“Culture in the developed world has now taken up a new strategic role and is no longer considered an abstract or theoretical concept that primarily concerns a few people. Instead, it is treated as a core asset for development, as a permanent and renewable resource and as a set of products and services that can potentially contribute to the country’s economy.” Saskia Constantinou delves into the fascinating and diverse work of cultural and arts guru, Dr Yiannis Toumazis
Was it a given that you would follow a career in Arts and Theatre?
Certainly not. Allow me to play around with the word “given” and tell you that I firmly believe that nothing is given in this life. The only things that are “given” are the unique gifts we are born with, which should be used to follow our dreams. Initially, I studied Civil Engineering but have been involved with art and theatre since high school. I was born and raised in Famagusta and after the tragic events of 1974, when we were forced to flee the city and become refugees in our own country, things were very fluid. There was widespread insecurity and everyone urged us to follow so-called “secure” professions. However, I’d already made up my mind to indulge in Arts and Theatre. After studies in The Netherlands, I pursued a Ph.D. in Theory of Art and Aesthetics in France.
Since 1994, when you became Director of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, there have been great strides forward in Arts and Culture in Cyprus. Tell us about some of the contemporary art exhibitions you have curated on the island?
NiMAC or the Powerhouse, is located in the historical centre of the capital of Cyprus, and is the oldest and largest Contemporary Art Centre of the island. Its architectural restoration and conversion into a beautiful art and cultural space was awarded the Europa Nostra Award in 1994. During the twenty-two years of its operation, NiMAC has organised and presented more than ninety exhibitions of modern and contemporary art with the participation of well-known artists from Cyprus and abroad.
I was fortunate to have been involved with NiMAC from the outset and so have experienced its development for more than two decades.
Among the objectives, is to open up new channels of communication and cooperation between Cyprus and other countries; to establish and encourage partnerships between artists and cultural managers in Cyprus and abroad; to introduce to the public new trends, tendencies and ideas in the fields of art and culture; and to provide ample opportunities to Cypriot artists for fruitful collaboration with artists from other countries.
NiMAC has been and continues to be innovative and pioneering, providing, along with its exhibition programme, various multifaceted pedagogical activities. Apart from educational programmes, designed to enhance specific exhibitions, the Educational Centre for Children, which is housed in a renovated building of the Old Powerhouse complex and was inaugurated in 2008, offers children and youngsters specialised courses and workshops in Contemporary Art, Engraving, Cinema and the New Media.
As Chief Curator of NiMAC, I’ve designed, organised and curated several of its numerous exhibitions, – there are literally too many to mention over all the years. Just a few include, Homage to Vincent Van Gogh in 1996, and more recently Mirò of Mallorca (2010) with the Mirò Foundation in Mallorca, inaugurated by Queen Sofia of Spain; Cyprus in Venice: 1968-2009 in 2011; and in 2015, a group exhibition of contemporary Israeli artists in Cyprus, as well as our current exhibition Glyn Hughes 1931-2014, a homage to the great Welsh artist, who effectively introduced contemporary art in Cyprus.
You were the first Cypriot curator of the Cyprus Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – have we made enough impact in the international arts arena and if yes, in which way?
Cyprus has been participating in the Venice Biennale since 1968, with all Cypriot participations characterised by dynamism and high quality. Indeed, I was the first Cypriot curator to have been selected by a committee of international experts appointed by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Cyprus for the island’s participation in 2011. The exhibition, entitled Temporal Taxonomy, presented at Palazzo Malipiero in Venice, the artworks of artists Marianna Christofides and Elizabeth Hoak-Doering. The latter is an American who recently moved permanently to Cyprus and acquired Cypriot nationality. Marianna Christofides, born of a Cypriot father and German mother, travels and works between Cyprus and Europe. Their coming together at the Cyprus Pavilion sought to highlight and negotiate existing positions and contradictions surrounding the apparent homogeneity of a globalised environment. The work of both artists departs from the Cyprus experience and the field of socio-politics, but also transforms, so as to articulate a substantial discourse, as part of a much broader global system. Issues of multiculturalism, crossings, displacement, migration and hybridization are common ground in their work. It was a great experience for everyone involved and both artists continue to show their great work both internationally and in Cyprus.
Does Cyprus have a 10-year, or even 5-year plan for the development of Arts and Culture? It seems that we go on a year-to-year basis, without long-term fiscal planning… or am I wrong?
