A town where time stands still: an artist’s relationship with desolation

I have always had a profound fascination for ghost towns, borders, no man’s lands and their peripheries. For much of my life, I have had as an influence in my art work, an ongoing thematic reference to my parents ancestral home, the island of Cyprus and the effects that conflict has had on its population. I have especially focussed on a city that has been empty of all its inhabitants since 1974.

That town is Varosia. A once wealthy district of Famagusta on the eastern coast of Cyprus, seen as the ‘Riviera’ of the island, reminiscent of Spain’s Costa del Sol. Miles of hotels and high rise buildings skirted the long, golden sandy beaches which housed theatres, shops, restaurants, bars, night clubs, schools and homes. It was a thriving community, very much on the up until - almost overnight - it met its fate in August 1974. 

Varosia - and my memories of it, the effect of dismantlement and displacement of culture, would go on to have a huge influence in my art work. 

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My fascination with this city began on holiday in the summer of 1976 when I was seven-years-old. My mother took me to the tiny portion of the beach which was still open to the public. It was absolutely beautiful with pristine sandy beaches and a sparkling, clear-blue sea. However, I soon noticed there was a bombed-out hotel towering above us. and all of the hotels on the beach front, barring one, were out of bounds and closed for business. But as I child, I didn’t quite understand why this was. 

When I asked why we couldn’t go further into the city to get an ice cream, I was simply told, ‘it’s closed’. I wondered along the urgently raised fences and looked into the near distance where there was a stylish collection of changing rooms and a children’s playground in front of three grand hotels, cruelly just out of bounds on the beach, behind the military fence. 

The civil war in Cyprus was a complex series of events that unfolded not just between the Greek and Turkish speaking communities of the island, but also between the Ultra-Nationalists and the Socialists, the guerrilla paramilitaries and the government forces.  

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The final events sealing the fate of the country, and Varosia, were the Athens backed coup on the 15th July 1974 in which the charismatic president Archbishop Makarios was deposed by the fascist EOKA-B leading to bitter infighting between the government supporters and those who had violently seized power. As well as the confrontation between the left and right, the Cypriot Turkish community was also under siege by this new regime which led to Turkey invading the island five days laterto initially protect the interests of the Cypriot Turkish community and to restore the legitimate government of Cyprus.

The coup was crushed and came to an end, the government restored, but the invading army did not leave. In fact, the Turkish speaking population relocated to the north of the island (where the Turkish army was now in control) and the Greek speaking population in the occupied North was almost entirely forced South to the government controlled areas. Kept as a military buffer zone between the North and South and strictly out of bounds to the public, the district of Varosia has been frozen in time ever since.

When I first went, it had only been two years since the population of the entire city had been hurriedly evacuated to avoid the oncoming military, but everything looked as if it had just closed down for siesta just a few hours ago.  

As the years went by, every time I would go to Cyprus, I would visit this haunting place, but always from its peripheries. It never really changed, except that as time went on, nature began to reclaim what had been left untouched for nearly forty years. The little playground was almost buried entirely by the rising sand dunes. You could just make out the top of the swing set and the slide peeping out from the crest of the sand. The changing rooms on the beach were now occupied by sneering policemen, whistles at the ready to pipe down anybody attempting to take photos of this shameful vista: the empty hotels still staring out at the beautiful sea, the empty beaches now with barbed wire to stop the curious tourists from crossing the line and warnings signs in red, everywhere, shouting at you ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHY or FILM. MILITARY ZONE’.

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Several years ago, I managed to get someone from the military to drive me into the city. They would take me in with a warning to be very careful whilst taking photos, as being caught would mean I could get charged with espionage. This was way before the invention of camera phones so I took in my old SLR and once in the city, nothing was going to stop me from photographing (very discretely) the streets that had gripped my imagination for decades. Once past the many military road blocks the first thing that struck me was how eerily tidy the streets were. I was told by my guides that the military had cleaned up the abandoned cars and debris that once littered them. Yet, bullet holes still peppered many buildings and bomb damage could still be seen on the bigger hotels.

What I saw in there moved me more than I had anticipated. There were different viewpoints of the empty hotels. I had always seen them from the beach looking in, but now I saw the sea peeping out once in a while from what was once the main road along the front. My guides explained that these were evacuated so quickly that many of them (that haven’t been looted) still have clothes in the wardrobes and cases left in the lobbies. We passed restaurants and bars, that still had their tables set. There were post boxes (the old British pillar boxes left from the colonial days) that still contained undelivered mail. Banks still had money in their vaults. Cranes stood as silent sentinels over half-built, never to be completed building sites. Dead traffic lights stood despondent at dusty road junctions. There was a shop front with brand new, rusting Vespa scooters in their showrooms and I have since seen photos of a car showroom somewhere in the centre with a showroom full of brand new Hillman’s from 1974.

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My day in the ghost town has a long story attached to it, but that is for another time.   

Whilst I find a disturbing beauty in this apocalyptic city frozen in time, I am very aware this place has come into its current state with a painful price tag for the people that lived and died here and for those that fight the pain and come back year after year, from the tiny beach I talk about, to watch it decay and becomes a sun-bleached skeleton. 

It is now 42 years.

When Cypriots see my paintings about the conflict, I think what they don’t like about it is not the fact that it’s a picture of dystopia, but the fact that I refuse to blame any particular community in my work. The governments and leaders of the respective communities in a time of nationalist fervour caused this to happen, it’s now up to the ‘ordinary’ people to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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