Two things about Cyprus are well-known: first, the island is a tourist destination, and second, it is divided. Nicosia is currently the only capital city in Europe with a wall separating the north sector from the south. Social history, political tensions and economic realities contradict common stereotypes of sun, sea and Aphrodite.
Sharqi is the Arabic term for the Sirocco wind that blows sandstorms north from the Sahara, coating everything with a fine dust, an influence from elsewhere. Use of Arabic is significant; it questions Cyprus’ identity given its position in the Eastern Mediterranean as near to Israel and Syria as it is to its nearest European neighbors, Malta and Greece.
Nicos Philippou’s series, first shown in 2016, consists of subtle yet apocalyptic small, square pictures from this place of complex histories. The Cyprus of his topographic investigations seems simultaneously banal and melodramatic. The images connote a mood familiar from film noir, but there is no clear storyline, no plot, just tension and anxiety. The under-populated lands between city and sea are marked by parched vegetation, skeletons of animals, a dead bird, isolated palms leaning from the wind, fake classic statuary, an eagle, isolated farm buildings, and residues of mining. It is a grim environment; hillside drought and swampy mud-lands are bisected by tarmac and road signs. On the other hand, there is a beauty in the close up detail of botanical or zoological species that is perhaps paradoxical, akin to ‘nature morte’.
Philippou renders familiar objects and juxtapositions uncanny: a fake wild goat — the symbol for Cyprus — adorns the roof of a roadside garden center, its curved antlers silhouetted against the flat green haze of an overcast sky; a loosely draped Grecian figurine, urn on head, stands on a pillar dwarfed by an adjacent telegraph pole; a trio of silos, about 5 meters tall, loom over the landscape. Classical civilization and contemporary communications are brought together in an island that due to its boundary location between West and Middle East buzzes with telephonic and surveillance technologies. The haze of the surface of the film adds a disquieting shimmer of that which cannot be seen.
Working on the project over three years, Philippou used an old Polaroid SX-70 camera and ‘Impossible Project’ film, invented by former Polaroid employees after the company stopped production. That the early batches were unpredictable enhances the surreal atmosphere. The single print method also reminds us of the singularity of the location and of daylight often veiled by dust or clouds. Polaroids are small, square, and precious in their uniqueness. The indefinite surface and muted color spectrum of the film intensifies a sense of overlooked places shimmering in the haze. Pictures that are haunted, and haunting!
The prints were exhibited as objects in a display case; a collection of specimens. The book is effectively modest, small-scale, no more than twice the height of a polaroid image, yet precious. The final page shows the back of an image itself not revealed; clearly there is more to be said.
Sharqi was exhibited in 2016 at Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, Associated with the Pierides Foundation (NiMAC). The book is published by NiMAC in a limited edition of 250.
Liz Wells writes and lectures on photographic practices. Publications on landscape include Land Matters, Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011). She is Professor in Photographic Culture, Plymouth University, UK.
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