That’s a very good question to ask the Ministry of Education and Culture. Unfortunately, I’m not the right person to give you an answer. I think that today Cyprus needs a Ministry of Culture, which would deal exclusively with this issue. Our country has a long centuries-old tradition in culture and could certainly develop it even further. Particularly, in this troubled region of the Southeastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, as a member of the European Union, could contribute a lot to the development of Arts and Culture and could certainly become a cultural hub for the surrounding countries. Furthermore, as a tourist country, cultural tourism would increase our cultural product. Certainly, a lot more needs to be done. At some point (especially as a country that depends almost exclusively on tourism) we should understand that cultural infrastructure, cultural heritage and cultural industry are potentially substantial development tools. Unfortunately, Cyprus has lagged behind in this issue. Culture in the developed world has now taken up a new strategic role and is no longer considered an abstract or theoretical concept that primarily concerns a few people. Instead, it is treated as a core asset for development, as a permanent and renewable resource and as a set of products and services that can potentially contribute to the country’s economy.
In Manifesta 6 in 2006 we lost great prospects cancelling just three months prior to the opening. As European Capital of Culture in 2017, the focus will again be on Cyprus with huge opportunities. Have these been maximised?
Manifesta 6, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, was cancelled because the foreign organisers (Manifesta’s Amsterdam-based home organisation, the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM), and the curatorial team consisting of three curators, who had never worked together previously) not only showed no respect but also completely ignored the complicated socio-political realities of our island which has been divided since 1974. Naively, they chose to make politics by manipulating local sensitivities and exploiting Art in the name of personal ambitions. Unfortunately, this led to the cancellation of Manifesta 6, in which Cyprus had invested quite a lot. The European Biennial could have served as a pioneering example of the constructive role of culture in politically contested areas. The case of Pafos is very different, though. The European Capital of Culture project may be one of the most recognised EU programmes, but the organisational responsibility lies with the organising country. I am confident that we will see an excellent programme and I hope that some things will stay for the future. Pafos 2017 is not just a series of local events but a project that touches the entire island.
Has there been collaboration across all the cultural boards?
After the financial crisis of 2013, collaborations in the cultural sector are a sine qua non. Unfortunately in Cyprus, culture is the last issue on the list of state priorities. Therefore, only with collaboration can it be further developed. I am confident that such collaborations will intensify and multiply for the good of our island in general and for Culture and the Arts in particular.
You’ve been responsible for designing several museums in Cyprus and Greece including the Thalassa Municipal Museum. Did you find your civil engineering background to be of help? What inspires you and how do you retain the balance of history with modern, accessible approach?
Yes, I was happy about the museological design of the Thalassa Ayia Napa Municipal Museum and well worth a visit. My civil engineering background and arts training certainly helped. For me, both the past and the future are identical reflections of the present in the space-time continuum. This is precisely how I see things when I design a museum and I hope this view is passed on to the visitors.
You’ve had so many achievements and accolades across so many fields. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement and why?
Well, that’s a tough question… I’ve been creatively active for more than thirty years, so difficult to mention works close to my heart, and certainly not in order of importance or preference. The set design for Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play Roberto Zucco, my book Marcel Duchamp-Artiste Androgyne, published by Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, the museological design for the Thalassa Ayia Napa Municipal Museum, selecting and curating the installation of artworks for the new international airports of Larnaca and Paphos and, of course, the exhibitions I curated at the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, but it’s hard to choose… they are so many and most of them equally important: Flashback – 100 Years of Design, Terra Mediterranea – In Crisis and certainly the most recent one, Glyn Hughes 1931- 2014, which I very much loved. Last but not least, it was a great honour for me to have been the curator for the Cyprus Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
How would you like to see Cyprus’ cultural scene develop over the next five years and how do you believe it can be done
Cyprus should no longer delay seeking an international role in culture. Despite the many political and economic problems Cyprus faces, it is EU’s gateway to one of the most turbulent regions of the world. The security prevailing in Cyprus in relation to the regional instability of neighbouring countries should trigger our cooperation and collaboration to become a leading incubator of ideas, a cultural centre, creating a new and exemplary model in the E.U. Cultural diplomacy is now among the most modern means and we too should create our own foreign policy, with openness, dynamism and innovation. Simultaneously, we need to develop stable international collaboration with state encouragement. Cyprus has many promising and innovative artists, ready to contribute and so we should embrace this cultural and artistic potential.
As Director of THOC, there have been great strides forward to encourage English-speaking people to patronise Greek theatre…
As Chairman of the Board of the State Theatre of Cyprus, encouraging the English-speaking audience to attend THOC’s productions has been among my top priorities and today, all our plays have surtitles in English. Moreover, in collaboration with the groundbreaking project “National Theatre Live” we have brought the best of British theatre to THOC’s Central Stage. Certainly, our goal is to attract the interest of more and more foreign spectators, particularly to our summer ancient Greek drama productions, which are staged in ancient theatres of the island. It is a unique experience that should be had by all visitors to Cyprus.
What do you do for relaxation?
I’m most rejuvenated by a good book or intellectual conversation with friends and colleagues. I also enjoy a Sunday walk in the park with my playful dog as well as strolling through antique shops, particularly when abroad. I regularly watch athletics, swimming and tennis championships with Baghdatis and Rafael Nadal, my favourite players.