For Cypriot artist, Andreas Efstathiou, art is ubiquitous and creating art is a continuous process of building new themes upon the past. Imaginatively internalising a 20th century modernist tradition, he is constantly looking for novel and risky ways to express his take on life around him.
Born in 1964, in Cyprus, Efstathiou studied art in the USA, the UK and Cyprus. He has had numerous group and solo exhibitions, at home and abroad, and his paintings and sculptures are part of collections around the world. Since 2017 he has been living and working in Limassol, Cyprus, running the Cornaro Fine Arts Centre.
His artistic journey began with making mud sculptures as a child in Cyprus. He has absorbed the caprices of life: the nostalgia for his abandoned home, the struggle of a young painter to survive, the financial crisis turning everyone into a tightrope walker, the quarantine as a blessing and a prison.
Those are not, however, mere reflections of reality. They are feelings, thoughts, attitudes and perceptions morphed into a unique artist’s vision. “Art can reveal another dimension to our routine, provide people with a different point of view,” says Efstathiou . He listens, watches, thinks, and paints a raw philosophy derived from the world he lives in. His work is not abstract in the accepted sense; it is an abstraction of certain ideas, and it is inspired and motivated by the society around him.
For Efstathiou art is only alive at the moment of its creation. Not before, as yet a thought, neither after, as a completed piece. Everything that moment holds spills onto a canvas to be preserved and shared. “Art is a way to communicate with people. A good work of art does exactly that, regardless of its form,” he explains.
Never an academically figurative artist, Efstathiou’s work has travelled a long way from realist paintings, “too detailed,” in his own words, towards expressive abstractions, from vivid colour palettes to almost entirely black-and-white pieces. Playing with materials, colours and brushstrokes gives him the motivation to explore his themes. “I used to apply a more realistic approach to my art,” he says, “but suddenly realised that it wasn’t creation. I was merely illustrating life.” Yet his work is all about life: it is in smears of pure colour slashing across an otherwise monochrome background, in richly ornamented Byzantine-influenced canvases, in familiar outlines emerging from a whirl of abstract shapes.
Today, already an internationally recognised artist, Efstathiou continues to explore life around him and to evolve new themes in his work.
In 1964, Andreas Efstathiou is born in Larnakas tis Lapithou, a small village in the district of Kyrenia, Cyprus. The family is poor, and his parents have to work all day, leaving their ten children at home. Until he turns 10, Efstathiou roams free in the fields around the village, and flower meadows, rocks and rivers are his playground.
In 1974, a war breaks out. Turkey invades and occupies a part of Cyprus including the village of Efstathiou’s birth. The family has to flee the south of the island, to Limassol. A new era has arrived, but Efstathiou is still fascinated by nature. Every day he goes to play by a river, and sculpting little boats and figurines in mud becomes his new passion.
Soon, however, he starts to look for other ways to express his energy. In search of an adrenaline rush, Efstathiou takes up motocross. The beauty of the races makes him, for the first time in his life, feel the urge to put what he is seeing on paper. From that moment, he spends his free time with a pencil and a notebook at hand, drawing bikes and riders, until an accident happens. He falls off a bike, breaks his leg, and that is the end of the sport for him. The drawing, on the other hand, remains, with more themes, such as landscapes and people, attracting his attention. When the time comes to continue his education, he wants to explore art.
Efstathiou decides to move to New York to study. To buy his first ticket, he has to go fishing by the Germasogeia Dam in Limassol and sell the catch to earn enough money.
He gets into The Ridgewood Art Institute, and to make ends meet, takes up any odd job that is available. At the same time, he is working on his portfolio to apply for the New York Studio School. That persistence pays off, and his dream of studying art at NYSS soon becomes reality.
There, Efstathiou gets to experience the essence of the ‘school.’ The students mostly work with live models, so his start is in figurative art. Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is, and will remain, his most important inspiration. Giacometti’s approach to the subject of humanity mesmerises the young artist, who travels to any museum where he might see and study his works.
At NYSS, Efstathiou encounters many established artists, including George McNeil and Euan Uglow. The teachers, in turn, share stories about working with well-known artists, such as Giacometti, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston. This nourishes in Efstathiou a connection to the world of art.
In 1994, he participates in his first exhibition at NYSS. Shortly thereafter, his work is featured in the book Drawing Space Form And Expression (2nd edition) by Prentice-Hall Publishers.
After completing his studies in 1995, he returns to Cyprus. He starts creating his own art, whilst working at various jobs to pay the bills. Those ‘clown’ routines, of promiscuous employment and wearing socially approved masks, find their way into the young artist’s work, and in 1997, his first solo exhibition is held at Gallery Morfi in Limassol, Cyprus.
There he meets Stass Paraskos, a Cypriot artist who later becomes his colleague, mentor and dear friend. Paraskos offers a teaching job at the Cyprus College of Art in Pafos. During the two years he spends there, Efstathiou explores his admiration for Giacometti. This work results in the second solo exhibition held in 1998, also at Gallery Morfi.
