The exhibition “PROSFIGOSIMO: A stamp for the refugees of Cyprus. The story of a symbol”, opened on Wednesday 24 January 2024 at the High Commission of the Republic of Cyprus in London.

The Refugee Stamp of Cyprus, instituted by the island’s Government soon after Turkey’s invasion in 1974, aimed at assisting financially the people displaced from their homes at the time.

The so-called Prosfigosimo, literally meaning, “refugee stamp”, is a painful reminder of the invasion and occupation of 37% of the territory of Cyprus. The stamp has since been affixed to everything mailed by the Cyprus Post, not only within Cyprus but also abroad, thus informing the international community about the pending Cyprus issue.

The familiar Refugee stamp portrays a girl sitting on a suitcase amidst barbed wire and is an astounding work of art created by the celebrated Greek engraver A. Tassos (1914-1985).

The present exhibition, first hosted by the House of Representatives of Cyprus under the auspices of its President, Annita Demetriou, in Spring 2023, documents the process through which the Refugee stamp was created, based on archival and philatelic material, as well as relevant artworks. It showcases details of A. Tassos’ woodcut and demonstrates its effect on the artistic production of Cyprus in the subsequent five decades.

The exhibition includes emblematic paintings and engravings by one of the “fathers of Cypriot art”, Telemachos Kanthos (1910-1993), renowned artists Lefteris Economou (1930-2007) and Andreas Ladommatos (1940) and prominent contemporary artists such as George Gavriel (1959), Michalis Kountouris (1960), Lia Lapithi (1963), Andreas Nicolaou (1966), Panayiotis Pasantas (1971), Elena Sarri Varnava (1956), Jane MacLean, Katerina Christodoulou (1960) and George Pantazis (1965-2023).

Many of the artworks displayed are inspired by photographs of the popular London-based photographer, Doros Partasides (1944), who was at the forefront of war as a reporter in 1974.

The exhibition, curated by art historian Maria Paphiti, was inaugurated by the High Commissioner of Cyprus in the UK, H.E. Ambassador Andreas Kakouris.

In his welcoming speech, Mr Kakouris said, “Anyone who has ever posted or received post from Cyprus will have noticed a particular stamp, “grammatosimo”, as it is called in Greek. A stamp that appeared on the front of all envelopes since 1977, was one that depicted the pain and suffering of those who became refugees, or “prosfyges”, during the Turkish invasion of 1974. Hence, the creation, the birth of “Prosfigosimo”.”

He continued, “Prosfigosimo had a very practical use. All proceeds went into a Refugee Fund, in support of all those directly impacted by the invasion, namely, those who temporarily were in need of aid in the immediate years after the invasion. As the years went by, proceeds continued to go to those who were in need of rebuilding their lives. The prosfigosimo marked the psyche of all Cypriots. It became an image that is indelibly carved in our souls, as it represents the collective effort of the Cypriot population to help each other. It does not signify charity, it showcases resilience.”

Mr Kakouris noted that the exhibition takes on added significance, as 2024 marks 50 years since the Turkish invasion in Cyprus in the summer of 1974, when over 200,000 Cypriots became refugees.

“As we navigate through the touching images and symbolic representations, let us not merely witness the past, but actively engage with the stories of those who endured displacement, loss, those who are still waiting to find out the fate of their missing loved ones and seek justice. Let us, ultimately, renew our commitment to end the illegal occupation and reunite the island and its people.”

The Cyprus High Commissioner further added, “The tearful child in wood engraving, immortalized in Anastasios Alevizos’, or A. Tassos’ as the artist was known, captures the collective sorrow and determination that emerged in the aftermath of the invasion of July 1974. His work took on profound significance during the tumultuous events that befell Cyprus. In 1974, he created the emblematic engraving Cyprus 1974, a symbolic masterpiece that voices the unspeakable horrors of the invasion. This iconic work of art has since 1977 been the face of Prosfigosimo. An earnest contribution by the artist that not only served the very realistic and practical purpose of the Refugee Fund, it also became an international reminder of condemnation of the illegal invasion and continuing occupation of Cyprus.

