AN extraordinary exhibition at north Nicosia’s Sidestreets – Centre for Educational and Cultural Initiatives opens on Wednesday that promises to leave a deep and lasting impression on both the Turkish art world and on peoples’ perceptions of Cyprus’ recent history. When Johann Pillai, scholar and joint head of Sidestreets, was invited last April to look at a number of mosaic panels by renowned Turkish artist Bedri Rahmi Eyubiglu that had been ‘discovered’ by outgoing Turkish ‘Ambassador’ to northern Cyprus Sakir Fakili at the embassy, he soon realised he had stumbled over part of an exceptional work of art that had been presumed lost for decades. What Pillai did not know at the time was that the next six months of his life would be spent on a near-obsessive search for other ‘missing’ parts of the work, and on seeking to unravel the story of what really happened when it went missing in the early 1960s. Pillai’s search took him to Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara, and back to Cyprus, where he pored for months over archives and conducted countless interviews in search of lost pieces of Bedri Ramhi’s work. Now, half a year later, Pillai and Sidestreets is ready to present his findings at an exhibition entitled The Lost Mosaic Wall –From Expo ’58 to Cyprus. Pillai will also be launching his book that presents the work and its intriguing story. Arriving at the ‘embassy’ in April, Pillai and his colleagues from Sidestreets viewed the “chunks of mosaic” with amazement, and it was soon agreed with the former ambassador that these were valuable works and that they should be on public display. But what caught Pillai’s eye was a little annotation on the works reading, “This is the work of Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu, who produced it for the Brussels Expo of 1958. It was later brought to Cyprus in 1962 for an art exhibition, and was later donated to the Turkish army as a gift.” Pillai soon established that the “chunks” were a mere fraction of the overall work. Furthermore, he discovered that the annotation on the artwork was only partly correct. The artist Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu, as Pillai already knew, was well known in 20th century Turkey, both as a visual artist and as a poet. Born in 1911, he was famed for being the first modern Turkish artist to be exhibited abroad. After training in Paris, and heavily influenced by artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin, Rahmi had returned to Turkey and begun combining his foreign influences with visual styles from his native Anatolia – a style that came to the fore in much of his work. But what Pillai had now established was that the “chunks” of mosaic the he had seen were part of a 227 metre square wall that had lined the Turkish pavilion at the Brussels Expo in 1958. He learned too that the work had been so admired that it received the Gold Medal at the Expo, and to Bedri Rahmi being commissioned to design the entrance for the original NATO building in Paris. “So I started researching. I wanted to find out how much of we had, and where the rest of it was,” Pillai says at his office at Sidestreets. On the floor, he has laid out a reconstruction on paper of the entire work. This includes the pieces he has found in Cyprus, along with photographic records of the other missing pieces. He says he has been through “literally millions” of photos on the internet, but “not a single one depicts the work in its entirety”. The giant wall, and the buildings that housed it at the Brussels Expo were exceptional, even by today’s standards, with the wall manifesting a sort of tapestry, measuring 2.7 metres high and 100 metres long and costing a staggering 300,000 dollars, that linked the two buildings that made up the Turkish pavilion. Looking at the photomontage of the wall, one can easily see what a major work this is. At its beginnings it depicts traditional scenes with dancing girls, the tree of life, saz players and representations of some of Istanbul’s most notable architectural structures such as the Blue Mosque and Agia Sophia and the ports of the ancient city. Later sections depict more modern manifestations of the country. The mosaic tapestry is overwhelmingly blue, a fact that also carries a message, according to Pillai, who says it represents “the philosophy of Blue Anatolia”, a view held by some in Turkey that Anatolia was not purely Turkish, but one which housed numerous cultures. Even today this work would be considered progressive, Pillai says. But for Pillai the question remained as to what happened to Bedri Rahmi’s wall after the Brussels Expo. “After the Expo, the wall and the pavilion was to be dismantled and sent by train back to Ankara,” Pillai explains. “But this never