Interview with Rita Severis
July 18, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Rita Severis (RS)
AP: Rita Severis. A researcher, an artwork collector, a wife, a mother. 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?
RS: I wouldn’t say they define me. Which one do I love the most? Being a researcher. I’m an art historian, I love art but I love researching the history of Cyprus, especially in relation to art. I can’t say I don’t like being a mother. I have three boys and I adore them, and now a little granddaughter. I’m delighted with them. I work at the Center of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR), which is a wonderful thing to do, to be able to create on a daily basis and to promote art and reconciliation in Cyprus. I also work for the Canadian Consulate, which gives me another outlook on life and helps me to see beyond the borders of Cyprus. But no matter what, I think working as a researcher is what excites me the most.
AP: I’m not sure whether many women would be so upfront in putting their careers first. Is it because your work is your passion, a life purpose that defines you, without diminishing the rest of your identities?
RS: To tell you the truth, whatever I get involved with, I do it with passion. Either I like it and I try to do it to the best of my abilities, or I don’t like it and I refuse to do it.
AP: And at the moment, you have the first bi-communal museum with approximately 1,300 paintings, 8,000 books and many more items.
RS: It’s the first bi-communal museum with a vast amount of material. Now, the numbers really don’t matter, but it has 1,500 paintings, over 10,000 books, manuscripts archives, costumes and memorabilia. It is the first of its kind and is unique in Cyprus. It concentrates on the recent history of Cyprus, in the 18th, 19th 20th centuries and through this museum, we try to show the history of the island and all Cypriots without discrimination. This is a Greek or a Turk or an Armenian or a Maronite, we’re all Cypriots here, but we do aim to maintain the unique characteristics of each group. We don’t want to make everyone the same, but we try to show how we all lived peacefully in the past and how we can learn from our past to create a brighter future. So, our motto is “bridge”. Create a bridge between the past and the future.
AP: How did the idea of a bi-communal museum emerge? Was it something you were thinking about for a long time or did an event or someone shift your perspective towards this project?
RS: No, I always researched the history of Cyprus and through this history I understood that a lot of truths were never expressed. Somehow, perhaps not only us, but also all nations, formulate history in the way they want. They perceive history in the way they want to. We have these terrible notions that we always existed conquerors, were always suffering, always the underdog. Yes, Cyprus has consistently been ruled by conquering civilizations, but that does not necessarily mean that we were always suffering and always the underdog, nor does it necessarily mean that the conquerors were tyrants during the periods of conquest and occupation. We frequently brought things upon ourselves, Cypriots were often tyrants themselves during conquest periods. So, it is important that these things should come out. Going through that, I realized that history was often distorted and I decided that this would be a good idea, this museum, to try and present things in a nice way without evoking reactions.
AP: Art can speak by itself of course and it can be a means to narrate history, but I can’t help but think of something you said in another interview that I found interesting. You mentioned, when talking about British artists, that they were depicting Cyprus in a certain negative way in their paintings. During the period of colonialism of course.
RS: Let me explain. The British had an imperialistic attitude. They believed that they had come to the back of beyond and they needed somehow to justify their presence here. So to begin with, they presented the island as backward, ugly, dirty in comparison with the British, who were clean, proper, composed etc. But they had to, as I said, justify their existence here. So they justified it by saying that they were bringing civilization to the back of beyond. And then we have some pictures, a few years later in the 20s and the 30s, and particularly in the 30s and 40s, where they show how their presence was beneficial to the island, how the island had changed, was cleaner, and how the people “appeared” to be cleaner, more civilized. This was a trick that the British used everywhere and it is evident in the paintings and of course later on they used other things, other means that suited their purposes, this is what I meant basically. We were not always the underdog with the British. We must admit that the British did some good things in Cyprus. We have a very good civil service; we owe that to the British. No, we’re spoiling it now, but at least before we had a good civil service and that we owe to the British. They constructed the first road system in Cyprus, they eradicated malaria, they helped with the locusts, they reviewed the educational system, and they established hospitals and leper farms. I mean, honestly, they did quite a lot. We tend to forget all that and concentrate on what happened between ‘55 and ‘59 when we wanted to get rid of them. And I believe that even if that hadn’t happened, eventually the British would have left within a few years because the deconstruction of colonization had already started and they could not have kept Cyprus, but we were influenced by our sentiments rather than our brains; we were influenced by people from Greece and we decided to do it. It was a noble fight, but it did not bring the best results.
AP: Obviously colonization was not something acceptable and positive but what you’re saying is that any human condition/situation…
RS: Has its positives and its negatives yes.
