“If the stone falls on the egg, alas for the egg:
if the egg falls on the stone, alas for the egg.”

old Cypriot proverb

With the seemingly limitless public appetite for festivals and cultural producers’ increasing addiction to the eye-catching ‘big event’, more and more of these are being promoted as international or cross-border events. Artists and curators, generally having broad liberal sympathies, have been at the forefront of exploiting this trend – particularly where it can demonstrate solidarity with people in conflict zones or emerging from decades of political oppression. EU rhetoric is big on ‘artist mobility’ – even if its practical support for it is derisory.

The current predicament of Manifesta 6, one of Europe’s high profile and most innovative art biennials, should give everyone cause to pause and consider – perhaps with more modesty than is customary – whether the idealistic cultural intentions and the likely outcomes are in constructive balance. The Manifesta Foundation, based in Amsterdam, promotes its biennial on contemporary art and its role in society as a three-month event. From mid-September until Christmas, Manifesta 6 was due to take place in Cyprus with divided Nicosia as host city. Had all gone smoothly, it could have been a wonderful bi-communal event on this sadly divided island. But on 6 June the local partner – Nicosia for Art Ltd., (NFA) specially created by the municipality – terminated its contracts with the three international Manifesta curators (who are respectively German, Egyptian and a Russian-born New York resident). Since when websites have been spawning wild accusations and comment by artists and others, many of who seem to have little or no understanding of the true situation on the ground. Neutral attempts to salvage something through mediation have failed, and expensive and damaging litigation looks inevitable.

The timing and location for Manifesta 6 appeared to be perfect. The (legitimate) Republic of Cyprus entered the European Union in April 2004, and Turkey has now been accepted as a candidate country for future accession, with the negotiations ironically about to reach the ‘cultural chapter’. The EU has declared 2008 as its ‘Year of Inter-Cultural Dialogue’. Furthermore, since April 2003 the UN patrolled ‘Green Line’ which runs East-West across the island has been opened at a number of crossing points allowing for movement that had been denied since the Turkish invasion of 1974. This followed an abortive coup by the Greek military dictatorship, with the apparent connivance of the CIA. (‘It’s the best damn Government since Pericles’ the US General commanding in the area declared about the Greek Junta after the military coup in April 1967. One has to recall that at the height of the Cold War, Turkey through NATO provided the USA with missile sites on its land borders with the USSR and Bulgaria, as well as access to the Black Sea). The isolated people of the illegal and unrecognised (except by Turkey) ‘Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’ subsequently, and at last, succeeded in disposing of their intransigent President Rauf Denktash in an election in 2003. It is alleged that Denktash hoped and expected that his reluctant agreement to the opening of the Green Line might lead to communal violence and thereby help prop up his increasingly-questioned isolationist stand. In fact the opposite has happened.

So what went wrong with Manifesta 6 after months of careful planning and preparation? Only future reflection and analysis is likely to reveal this properly, on the other side of a legal dispute. Accusations and counter-accusations are flying, and the flames are unhelpfully being fanned by ignorant outside commentators who automatically assume ‘political’ and ‘nationalist’ reasons. This is gross over-simplification. Clearly there have been political mistakes, and maybe administrative shortcomings, but the core of the problem would seem to lie in misunderstandings, inadequate communication and insufficiently sensitive understanding of the day-to-day realities of the local situation. The devil, as ever, was lurking in the detail.

A little background is necessary to aid understanding. The lasting but hugely unhelpful designation of ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ Cypriots was actively fostered under ‘divide and rule’ British colonial control after the island was ceded to it by the debilitated Ottoman Empire in 1878 (in return for support against Russia). Some so-called ‘Turkish Cypriots’ are in fact descended from ‘Greeks’ who converted to Islam in Ottoman times, whether to save their lands, heads or from religious conviction. Left to their own devices, these two communities – geographically isolated since 1974 in a way they never previously had been – could probably find a way of living side by side again. They know they have to do that. After all, they share the common history and culture of the island over more than 1,000 years of foreign domination – Byzantines, Crusaders, Genoese, Venetians, Turks and British. But the real problem issue for the citizens of the legitimate Republic is that Turkey since 1974 has had a deliberate policy of colonialism by settlers, mostly poor farmers from Anatolia. Some of these stateless families may now be in their third generation on the island. Nobody, it seems, can tell how many of them there are. They are by culture and tradition very different from the ‘Turkish Cypriots’, yet share the same territory seized in warfare, and are still protected by a substantial and all-too visible Turkish military presence. An EU accession candidate state still maintains a hostile standing army on the territory of an existing member.

You will recall that in a last desperate throw of the dice by the UN to resolve the partition conflict before the Republic formally joined the EU in May 2004, a Referendum was held in both parts of the island in December 2003 on the so-called Annan Plan. For reunification to take place, both ‘sides’ obviously had to deliver strong positive support. The desperate citizens of the beleaguered North duly did, but the ‘Greeks’ in the South – already secure in their EU accession and encouraged by their President (who many felt grossly abused his position) and Orthodox Church leaders delivered an overwhelming ‘no’. Given the very strong feelings about the vagueness and inadequacy of the Annan Plan on key issues such as land and property restitution and compensation, the wonder is that there were courageous ‘Greeks’ who disregarded short-term self-interest and openly campaigned against the massive tide of public opinion for the long-term ‘yes’ solution. Amongst these were the Mayor of Nicosia and the Director of NFA Ltd. The official in the Culture Ministry most associated with Manifesta was also a ‘yes’ vote adherent. It is ludicrous that these individuals are now subject to ill-informed accusations on websites etc. of acting ‘politically’ against the interests of Turkish Cypriots.

The pretext for the termination of the Manifesta curators’ contracts seems to have been an impasse reached over the location of a ‘school’ in northern Nicosia, although there also appears to have been an accumulation of other factors both ways. NFA were entirely supportive of bi-communal activities, but to them the curators’ plans on this element risked a tendency towards institution-building beyond any agreed framework. Constructive ways through this impasse were however being explored at official level. Nevertheless, at that point, you are into politics, and possibly liable to be misrepresented by hostile interests as being implicated in legitimising the internationally illegitimate. Besides, one has to bear in mind that the majority of Cypriots in the Republic – despite their enormous desire and curiosity (and maybe fear) – have never travelled to the north because on principle they refuse to show passports at checkpoints to armed soldiers of an occupying foreign power in their own country. A major element of Manifesta might therefore, in reality, have been inaccessible to citizens of the sponsoring country. A difficult call.

What lessons, then, emerge from this tragic story? Firstly, that we simply don’t understand enough about the role of art in conflict zones, when it may assist understanding and reconciliation, and when it unwittingly exacerbates division. There is always the risk that well-intentioned initiatives from the outside may be hi-jacked for negative use by malign individuals for political or other dubious ends. We do have evidence of good practice in the Balkans at a local level following the Yugoslav collapse, but clearly these locally-initiated and -rooted developments are different from a high profile international manifestation landing on ‘foreign’ territory. Secondly, that although cultural bridge-building is extremely important in all sorts of ways, it is only likely to succeed and deliver long-term benefits and improvement when accompanied by the sensitivity and timescales for all the parties to be fully aware of what it is they are entering into.

Credits

  • Christopher Gordon is an independent UK-based consultant in cultural policy and management who led for the Council of Europe on their Evaluation of Cultural Policy in Cyprus. The Report was published in 2004.
  • Slightly shortened and edited version of this text published in the UK in Arts Professional, edition dated 3 July 2006.