Stepping Over the Border in Divided Cyprus

04/01/2015 12:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

On the 11th of March, a group of artists gathered on the northern side of Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world. They were all there to take part in a European Union-funded residency, aiming to bridge the border between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities.

The island of Cyprus has long been a contested area, its history a series of invasions and occupations by foreign powers. In the 16th century it was seized by the Ottoman Empire who held onto control of the island until it was taken over by the British Empire in the late 19th century. While bringing significant infrastructural advances to Cyprus, the British colonial presence created rifts in the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. Shortly after the country gained independence in 1960, inter-communal violence was amplified, leading to increasing separation between the two communities. This inter-communal violence spurred on increased foreign intervention, most notably the Turkish military invasion of 1974, which has left the island and the two communities divided to this day.

Despite the border opening between the North and South in 2003, the Cyprus Problem remains the country's most pressing issue. Greek Cypriots feel their homes and land have been stolen, many not wanting to cross into the North for fear of legitimizing the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots on the other hand, are fast becoming a minority in the North, with more and more Turks moving to Cyprus, buying land, and polarizing conflict with the South. Although there is no clear political resolution in sight, certain initiatives have been put into place in the hopes of bringing the two communities closer together and working towards their reconciliation.

One such initiative occurred this March in Cyprus' divided capital city of Nicosia. A ten-day residency titled "Stepping Over the Borders" brought together Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot, and international artists to explore ways of breaking down the border between the North and South. The residency is part of the larger "Confrontation Through Art" project funded by the European Union and co-run by the European Mediterranean Art Association (EMAA) based in the North side of Nicosia and the Rooftop Theater Group based in the South. Launched in the fall of 2014, and concluding in 2017, the initiative seeks to use various projects such as artist residencies, children's workshops, and lectures, to achieve bi-communal collaboration and help reconcile divided perspectives in Cyprus.

Inside the EMAA building on a rainy Saturday in Nicosia, a day after the residency had concluded, the project coordinator for "Confrontation Through Art," Özgül Ezgin described how the residency was structured. Curators invited four European artists to the residency and then an open call was put out across Cyprus, inviting two Turkish Cypriot and two Greek Cypriot artists to take part. Özgül explained that for ten days, all eight artists lived together in the South side of the city and "had to experience the crossing every single day in order to commute to EMAA where the residency was occurring." She said, "for the two Greek Cypriots, Christina [Georgiou] and Marinos [Houtris], this was the first time they had ever crossed into the North." Just as the art they were making was stepping over the border, so did they experience this stepping over every day.

One of the Greek Cypriot artists, Christina Georgiou, a Nicosia native, decided to explore the border by walking it. Traversing the border in Nicosia's Old City, Christina measured the size of it by calling out to her Turkish Cypriot friend in the North doing the same walk. Rarely hearing each other, the performance showed how both communities' voices get lost along the arbitrary line. In the installation at EMAA, Christina emphasized the arbitrariness of the border by putting a white line of powder in between the two facing walls of photographs documenting the walk. Originally a perfectly straight, uninterrupted line, as visitors to the exhibition walked along the photographs of the border, so did they disrupt the uniformity of the line, eventually causing it to dissipate into an amorphous shape along the floor. Christina's piece, along with the other seven artists in the residency, seeks to show that by creating art that confronts these boundaries, Cypriots and foreign visitors alike can redraw and destabilize the borders that are currently there, just like Christina's white line.

In response to what change she thought the residency had accomplished, Özgül Ezgin replied that over 60 Greek Cypriots crossed the border to attend the opening, many of whom had never crossed over before. Smiling, Özgül remarked that yesterday Christina had also stopped by her office to tell her she was going to become a permanent member of EMAA and begin working with them. In April the exhibition will move to CVAR, an arts center in the South side of city, literally stepping over the border and allowing more Nicosians to think critically about the role of the border that divides their city. Although just a beginning, the "Stepping Over the Borders" residency is an example of how small-scale art residencies can create real change in zones of communal conflict and separation. Inviting artists from communities in conflict and putting them into a project run by organizations from both communities, opens up a space for them to see from each other's perspectives and shows them that they can collaborate together. Perhaps in stalemate situations, as in Cyprus, where everyone seems to be waiting for a political Godot, small-scale residencies like this are an effective way to create a slow, but crucial exchange of ideas and empathy. A project like this then can also be scalable, taken to other zones of bi-communal conflict like Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, and Ukraine-Russian Annexed Crimea.

While waiting for the bus outside of EMAA, one of the Turkish Cypriot artists, Abdullah Denizhan, said "a few nights ago I had a conversation with some of the other artists and for one of the first times I felt that I could see from their eyes and they could see from mine." Although the guard posts and checkpoints still line the border between the North and South of Cyprus, it is thoughts like this which give hope for a day where the division becomes redundant and the barbed wire gets put away.

Many thanks to Ourania Yancopoulos for showing me Cyprus and helping with this piece.