CVAR: A route to our shared cultural heritage

Story Natural
Semeli Panagidou and Rita Severis

This is the story of the Centre of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR), a museum and research centre in Nicosia, with the mission to showcase the diverse cultural heritage of Cyprus both locally and internationally but also to make use of cultural heritage as a resource for promoting cross-cultural understanding, active citizenship and reconciliation among all communities of Cyprus. CVAR houses a collection of paintings, costumes, memorabilia, books, as well as an archive of documents, diaries and photographs many of which are works by travellers who visited Cyprus between the 18th and 20th century. Education, awareness-raising and appreciation for cultural diversity are one of CVAR’s core values and an important aspect of all its projects and activities. With a special focus on educational programmes directed to school children but also bi-communal tours and activities bringing both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in contact through their common heritage, CVAR aims to demonstrate the value of culture, both tangible and intangible, to a diverse society. Its story is one of bridging the divide, bringing communities together, inviting locals, visitors and the whole of Europe to discover and embrace cultural diversity from the past to the present.

Nicosia remains the only divided capital in Europe. The UN controlled Buffer Zone, or Green Line as it is better known, passing through the centre of Nicosia since 1974, separates the north of Cyprus, where the Turkish Cypriot community lives, from the south part of the island, where the Greek Cypriot community lives. The Centre of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR) is a Museum and Research Centre in the Old City Centre of south Nicosia, steps away from the Green Line. The Centre opened in 2014, repurposing an abandoned industrial building on Ermou Street, previously functioning as a flour mill owned by a Greek Cypriot family, which had been built on the site of a 19th Century Ottoman Khan (Caravanserai) owned by a Turkish Cypriot family. Staying true to the building’s multicultural past, CVAR took over to become a space for revealing and researching a multicultural and multi-perspective history of Cyprus. It also became the only bi-communal museum in Cyprus, with Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots on its Board. Ever since, CVAR has been operating with the mission to promote the culture and history of Cyprus both locally and internationally and to work towards reconciliation and mutual understanding among all communities of Cyprus through research, art, education and culture. A distinctive aspect of the CVAR collection is that it is rich in works by travelling artists who visited Cyprus, including paintings, books, photographs and diaries that offer unique views into the local scene through European eyes. Covering roughly the period between the 18th and 20th Century, these travellers’ stories and depictions bring the past to life with an appreciation for the rich and diverse heritage of Cyprus. In some cases, they are the only surviving evidence of certain cultural elements and in all cases they present life on the island, local crafts, traditions, inter-communal relations, monuments, landscapes and much more, relating to all Cypriots from all backgrounds. In housing this collection, alongside local costumes and memorabilia from the time, CVAR invited all communities in Cyprus to discover and reconcile with their common heritage. Once this was established, a conscious effort was made to encourage the interaction between Cypriots and their diverse cultural heritage and to bring together Cypriots of different communities both within and beyond the physical space of the museum. Educational programmes and activities became a significant part of CVAR’s contribution to the local community and in the past five years it has offered a wide range of free programmes for school groups, allowing children of all ages to discover the history of Cyprus and embrace diversity in their heritage and identity. These efforts were made considering that such spaces of non-formal and informal education based on creativity, discovery and cross-cultural understanding hold a particular importance in a society that in many aspects remains affected by a post-conflict state. However, the excitement of discovering and of sharing stories does not only apply to children. CVAR has been using digital means to share knowledge and impressions of Cyprus from the CVAR archives across national and international borders, reaching a broader audience. An example is the ‘History Today’ initiative, running since 2015, where each month six to eight excerpts from the diaries of past travellers, offering an interesting observation or story from the local Cypriot scene, are shared as posts on social media and on the CVAR website on the same date that they were written. The text is accompanied by a relevant photograph or painting from the CVAR collection. This has proved to be a very popular way of sharing the collection and knowledge beyond the limits of the museum space and of cultivating a sense of collective belonging to a history and a place amongst a broader audience. Alongside the digital experience, there is also the promise of a situated storytelling and educational experience. The uniquely diverse cultural landscape of Cyprus emerges through its tangible heritage and there is much to be discovered by visiting sites with a historical significance. The whole island offers an abundance of such discoveries, layers of cultures past but always present. Byzantine churches, Gothic architecture, Venetian walls, Turkish baths, Ottoman houses, become storytelling devices, often through elements that have been preserved through time but sometimes also through the ways in which these sites have been transformed and repurposed within a shifting cultural and political landscape. CVAR has been inviting people from all communities of Cyprus on such journeys of discovery, on both sides of the divide, by organising frequent Cultural Tours. Each time focusing on one area or city, the Centre’s Director and Art Historian, Dr Rita Severis has been guiding groups across the island sharing the knowledge and stories she has acquired since years before the establishment of CVAR. This initiative has been continuing ever since 2004 and has always been met with great enthusiasm, not only for its interactive storytelling and educational element but also for being one of few activities of its kind to focus on a bi-communal experience and exchange, engaging Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Through this initiative, thousands of Cypriots have crossed the divide. This extended to another project, the bi-communal Women’s Walk and Talk, where by walking through sites of shared history, women and men participate in a discussion on the role of women in the peacebuilding process. A joint initiative by CVAR and the Turkish Cypriot University Women’s Association, this activity reveals the role of culture in promoting mutual respect and peaceful co-existence but also in encouraging active citizenship against all divides, challenges and discriminations in society. For its activities and contributions, in 2017 CVAR was awarded the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards in the category of Education, Training and Awareness-Raising and went on to win the first Grand Prix for Cultural Heritage in Cyprus. In September 2019, the Municipality of Nicosia also presented CVAR with an honorary medal and diploma for its significant contribution to the city. We value these honours greatly and they strengthen the sense of responsibility to keep working towards these causes and to always search for innovative ways to create links between heritage, history, education and culture leading to reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. We still seek to make this route to our shared cultural heritage accessible to as wide and diverse an audience as possible and are exploring ways to combine the digital experience with the on-site experience to invite the modern day citizen, traveller, researcher and educator to appreciate the value of cultural heritage within a diverse society. Join us in celebrating cultural diversity throughout Europe.

European Dimension

Education, awareness-raising and appreciation for cultural diversity remain one of CVAR’s core values and an important aspect of all of its projects and activities. The multicultural character of Cyprus, from a historical and modern-day perspective, offers a unique opportunity to showcase the importance of cross-cultural understanding in promoting peaceful co-existence and unity within diverse societies. The perspectives and histories CVAR presents, also demonstrate how the mobility of people across borders and seas has shaped our modern-day cultures and how our sense of belonging and sense of identity emerge from a history of movement and cultural exchanges that make us each unique but also inter-twined. With all this in mind, CVAR has aimed to present cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, as a valuable resource to society. The instinct and curiosity to discover one’s own culture and heritage, whether it be through cultural tours, museum visits or increasingly through online platforms, comes with an opportunity to open up to new perspectives and to encounter each other on the way. By creating this link between heritage, culture and history and by enabling the use of cultural heritage as a resource for education, CVAR has aimed to demonstrate the role of culture in empowering communities to communicate, share a love and pride for their common heritage and become more invested in active citizenship. While maintaining a strong community focus, we believe it is also important to have a broad scope in our outreach and to create spaces and situations that can be shared between the local communities and visitors to the island, as well as promote cross-cultural cooperation across Europe and beyond. With remnants of so many cultures, from the Phoenicians and Ancient Greeks to the French, Venetians, Ottomans and the British, Cyprus and its history invite people of diverse nationalities to explore and discover traces of their own cultural heritage.