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Christoforos Savva in Venice: An Interview with Andre Zivanari

This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).

For the 58th Venice Biennale, Cyprus is being represented by Christoforos Savva (1924-1968), an artist whose inclusion is packed with meaning. 2019 brings the 50-year anniversary of Cyprus being represented for the first time in the Biennale, an entry in which Savva was featured. It also marks 50 years since the artist’s sudden death. ‘Untimely, Again’ (curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti) is a celebration of the artist’s contributions to Cyprus’ art scene in the twentieth century, but also of Cypriot culture generally. I had the pleasure of interviewing Andre Zivanari, director of the non-profit foundation Point Centre for Contemporary Art, who played a key role in the decision-making process for this year’s Cypriot Pavilion. The Ministry of Education and Culture alongside Point Centre have carefully selected Savva as his oeuvre constitutes an ode to the uniqueness and beauty of Cypriot art.

'Untimely, Again', Cyprus Pavilion, 2019 Venice Biennale, Installation View (Image: Tessa Carr)

The choice of representing Cyprus with an important yet deceased artist may appear puzzling to some. Apart from the double 50-year anniversary, what else was involved in the thought process which led to the selection of Christoforos Savva?

This project was conceived out of the need to foster a critical dialogue and to promote further investigation and the understanding of our locality and how this relates to the broader cultural discourse. Savva’s work is characterized by the diversity, hybrid mixture of materials and processes and his ability to handle them all at the same time. Through his work, he transcended both tradition and modernity and he reflected his ability to appropriate and reinvent themes and styles. He is an artist who was ahead of his time and who thought differently from anyone else around him during his years. It seems therefore appropriate to see his work returning to Venice fifty years later. ‘Untimely, Again’, is a historic exhibition and it is within a context that focuses on the contemporary so that we can dedicate our time into going back and looking more closely at a set of works that had been overlooked by the international public and which had not been studied in depth in Cyprus for a long time. The fact that he is not a ‘contemporary and living’ artist is of secondary importance compared to the urgent need to reflect on such issues.

His cement reliefs and yphasmatography (patchwork, textile work) really speak to and pay homage to his Cypriot cultural heritage. How important is it during the selection process to pick an artist whose work embodies this? Especially given that contemporary art has become increasingly less concerned with cultures and more preoccupied by themes and ideas.

Art today is more than ever preoccupied with narrative historicity and draws inspiration from traditions, national heritage and culture. It happens via thorough research and, in some cases, in a more scientific approach. In previous years, the artists would directly challenge the material, techniques and methods and craftsmanship to connect with such concepts.

Savva, by recovering an artistic tradition that was related mostly to women, paid tribute to the poor rural environment in which he himself was born. He acknowledged tradition without idealizing the past. The awareness that these practices enclose a sophisticated simplicity could be considered as a political act and his ability to simultaneously handle totally different materials and genres can be interpreted as a clear placement of openness.

Untimely, Again', Cyprus Pavilion, 2019 Venice Biennale, Installation View (Image: Tessa Carr)

Do you see biennials as the nucleus of promoting individual cultures? If not, how else can art from the ‘peripheries’ such as Cyprus be brought into the narrative?

Yes, I see biennials as a nucleus for the arts. They stand still as platforms for the world to meet and to establish new relations; they allow for new interpretations and narratives to emerge. This is one of the main reasons Christoforos Savva’s work is today included in this platform. Being in the periphery does not mean exclusion from the main discourse. An international curator was invited to investigate and to reflect on a Cypriot artist, unknown before in the international art scene. Additionally, Hatje Cantz, the international publishing house, published the first comprehensive book on Savva’s oeuvre. What is needed is a systematic and consistent way of promoting our culture.

You, yourself, do so much to promote the production of art in Cyprus. How effectively do you think Cyprus is being brought into and taking part in global discussions about contemporary art?

We promote the production of art and culture in Cyprus and we support our artists in pursuing their careers abroad. The work of many Cypriot artists with international exposure reflect our tradition, and their practices investigate aspects of our history, archaeology, politics and much more. As a result, the discussion is happening simultaneously and in many different directions.

We invite international artists to visit the island with the prospect of commissioning new works. These exchanges carry with them the idea of transferring knowledge and disseminating issues and ideas that derive exclusively from our reality. Many times, these works, as a result of these collaborations, are shown in international institutions abroad. We take part in EU-funded programmes through collaborations with other institutions. Through our residency programme, we invite theorists, writers and curators to interact with the local scene. The different ways of approaching and exposing the art scene in the wider spectrum of production could only result in a more meaningful and vibrant exchange. The rich Cyprus heritage and culture readings in a contemporary context stands out within the universal narratives of art and enriches our dialogue.

Untimely, Again', Cyprus Pavilion, 2019 Venice Biennale, Installation View (Image: Tessa Carr)

Jacopo Crivelli Visconti spoke about post-colonialism in Cyprus and how it affected artistic production. To what extent do you agree with this?

Many of the Cypriot artists of the [colonial] era would not have had the opportunity to travel to England for studies, had Cyprus not gained colonial status. The exhibition pays homage to a major figure of Cypriot art while aiming to provoke reflections on the processes which have shaped the post-independence national imaginary of Cyprus. Any such endeavour needs to take into account the fact that Cyprus, like many other countries with a colonial past, did not have the opportunity to deal with the ‘modern’ in a substantial and autonomous way. At least in so far as its art historiography and the international visibility of its artistic production are concerned, what has registered instead, is a sense that it ultimately chose to delve directly into the ‘contemporary’. Revisiting, then, this key moment in the island’s recent history becomes a fundamental step towards a better understanding of its contemporaneity.

The way that art is taught in Cypriot public schools is quite problematic. The careers of our own important artists, like Savva, are almost never introduced to children. How different would cultural awareness be in Cyprus had there been more discussions about Cypriot art? Would people have a deeper appreciation for it if they were made aware of the careers of such artists? Will we see change within the next decade?

I believe in the change to follow within the next decade. Considering that now there are art departments in higher education, the newly established Art School at the Technical Institute and the forthcoming of the new State Gallery to be the Museum of Contemporary Art could really create a momentum towards public involvement in art and culture. It is a fact that schools would be more involved when they are provided with the infrastructure. Taking into consideration all the school and university students who visited the Savva exhibition at SPEL The State Gallery in Nicosia shows that the young generations are not only open to new challenges but also demonstrate a genuine interest to invest in art and culture. The many achievements and recognitions of Cypriot artists abroad by the international art world can only help in the awareness of the importance of art and culture and how these enrich people’s lives.

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