“The exhibition, through its carefully selected pieces by Maria Paphiti, offers a lens through which we can examine the layers of Cyprus’ modern history, visualize the pain etched into the collective memory, and experience the enduring spirit of the Cypriot people over the past five decades.

“Maria Paphiti, our curator, for whom this exhibition has become so much more than curating, brings to light the various forms of this stamp and emblematic art pieces under the same theme… I would also like to recognize Doros Partasides and his important contribution. Doros captured and chronicled through his camera lens what happened in 1974. His photos which are as vivid, moving and relevant today as they were when they were originally taken, add credence to the fact that ‘the eye doesn’t lie’ and showcase the importance of earing witness to the enduring pain of those still, to this day, longing to return.”

Mr Kakouris concluded, I hope this exhibition will facilitate a retrospective understanding of our history but also inspire a renewed commitment to fostering dialogue, preserving cultural treasures, and championing the enduring spirit of the Cypriot people.”

In her brief speech, exhibition curator Maria Paphiti began by sharing the reason for organizing the event.

“The refugee child by A. Tassos has always held a special place in my heart and mind. As a child I identified with her because on one hand, she is exactly my age and on the other hand, her figure was very familiar to me. This is because she was depicted on the refugee stamp that since 1974 has been affixed on everything posted by the Cyprus Post. Therefore, I saw her coming and going in our home regularly. The lonely figure of the refugee child, seated on a suitcase in front of the cold and hostile barbed wire, used to shock me, causing overwhelming emotions and raising many questions to me.”

She continued, “My coming of age, as well as the acquisition of knowledge related both to the history of Cyprus and the history of art, allowed me to evaluate the Refugee Stamp with objective criteria. I appreciated the Refugee Stamp for what it represents and I admired it as the great work of art that it really is. Nevertheless, its recurring presence over the years has made me take it for granted and in a way I tended to move past it.

“The pivotal moment, catalyst and starting point for the present exhibition was when, during a morning walk in April 2022, I chanced upon the monumental graffiti, showing the Refugee Child, located in the parking lot of a High School in Nicosia. In an unsuspecting time, I was confronted with this arresting painting, a déjà vu, which surprised me and instantly made me feel that I encountered an old acquaintance. Questions began to unfold in my mind. What is happening nowadays with the Refugee Stamp? Given the fact that the Internet has replaced many of our daily practices, how many people still post letters and packages in the traditional way, so as to actually get in touch with the Refugee Stamp? What does the contemporary generation know about it? After all, how many of us are aware of the history and reason of existence of the Refugee Stamp, an artwork-symbol, which for many is visually more powerful even than our flag itself?

“That day, before getting on with my walk, I photographed the graffiti, having already decided to organise an exhibition about the Refugee Stamp, addressed to the entire world: to those who know its history, to awaken them, and to those who are unaware of it, to inform them, whether they are Cypriots or foreigners.

“A fortnight later and while the idea for the Refugee Stamp exhibition was still fresh, I coincidentally met with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mrs. Annita Dimitriou. Quite spontaneously I mentioned to her my intention to organise an exhibition about the Refugee Stamp and suggested that we do it together. It only took a short discussion for her to agree. Last March this exhibition was hosted by the House of Representatives in Cyprus.”

On the making of the exhibition, Ms Paphiti said it, “provides a visual narrative of the establishment and evolvement of the refugee stamp and its significance for Cyprus, both as a symbol of the island’s modern history and as a means of enlightenment about the on-going consequences of the Turkish invasion.

“The woodcut, which the Greek engraver, Tassos Alevizos, created and donated to Cyprus free of charge, as a work of art leaves no one untouched. It was only natural that it would influence the artistic production of our country. Hence, the exhibition includes a selection of artworks that display also the consequences of contemporary refugeeism, demonstrating that pain and loss, primordial expressions of human nature, remain unchanged, regardless of time and place.”

She concluded by thanking all those who contributed in the realisation of the project, particularly Mrs Annita Demetriou, HE High Commissioner Andreas Kakouris, all members of the High Commission, especially Marios Theocharous, Mr Doros Partasides and Dr Linda Papadopoulos.
The exhibition is supported by the Deputy Ministry of Culture of Cyprus .

Photos Stavri Kay




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