As Efstathiou continues to develop his reputation on the Cypriot art scene, a life-changing opportunity presents itself: he is offered the chance to set up and run a new art college in Limassol. This project occupies him for the next four years. In this time he is married, to Katie Masalova, and his feelings and family life is the inspiration behind his third solo exhibition at Apocalypse Gallery in Nicosia (1999). The couple, however, divorces a year later.
The next few years prove to be very successful professionally. Whilst continuing his intensive work as a teacher, Efstathiou participates in numerous exhibitions in Cyprus and abroad. For his fourth solo exhibition at Gallery Morfi in 2001 his work focusses on the subject of education and society. He is also selected to represent the country at the Alexandria Biennale in Alexandria, Egypt and at the Florence Biennale in Florence, Italy. In addition, in 2004, Olympia Art Gallery brings his paintings to The Moscow World Fine Art Fair in Moscow, Russia.
All these efforts gradually lead to a change. His work, still inspired by Giacometti, starts to become more abstract, although the solidity of space in the paintings so far remains. A new topic grips the artist’s mind: he is exploring the subject of balance, how a person could find their equilibrium in life. This journey results in a solo exhibition at the Hellenic Centre in London, England, in 2003.
In this time, Efstathiou socialises a great deal, meeting new people. Their various personalities kindle a series of portraits, which he exhibits at Gallery Morfi in Limassol, Cyprus, in 2004.
This same year, Gallery Morfi hosts another exhibition of his works, in which he continues to reflect on the routines of his teaching and his students’ life. He also receives his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Northampton.
In 2005, the University of Leeds invites Efstathiou to give a series of seminars.
This abundance of different roles he has to assume makes him turn to the theme of the clown again. Later in the year, these paintings are shown at Kypriaki Gonia Gallery in Larnaca, Cyprus.
In 2007 Efstathiou moves to the city of Larnaca in Cyprus, where he and Stass Paraskos open the Cornaro Art Institute, an art college named after the last queen of Cyprus, Catherine Cornaro. The new institution establishes a collaboration with the University of Northampton, and Efstathiou is teaching Master’s and postgraduate students. Alongside this, he continues painting his signature stylised figures, whilst wandering further into abstraction, inspired by the work of Willem de Kooning.
The theme of nature and the environment once again make an appearance in his work. In 2008, Cyprus experiences a severe draught, which leaves the island without water. Water is imported from Greece and rationed countrywide. Efstathiou depicts this on canvas, expressing his frustration through unusually intense gestural brushstrokes, which later will contribute to his distinctive painting style.
In this time, Efstathiou meets an old man, who talks about old times and how people in Cyprus used to build houses with mud bricks (plithari). That conversation inspires the artist to make an installation of an ‘Earth’ sculpted of plithari, with its insides filled with the bluest of ‘water’ and a circle of ‘people,’ signature figures from his paintings. This ‘ecology’ work is displayed at Gallery Morfi in Limassol, Cyprus.
Also in 2008, at a solo exhibition at Kypriaki Gonia Gallery in Larnaca, Cyprus, a series of works is presented with the ‘neighbourhood’ landscapes as its main theme. Living in the old part of Larnaca, Efstathiou admires the simple beauty of the surrounding quarter with its narrow winding lanes, the sun glittering off whitewashed walls and turquoise blue shutters, the small balconies with intricate wooden railings, the abundance of potted plants, and the elusive atmosphere, traditional and modern at the same time.
In 2008, he marries Nadia Karacosta, and their first son, Nektarios, is born.
Efstathiou continues to work vigorously, teaching in the morning and painting in the afternoon. Observing the students at the college for inspiration, he becomes fascinated by the dynamics of theatrical performance. When in a theatre, he gets totally absorbed by the people on stage and a different dimension opens like a door into a fairy tale. This becomes the base for the ‘Figures in a Space’ series of works, which is shown to the public at Gallery Apocalypse in 2011.
Over the next two years, Efstathiou further develops this theme, and the resulting work is displayed at the 2013 solo exhibition, again at Gallery Morfi. Still featuring distinctive figurative elements, he is increasingly interested in abstraction and that interest reflects in his latest paintings. Yet, he wants the transition to be organic, not forced.
At the same time, 2013 is a dismal year for Cyprus. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the country’s biggest banks have to be ‘bailed out,’ including at the expense of their clients, ordinary citizens. Describing the outcome that followed, Efstathiou says: “The people of Cyprus were, in fact, robbed of their own money. In Spain there were demonstrations for us, but Cypriots just sat on their sofas.” So he feels the need to do something.
His ‘protest project’ is simple and elegant. He installs in front of the Central Bank of Cyprus in Nicosia, 20 plaster sculptures of flush toilets that resemble tombstones. Media around the world, including the BBC, Reuters and Euronews, pick up the story, and the U.S. ReadySetTrek.com calls the installation “one of the most clever and hilarious use of sculpture ever” and includes it in its top five of protest sculptures, next to Banksy’s Monopoly Sculpture in London.
The installation will be later bought by a well-known art collector, Michael Mouskos, in London who plans to build a museum in Cyprus and place the sculptures there. Until then, they will be kept at Loukia and Michael Zampelas Museum in Nicosia.
