Interview with Ruzen Atakan
August 24, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Ruzen Atakan (RA)
AP: Ruzen Atakan. An artist, an activist, a mother, a friend. Quite a few identities - individual, social, collective identities - intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity do you feel defines you the most?
RA: I like to live like an artist. In my house, in my school, in my studio, in my street, in my village, I am an artist. Everywhere! I choose to be an artist, to be able to express myself more freely because growing up as a young girl and watching the lives of other women around me, I realized that this was a hard life and I wanted something different for myself. I was observing my mum and my family and kept seeing the women working outside the house and then working at home and I said to my mum, I want to have an artistic job, like a hairdresser, but not just cutting some people’s hair, I want to change them. I want to be creative. I didn’t know at the time exactly what I wanted and then later, when I finished school and was thinking about university I was even considering maths, because I was very good at maths. But then I thought, I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be restricted to specific numbers and results and 1,2,3 if you know what I mean. I like to dream, to be able to dream.
AP: When did you notice that you have a talent for painting? When you were a child?
RA: Yes quite early and when I was in school, my art teacher said you are a good student in arts and you have to choose this subject. So I went to university and that’s where the more professional side of art came in, because you work in the studio with your teachers and you do exhibitions with your friends. When I finished university and came back to Cyprus and started teaching at some point, I felt that ok, this job is not only about teaching and working in schools and so I rented my first studio. It was in the same area of the old city of Nicosia and I continued to rent, sometimes just a room, sometimes a house until recently when I bought a house and now I have my own studio. I restored the house myself with help from my students. The house itself is a work of art.
AP: You said you wanted to be an artist because you wanted to get away from the stereotypical roles that are assigned to women and be more creative. After all this years working as an artist, do you feel that your dream, your ambition has been fulfilled?
RA: Yes I do. My husband and my son, have embraced my artistic nature so I continue, even after being a mother, to live as an artist. We’re not following the traditional roles, on the contrary, we’re helping and supporting each other. I also don’t follow the norms of feminine physical appearance either. I look like an artist. But I don’t just look like an artist; I live like an artist, I am free. If I want to do something, I do it and nobody pressures me and I don’t like to pressure myself and if you want to lead a creative life, you have to live like this. I say to my son, when you grow up and you get married, please find a woman like me, a free woman and don’t put pressure on your wife, you have to help each other. I see around me how boys and girls are raised differently and I don’t like that. I do feel a sense of responsibility as a mother raising a son.
AP: I assume your close family and friends have embraced your artistic and free nature. How about the wider circle of people in your life? Do you ever feel that you are judged?
RA: I never cared about this, in my school, in my life, I never cared. I live my life the way I want to live it and I was the same as a child. I never cared because when you put pressure on yourself, this is a big problem and I never did that. Sometimes, my friends would say to me, you’re not afraid to live like this, you’re not afraid to do this? No! When I want to do something, I just do it and I never suppress myself or my ideas. When I think about something and I know that my need to do it comes from my heart, then I just do it.
AP: Do you think that everybody can lead a life like that?
RA: No, it’s not easy. It’s actually really hard, but it’s worth trying. I tell my students these things all the time. I want them to feel more liberated, because when you feel that the environment, whether it is family, friends, school or whatever else, is expecting something different to what your heart tells you then you will be very unhappy if you follow that path. On the other hand, it’s not easy to go against the norms and they need to know that too. But, I also emphasize that it’s great to be interested in the environment, peace, humanity, but you can’t support something only by thinking about it. You have to act upon it. When everybody thinks and cares about the environment in which we live, about humanity, peace etc. and acts upon it, then we will have a change. Because everything plays a vital role in our psychology and our wellbeing.
AP: All these are vital elements that affect our lives. We’re living in a divided island that by itself is a violation of our bodies and our souls. How did that affect you or influence your perspective?
