Limassol Harbor: a liminal space where anxieties and hopes for modern Cyprus meet.

Ports and harbors are places that unite differences in time and space. They are places where an encounter with the Other happens. Traditionally, harbors were places of meeting, interaction, conversation, transactions and conflict.

People of different cultural backgrounds, and of different socio-economic statuses, different beliefs and because of different reasons meet within the space of harbors. The sea and the water can be perceived as the fluid interaction between identities and between different perspectives that remain fluid and are perpetually formed but never result in a final form.

What drives their energy is the hopes and anxieties of the people that interact and the people that come and go.

Therefore, we can perceive harbors as temporal and spatial liminal spaces. Sea works as an endless fluid plain onto which the new is born, and old dies perpetually. Sea is the place where anxiety and hope meet and structure a narrative about historical change and cultural transformation within society. Peaceful encounters and clashes happen, people are reunited, and people’s bonds are broken. Harbors are the nodes between different temporal and spatial states in history.

Cyprus harbors are primarily filled with these dynamics. Cyprus’s location within the eastern Mediterranean worked as a place of peaceful encounters as well as conflicts among different populations. Below, we see two different viewpoints on the Limassol harbor, that, as we propose, they enclose the ironies and the paradoxes of the modern Cyprus.    

Those left behind, Limassol by Michael Michaelides: the anxiety of the modern

The painting “those left behind, Limassol” (1950-51) by the Greek Cypriot artist Michael Michaelides is a reference to the migration of (mostly) the male population of Cyprus to Europe, Australia, and America during the first post-World War II era. The picture depicts the Limassol harbor and represents women and children saying goodbye to their friends and relatives migrating. On the horizon, ships are sailing away as we can distinguish through the smoke that comes out of their funnels. At first glance, we can say that the painting is a dry realist snapshot of the Limassol harbor during the mid-20th century, without any social commentary.

If we look closely, though, we can distinguish that Michaelides uses a kind of latent expressionism by using the light, which says much more than what we can explicitly read in the painting. Firstly, the light is diffused all over the painting, creating a sense of a melancholic stillness. Even though the painting is luminous, it is evenly lighted, lacking contrast, creating a sense of dullness. The dull, eerie silence and the feeling of serene numbness are hiding a much more profound sorrow. The observer senses that as a melancholic whisper or a silent lament. Expanding our thinking to the work of Michaelides, we can formulate that the painting works as a reference to the socio-economic structure that the Cypriot society was about to encounter. Mass migration, economic struggle, and a need to adapt to the modern socio-economic structure. Modernism came to Cyprus during the British colonial times and transformed the socio-economic structure of the island. The substantially agricultural economy of the island was rapidly evolving into a modern urban economy that would eventually characterize the post-1970s era. If we look closely at the people’s uniform, we can distinguish that the people depicted are of low socio-economic background (probably coming from the surrounding villages) reinforcing the view that the picture has a socio-political commentary.

Michael Michaelides, Those Left Behind, Limassol, Oil on wood, 1950-51. Nicosia: A.G. Leventis Gallery

Also, by knowing that Limassol is a city on the southern coasts of Cyprus, we can distinguish by the shadow that the sunlight falls from the west. Therefore, in the painting, the sun is on its course to set, when the ships depart behind the horizon. A new life will begin tomorrow for those who leave and those who are left behind. The sea also works as a metaphor in the painting, with reference to both: fear for the unknown and the hope for opportunity: an unformulated, fluid new reality filled with a silent anxiety. Through that reference, Michaelides captures the first anxieties embedded in a transitional phase within the Cypriot society.

Therefore, the pessimistic gaze of Michaelides on those left behind also denotes a pessimist outlook on the new socio-economic reality of Cyprus. The urban population is now bound to a dichotomy between those who control socio-economic structures and those who need to adapt in order to survive. As such, Michaelides’s work is mainly a political work that focuses on the first post-colonial socio-economic reality that Cyprus was about to enter. Through his work, does not divide the population of Cyprus ethnically. Instead, he critically emphasizes the emotional outcome of new and implicit segregation happening in the local community, that can be defined only socio-economically. This is also denoted in the depiction of the wooden material on the right of the painting, which connotes that somewhere in the harbor, people are working to build modern Cyprus. The wooden surfaces are raised and gradually hide and threaten to mute the people’s sorrow on the left part of the painting.  

