are here to stay.

“When I die, I’d like to leave something behind that the younger generations can learn from.” That is the dream and collectively it might already be unfolding. “Our generation,” the 30 something artist said, “has a lot of dreams. Many young people are trying for a better future and that gives me strength because I don’t feel that I’m alone.”•

Discover her work at Souzana Petri Crafts:

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