RA: The north is more difficult than the south, because we have to live with people that share a different culture, people who don’t know how life was on the island before the war. A lot of people originally come from Turkey and they don’t know the TC way of life, and it’s not easy to live with them. And what makes things even harder is that there are more of them than us, they are the majority and we’re living the life of the minority in the north. Their ideas are different, they look different to us, and their culture is different from ours. And sometimes they do not accept it. Last week, two people came to visit me in my studio and they were wearing shorts and five Turkish people were passing by, two men with three women covered in burqas and they started insulting my guests. I mean, that made me so angry. I mean where do we live? In which era? We are Cypriots! We are free human beings. I can wear whatever I want. Sometimes, I close the doors of my studio and I work naked. I don’t want someone to tell me how to live my life. My friends are telling me to be careful, they are afraid of my life. I refuse to change my life, this is my creative place, my studio and this is what I want to do. But you can see this Turkish mentality slowly coming to Cyprus and nobody from the political arena opens their mouth and says stop this. Turkish Cypriots are more relaxed, more open and you have Turkish people coming from Turkey that don’t want us to be different, they want us to be Turks first. But I’m Cypriot first and then Turkish. But they are from Turkey and they are just Turkish. I always felt like that I’m firstly Cypriot, I want to support my Cypriot culture and my Cypriot way of living and, although change is welcome, I would prefer to change into being more European rather than Turkish. I support peace and I want our island to be reunited again. I have more in common with Greek Cypriots than I have with Turkish people. I have lots of GC friends and they come and visit me quite often. We communicate in English and although language could be a problem for me, it’s not. When the crossings opened, I was one of the first people to cross and visit the south. I have great memories of that first crossing, meeting with people, sharing moments with them. I do go there every day, usually to buy something, to visit someone. Also, this year my son will go to the English School in the south and I am very happy about that. I don’t want to give him the idea that Cyprus is only the north. I want him to have a wider perspective of the island. We went together during the summer to Paphos, Polis, Karpasi and I want him to experience the island as one. As I am a teacher, I also try to share this idea and last year I tried to find a way to bring all my students to the south, so I organized a visit to CVAR, the bi-communal museum. Because, as you know, we also have Turkish students also and so I took all my students to the south to see the museum, the Turkish as well as the TC’s. The comments from Turkish students were really interesting. They were telling me that the South is different and I said no, before it wasn’t, now things are changing and I want to show them that Cyprus is different, not like Turkey, because they never imagined this. When they are growing up, they learn that Cyprus is Turkish territory, an extension of Turkey, and the reality is different because we’re not and they can see that. Ten years before, I was telling people that that we have to support peace and we have to find a way to live together again. Now, the new generation supports the TRNC, they only know the TRNC and it’s not easy for me, and it’s not easy for the other people to think like me. So now it requires more effort, more energy, and more passion to overcome that.
AP: Another initiative you have taken as an artist is to become involved in bi-communal art exhibitions.
RA: Yes, even before the crossing points were opened, we obtained permission to go to the south sometimes. That happened even 10 years before the crossing points were opened, with the help of the UN of course. We were able to do that as artists. That gave me the opportunity to work with some GC artists and there was a continuity in those meetings, but after the crossing points opened, I felt that people were not so open.
AP: What do you mean by that? Was it maybe the fact that you were coming together with people that already had the same ideas as you? While after, you were exposed to a larger, more diverse mass?
RA: No, I am talking about the same people that changed. I lost them. Some of the people that were more involved, they have lost interest somehow. But of course I have now met other artists like Hambis Tsangaris. Hambis and my husband are both refugees. Hambis is from Kontea and he moved to Platanistassa, whereas my husband Ibrahim is from Platanistassa and he moved to Kontea. When the crossing points opened I called my husband, he was in a camp in Pentadaktylos, and I said they opened a crossing and I want to go to Platanistasa and he said “is this one of your daydreaming things?” and I said “no, it’s true, they opened a crossing and I want to go!” So we found a friend from the south and he came with us and we went there and we met him. With Hambis actually, and we’re still doing things together. We try to find new projects, not just the two of us, but we also work with other artists. Last month, three TCs and three GCs came together and made an exhibition in the North and we did the opening of a new gallery and a lot of people came to visit. In the South, there are more opportunities, great galleries, more culture, much better than the North. Here, we don’t have a good mentality towards art and also galleries. Nobody cares about art and if you want to do this you have to spend your own money, you’re not getting any money, and people have this idea that this is not expensive, but all the materials cost a lot of money. A friend of mine opened a small gallery and next month we will be hosting ceramic artists from both side. It’s in the old city and that’s great because its mostly Turkish people that live here, they rent or buy and they have destroyed the old city centre, which is a shame because it’s our culture this is our life.
AP: Art can help us overcome this?
RA: I don’t know how we could overcome all this. In my life, I have seen a lot of people talking about change, but only in their houses, not outside. There are demonstrations, of course there are, but that is not enough. I see my students, friends, people just sit in cafes and drink coffee and they don’t talk about this. They change the subject and when you constantly change the subject, how can you change the situation? I also used to work with some great people within my union and we shared the same views, but now we’re getting less and less. They lost their courage and their interest towards this, it’s been 45 years. In Turkey, everything changed and they are putting pressure on our lives also. So I don’t know how to overcome this.
AP: Are you optimistic or hopeful about the future?
RA: No, not really at this moment.
AP: You’re very emotional when thinking about this. You shared the idea that in order to be able to live together again, we have to meet again first?
RA: And support the Cypriot ideas, life, culture and peace, because if the crossings are open but we don’t cross and we don’t get in touch with each other, there will be no result. Of course, for people that are living in more remote places like Limassol or Paphos it is understandable, but for Nicosians it is just a short walk to cross over. And I mean that it’s hard for TCs also. Every month I try to go to Limassol or Paphos with friends or students and every time I try to take different people with me. I want them to get a different idea, a different perspective and bring them closer to GCs and experience the South. I want to change their minds!
AP: Sound’s like a plan! Thank you very much for the interview Ruzen.
RA: Thank you!
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