happened”. In fact, the pavilion stayed another year in Brussels. Then, when it was finally on its way to Ankara, Turkey was gripped by a military coup, which eventually resulted in the mosaics and the pavilion buildings being dumped in Istanbul’s Gulhane Park, where it became a victim of the elements and looters. Some – but not all, it later turns out – of it lay there until 1979, when a reporter for Hurriyet exposed the scandal of Turkey’s wasted art treasure. Several parts were saved by an embarrassed municipality and returned to the family of Bedri Rahmi, who had died four years before. But the story doesn’t end there. Having received just several of the panels that made up the whole 200-panel piece, the family then went in search of the rest – a search that began in Cyprus. “The family came to Cyprus three times trying to find parts of the mosaic, but they didn’t have much luck,” Pillai says. Why Bedri Rahmi’s family failed to find the artwork remains a mystery, but Pillai, it seems, struck lucky. After being told about the existence of a number of “chunks” of the mosaic in the Turkish ‘embassy’ he began searching for records of the exhibition the work was apparently brought to the island for. His research led him to discover that the work had featured at the 1960 Cyprus International Fair in Nicosia. Photographs of the fair Pillai unearthed clearly show at least parts of the mosaics peeping out from beyond speechmakers, including the newly-inaugurated first president Archbishop Makarios. Pillai explains what happened: “With the new coup government in power in Turkey [in 1960], a decision was taken that Turkey should be part of the Cyprus fair”. The result was, says Pillai, that, “someone picked up the pieces in the park in Istanbul and brought them to Cyprus”. Following the fair, the Nicosia municipality apparently put the work into storage, where it might have stayed had the parting commander Turgut Sunalp, who led the 650 Turkish troops that were on the island as part of the new Republic’s guarantor force, not been an art lover. “Sunalp wanted to display and protect the mosaics, so he told the then-Turkish Ambassador Emin Dirvana about it,” who, Pillai says, agreed that the work should stay here “because it promoted peace between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities”. Unfortunately, however, Bedri Rahmi’s work never got a chance to perform that role. What in fact happened was this: “An old bashed up building in the tripartite camp at Kokkinotrimithia, where the Turkish and Greek military contingents were training the new Cypriot army was assigned and renovated to house the mosaics”. The building was then declared the officers’ club, and on August 30 of that year Bedri Rahmi himself, Pillai says, came to a ball at the camp at which the work was unveiled. And there these 160 pieces of Bedri Rahmi’s masterpiece mosaic remained until 1963, the year the Republic began to fall apart. “After the inter-communal violence of 1963, the Turkish army moves out of Camp K [Kokkinotrimithia] to what it considers a safer area,” Pillai explains. “They clean out everything, including the mosaic panels. Almost certainly some got damaged or lost,” he says. Some of them were then moved to the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Ayios Epiktitos, known as Villa Firtina, where they were put into storage. Other pieces ended up in Turkish army camps in Ortakoy and Gonyeli. Pillai recounts how a local architect told him of how he had been forced by a shortage of building materials to use some of the panels to seal off a military headquarters. “The architect gets a bunch of mosaic panels and has them installed to block gunfire – concrete facing out, and the mosaics facing in for decoration.” Despite the finding of some remains of Bedri Rahmi’s work in the Istanbul park in 1979, no mention was ever made of the existence of other parts of the work in Cyprus by the army or the Turkish ‘embassy’. But Pillai now knows that in 1980 the then-Turkish ‘Ambassador’s’ wife at Villa Firtina discovered some of the panels in a storage room and asked for the ones in good condition to be installed on one of the villa’s outer walls. “Those stay there till 2006 when the middle panel is blown down in a storm and smashes into five pieces,” Pillai recounts adding: “When the new ambassador comes, he has the panels moved to the embassy in Nicosia”. And there they stayed until April 2010 when Pillai and his colleagues were called in to view them. The exhibition and book launch takes place on Wednesday October 6 at 7pm and runs till November 30. The opening on October 6 will be preceded by a lecture at 6pm. For further information contact Sidestreets on 0090 392 2293070.
The forgotten mosaic October 6, 2010