AP: Is that related to the notion that, with time, we need to go back and revisit history and rewrite it?
RS: Definitely! Definitely!
AP: Distance creates a clearer view of the situation.
RS: More detached views. Generations have to pass.
AP: In interpreting history, do you think we also need a different perspective? Maybe a feminine approach? I would like your thoughts on that with a focus on your female identity.
RS: I don’t like this!
AP: You don’t like this. I totally understand.
RS: I don’t like the segregation of the female and male identities. I’m a human being. I don’t think that my actions, my reactions the way I think etc. should really define me as a woman or a man.
AP: What about the others? Maybe you don’t feel that you are defined by your feminine nature, but what about others?
RS: Well I hope not!
AP: So, growing up in Cyprus, or even in more recent years, you didn’t feel as though you had faced any obstacles just because you were a woman?
AP: And do you think that is the case for many women in Cyprus?
RS: Yes. I never experienced problems because I was a woman. If what I tried to do was good, if there was perseverance and I believed in it, I went ahead. And the fact that I am a woman never stopped me, nor did I see any peculiar reactions to it. I think that many women have the same experiences. I don’t really believe in this story that “Because I am a woman, they are neglecting me, they are putting me on the side, they don’t want to listen to me, there is prejudice, and there is bias etc.” No! I think that if you’re logical and you present your case thoroughly, you can win.
AP: Do you believe that women that do have something to say are being heard? Do they have the means to be heard, but they are not actually taking that step forward? Bearing in mind the number of women that are active in politics globally as well as in Cyprus.
RS: Do you think that Cypriot women want to get involved in politics? When Anastasiades was looking for MP’s, nobody wanted to go!
AP: Why do you think that happened?
RS: Because women, they are cleverer than men, they don’t want to get involved with dirt. I’m sorry, but I think that women are cleverer than men and I think that if they want something, they get it. I don’t believe in this story that we are suppressed and we’re this and we’re that. Come on! Come on! Look at how many women are in power at the moment and I would say they are not the best. In many cases they’re not the best, but they’ve managed somehow.
AP: I wouldn’t argue that we should define who should be in politics by gender, definitely not.
RS: I don’t believe that there is this persistence, this severe prejudice against women. I don’t believe it! Now, you know, if every Tom, Dick and Harry or every Helen, Mary or Ioustini or I don’t know what, decided that they are going to be in the Parliament and they want to be a leader and they are not able to, too bad! But the ones that are, usually manage it.
AP: What about the negotiations? Do you think that women have a voice in the negotiation/reconciliation process? Or do you think they’re not interested?
RS: I think that the ones that want to have a voice, have one. Most of the women are not interested, but the ones that do want to have a voice, they make themselves heard.
AP: Do you think that women are just not interested or that they were raised in a way that makes them not interested?
RS: They can’t be bothered. From what I see, they can’t be bothered. And let’s face it, how many people are interested today in the negotiations? Men or women? People are down, we’re tired, we’re demoralized, and this thing has been going on for 50 years. Anybody in that position would feel the same! Anybody would feel the same, so why do you focus on whether women have a voice or not? It’s the same for men. Everybody is demoralized, everybody is tired, fed up with this story. So you get the expected result.
AP: Are you hopeful for the future?
RS: No, no I’m not.
AP: Do you have a proposition? Something that you think would change the situation?
RS: If both sides cut the umbilical cords with the respective motherlands, maybe we would have a chance. But this is not happening. This is not happening! We have to decide, do we want to be Cypriots? Or do we want to be Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots? Enough is enough! We have to be Cypriots! We have to come together as a European nation within Europe. We keep on saying “Oh yes but our culture is Greek and their culture is Turkish” etc., but how many cultures exist in Canada? How have they managed it? How many cultures exist in the States? How come they managed it? Why can’t we manage it? First of all they’re all Americans. First of all they’re all Canadians, they are Australians, and then they come from this part of the world, that part of the world and this is their culture. We have never seen this in Cyprus. We have never felt his way. We have never matured enough to do this and also I must say we our personal interests have never allowed us to move beyond being Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
AP: Think collectively you mean? We have never managed to think collectively?
RS: Collectively as well as individually. I mean, what am I? Am I a Greek-Cypriot or am I above all a Cypriot? I am a Cypriot above all! This is my country. I’m a Cypriot. I am Greek, my culture is Greek, all right, but why should I distinguish myself as Greek or Turkish-Cypriot? Above everything, we’re Cypriots.
AP: Thank you very much. I think your last sentence is a great closing statement.
RS: Thank you.
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