Harbor of Limassol by Salih Oral: The ironic fragmentation of the modern

In the artwork, Harbor of Limassol by the Turkish Cypriot painter Salih Oral in the 1960s, we can see a colorful painting of the harbor of Limassol. On the left half of the work, we can observe multiple rectangular forms that come together to depict buildings, and on the lower part of the painting, we can observe the harbor’s water, being still and calm. On the lower right position, we can perceive fishermen boats coming out of a rectangular form, while behind them, there are depicted some bigger boats, probably small yachts. On the right side of the artwork, we can distinguish the harbor’s warehouses that existed until the 2010s. The dominant shape in the form is that of the rectangle. Also, the lack of linear perspective in the painting reminds medieval depictions of cities such as The Effects of Good Government in Siena, but it also gives the impression of vertical development of the composition that may have a more in-depth, conceptual meaning, that we examine below.

The vertical development of the composition can be a reference to the modernist need to expand cities in height, by building multistory buildings. This reference to the modern is not only depicted by the impression of multistory buildings, but also through its reference to futurist aesthetics. The buildings on the left of the picture seem tall, enlightened, and modern, and overall, the image gives off the idea that it depicts a modern city diffused with energy and light. The orange-yellow colors of fire contradict the dominant blue and green colors that give the impression of nighttime. Also, the edgy shapes of the boats create a feeling of a diffused “energy” in an otherwise calm night. Therefore, we can say that on a more profound reading, Oral’s depiction of Limassol’s harbor is a reference to the modern. On an even deeper level, we can say that Oral’s artwork encloses all the anxieties and hopes of the modern in Cyprus. In order to see that, we must look into the painting’s subject that is the depiction of Limassol’s harbor.    

Salih Oral, Harbor of Limassol, c.1960, Oil on canvas

In the work of Oral, we can distinguish a different cultural property of the harbors. The harbor, here, can be perceived as a space that binds multiple cultural realities together. A place in time and space where different cultures and people meet and converse. Different forms and different colors come together to form a composition that resembles a collage or a mosaic, as a reference to the coexistence of multiple cultural backgrounds in the port’s space.

But, would those different aspects exist outside of the modern condition?

If we take Oral’s painting as having a critical gaze towards the modern, we can say that the almost cubist fragmentation of the forms I the artwork denotes a more pessimistic outlook towards the modern. Modern Cyprus is divided by nationalities and by religious beliefs, all existent in its declaration of independence. Therefore, the unification in diversity that the painting implies might also be an ironic manifestation of cultural fragmentation that never existed in the “pre-modern” Cyprus. The initial optimist outlook that modernism binds all differences together is just a hollow promise because differences would not exist outside of the modern context in the first place.

It is in this critical way we must also read the socio-political commentary embedded within the artwork.

As such, we can consider the “cubist” element, with the dominant rectangular shapes within the artwork, as an attempt to connote, again, the multiple situations that exist within the harbor’s space: Travelers with different socio-economic backgrounds use the area of the harbor: people with different socio-economic status; some use it to leave the country as migrants, while others use it for tourism while others use it for their daily jobs as fishermen.

Consequently, we hope that the harbor can initially be a place of meeting or a space of coexistence between people among different backgrounds, but, instead, it is a place of separation.  

In the same reference, the city that ascends on the left part of the composition seems like a barrier or a wall that separates rather than unite. Likewise, the water of the harbor does not look like water, but it looks more like ice or concrete. In other words, it lost its liquid property and transformed into a solid, impenetrable body onto which the city ascends as a wall.

It is this anxiety of the modern; the modern identities, and the modern way of fragmenting the world, that is expressed within the irony of the painting: through the paradox of the solid water and the unified fragmentation.  

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