‘Sharqi’: turning eyes eastward

For years, Nicos Philipou has been preoccupied with the Cypriot landscape. Along with social and private spaces as he would depict.

In his last prominent exhibition at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, curator Liz Wells pin-pointed the grounds upon which the local photographer, visual ethnographer and author articulates his interest. “…land, landscape and place is important to us, we all live in various places, we have our histories invested and our sense of identity invested in a place and that land becomes understood as a particular sort of place through our sense of place”.

Kick starting a series of exhibitions and publications under the general title “Contemporary Photographic Practices at NiMAC” next Friday (January 15), Nicos Philippou delivers an alternate perspective of his subject matter; 27 Polaroid photographs of Cypriot landscapes, produced over a period of three years.

Previously working with a Leica Rangefinder, with extensive projects in local homes, coffee shops as well as the traditional makeshift beach dwellings and bonfire-making rituals depicted at Orthodox Easter, the upcoming exhibition and publication take a different turn, with ‘accidental’ colours and captures of the Polaroid film and Cypriot landscapes that fool the eye.

“I have a strong interest in both the Cypriot landscape and social and private spaces like the home and the coffee-house,” admits Phillipou. “I have realised – for quite some time now – that visible surfaces are legible.

“In other words, structures like makeshift beach huts and bonfires, as well as objects people use to ornament their space can speak tonnes about the Cypriot culture, society, ideolog(ies) etc.” He added: “Space, structures and objects have become part of my visual vocabulary and I employ them to narrate my “Cyprus Story”.

In his new series entitled ‘Sharqi’, Philippou’s photographs show aspects of a Cypriot landscape that has been visually silenced: a dry, arid landscape, almost post-apocalyptic, filled with cactuses, reptiles, palm trees, red lakes, but also with man-made industrial and mining remnants, as well as decorative artifacts like fake moufflons, eagles and classic columns.

“Despite its harshness, this is a landscape that is familiar. And even though the images show the ‘other’ Cypriot landscape, they are attractive. It appears as ‘other’ or foreign when juxtaposed with our collective visual output of the Cypriot landscape.”

“There is a dominant photographic paradigm – a romantic one – that tends to represent Cyprus as an archetypal ‘Mediterranean’ land; a ‘European Mediterranean’ if I may say so. The olive tree, for instance, acquires a specific significant value within such a context. It alludes to Greece and Italy.
“Mountainscapes, pine forests, tranquil blue seascapes, the Rock of Aphrodite. All these belong to a paradigm that insists on placing Cyprus on a cultural map that ignores its position in the Middle East,” said Philippou.

“The photographs in ‘Sharqi’ that show a dry, arid landscape, adorned with cactuses, reptiles and palm trees are the product of a desire to counter-balance this fixation with ‘looking West’.

“Despite the fact that this is not the kind of Cypriot landscape that gets to be recorded visually, to me it is very familiar. I’ve spent almost all my childhood summers camping at Avdemou Bay which is surrounded by a similarly harsh and dry landscape.

“The sight of cactuses, snakes and lizards is a familiar one. And with familiarity often comes an appreciation and an attachment to a sense of beauty.”

Admitedly it is also the usage of an old Polaroid SX-70 as a means to an end that added to the beauty of the series.

“Maybe deep inside there was a need for me to move away from the immateriality of digital technology.
“There was a deep sense of satisfaction in producing an object rather than a digital file. But that does not tell the full story.

“With the SX-70 I was using film by ‘The Impossible Project’ which was new and rather experimental and caused the chromatic accidents that added a layer of surrealism to the landscapes photographed.
“In a way here I am attributing to the technology the title/ role of the ‘co-author’; an unaware co-author… It was certainly the right tool for the task at hand,” says Philippou.

Working for approximately three years to accommodate his whims, Philippou would notice suitable material during excursions – often on a motorbike – and would go back with camera in hand and photograph them when conditions (light, temperature, dust in the atmosphere) were deemed as being able to give desired results.

Combining his photographs in a publication enables Philippou to tell a whole story.
“I tell stories. Visual stories. The book therefore is a very apt medium. Given the opportunity I also show the work in art (or other) spaces.

“It is clear to me though that the material in the exhibition is experienced differently than in the book.
“There is an intimacy, a closeness and a ‘warmth’ in contemplating the images in a book; in solitude and in a familiar space. The book therefore has the potential of bringing its material closer to the heart.
“During the last, let’s say, 15 years I’ve been telling one big story – my ‘Cyprus Story’ in episodes.
“And I have been telling this story through visual studies of objects, space(s), structures and landscapes. ‘Sharqi’ could be seen as the latest chapter in this story which I hope is to be continued.”

NiMAC backs new series of photographic practices
Introducing the new series ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices at NiMAC’, Yiannis Toumazis, Director of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre in Nicosia, accentuates the centre’s interest in the photographic medium.

“From as early as 1995, we presented a major exhibition entitled Empowered Images, showing experimental photography by nine contemporary American photographers.

Allow me also to point out some of our most recent exhibitions like Recorded Memories, with works by photographers from south-eastern Europe, dealing with current socio-political issues, or the work of Riccarda Roggan, an important photographer from Germany,” says Toumazis.

Toumazis’ outlook on photographic practices locally is as equally prosperous. “One could dare say that in recent years there has been a real boom in photographic practices in Cyprus, both on the visual as well as on the theoretical aspect.”

“NiMAC collaborates closely with the International Association of Photography and Theory (IAPT) for the organisation of important international symposia and conferences.

In 2014, we have co-organised the 3rd International Conference on Photography and Theory entitled, Photography and Politics and the Politics of Photography.

Currently, we are in the process of organising the fourth edition of this major conference on Photography, to be held once again at NiMAC in 2016. With this new series on contemporary photographic practices, NiMAC aims at promoting further the current interest on Photography in Cyprus.

Doing so through the programme ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices at NiMAC’, Toumazis reveals a somewhat unrestricted approach.

“What is interesting about this particular series is that we have decided to keep it ‘open’, so there is no predetermined number of photographers who will be invited to present their work.

“Our sincere wish is to continuously have high-quality photographic works, which we will happily present,” says Toumazis.

Specifically, the programme aims to present the work and research of contemporary photographers from Cyprus and abroad, which will be portrayed both in the form of an exhibition and publication.
“There is no doubt an exhibition has a limited time span and it serves completely different purposes than a publication. Through these photographic albums, we are aiming at creating an archive of photographic achievements for posterity and furthermore to promote visual and theoretical research on Photography,” says Toumazis.

Referring to Nicos Phillipou’s work which will inaugurate NIMAC’s Initiative next Friday, Toumazis asserts: “I have known for many years the photographic work of Nicos Philippou and his serious research on Cyprus. The Sharqi series, consisting of 27 Polaroid photographs, has an incredibly seductive appeal.

“The moment I saw these mesmerising photos, I was sure they would be ideal to kick off this series.”
“The instantaneous gaze of Nicos quintessentially presents, in a masterful way, almost cinematic, a different truth of our island.

Through the misty, strange landscapes of Nikos, looking like eerie tableaux vivants, we perceive and conceive a southeastern Mediterranean space, so familiar, yet so far away. I strongly believe that with his work, the artist offers us an important key to decipher a crucial, profound and significant understanding of our [Cypriot] space.”

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London