In 2014, when his youngest son, Alexandros, is born, Efstathiou participates in Dead Zone Vertigo, a six-month poetry/visual art collaboration project. Together with American poet and Fulbright scholar, Paula Closson Buck, and Turkish-Cypriot painter, Ruzen Atakan, they attempt to artistically reimagine Varosha in Famagusta, Cyprus, the erstwhile world-class coastal resort abandoned since 1974. Sourcing the city’s rich ancient and modern history, they attempt to emulate its lifeless spaces with their imagination. Their response, built as the language-visual synergy, is ironic, desperate, hopeful and always humanistic. “I will take the lemon tree, and you take the lemons.” Such is Paula’s view of the negotiations that the two sides of the island, divided since 1974, have been engaged in for over 30 years.
Efstathiou will remember going to Famagusta with Paula. Visiting the ‘ghost city,’ as Varosha is now called, feels post-apocalyptic. They sit on the beach, in a derelict lifeguard tower, she writing, he sketching, and both feeling lost between two worlds, the blues of the sea and the sky and the greys of the dead space behind them where the time had stopped.
For the artist, the childhood refugee from his home village, this subject is a source of sensitivity and something that he always carries inside. In Cyprus, this project concludes with an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia’s buffer zone, but Efstathiou feels that those six months are not enough. He still hasn’t said everything he has to say about it, and will definitely return to the theme in the future.
In the meantime, Efstathiou continues teaching at the Cornaro Art Institute and painting. That is a very important period of transition between the figurative and the abstraction. While he is still using models for his work, on canvas their silhouettes increasingly disappear into the wealth of powerful abstract brushstrokes. These paintings are exhibited at the Apocalypse Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 2014.
Next year, the municipality of Larnaca in Cyprus commissions works from Cypriot artists on the subject of the sea. Using glass, metal and concrete elements, Efstathiou produces a sculpture, which may be either two fish or a boat. This sculpture is now installed on Larnaca’s main seaside promenade, Phoinikoudes.
In 2016, an explicit, 18+ exhibition is held at the Apothikes 79 Cultural Centre in Larnaca. Themed ‘Sexuality in Cypriot Art,’ it showcases contemporary and earlier works of the country’s artistic community, some of them never displayed before.
The aftershocks of the 2013 financial crisis are still being felt. The art market comes to a standstill, and Efstathiou’s financial situation deteriorates. Once again, he turns to the subject of walking a tightrope and finding some balance in life, which reflects the instability of his own circumstances. His approach has less youthful optimism than before, but more seasoned maturity of a man who has had his share of experiences. This exploration leads to the artist producing a collection of ‘tightrope walker’ canvases. By now, his paintings are almost completely abstract black-and-white.
The theme resonates with the international art community. Efstathiou’s work is selected by MvVO Art whose jury includes prominent experts of Sotheby's, Gagosian Gallery, Christie's Collectrium, amongst others. Together with sixty other artists from twelve countries, he participates in a group exhibition at The National Arts Club in New York, USA.
2017 is the year of many personal trials. Efstathiou divorces. His friend and partner in the Cornaro Art Institute Stass Paraskos passes away. The college that has been struggling since the 2013 crisis has to be closed down, and Efstathiou moves back to Limassol. There, he opens the Cornaro Fine Arts Centre dedicated to the memory of Stass. It will become a lively community of fellow artists and a cultural centre lying at the heart of the old city.
He keeps on ‘finding his balance’ through his canvases, and another series of works is produced to be selected by Accessible Art Fair for an exhibition at BOZAR – Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium.
This year, Efstathiou also participates in a group exhibition in Cyprus, ‘The Sea Within.’ The exhibition, held at the Limassol Municipal Arts Centre Apothikes Papadaki, displays the works commissioned from Cypriot artists by the municipality of Limassol on the subject of the Sea and the Pier. These are approached as symbols of a place beyond physical substance, of a space between reality, dream and illusion, and Efstathiou’s ‘abstraction of ideas’ philosophy perfectly combines with this.
Always interested in traditional arts and crafts and the rich Byzantine legacy of Cyprus, the artist is inspired by its shapes, colours and motifs. Further exploring the subject of the sea, he blends it with the folklore elements and other inherent features of the island, such as olive trees and donkeys in the sunlit barley fields, archaeological artefacts like the Idol of Pomos, or people wearing traditional clothes. Five very large canvases are the result of these studies. They are displayed during the ‘Cyprus Within Tradition’ exhibition at Kypriaki Gonia Gallery in Larnaca, Cyprus.
Following three years of routine work at the Cornaro Fine Arts Centre, the 2020 pandemic lockdown has presented an opportunity to paint prolifically. The artist, always in tune with the world around him, has developed this unprecedented experience into two directions, ‘external’ and ‘internal,’ producing twenty-five paintings in total.
In the ‘external’ series that he has named ‘Zero Energy,’ Efstathiou reflects on ‘the Earth is happy’ adage seeing the positive side of the lockdown. With humans confined to their houses, Nature has rejoiced. Birdsong is louder, fish are returning to the sea, trees are greener, and the sun is shining. The ‘Zero Energy’ paintings depict this beauty with, once again, vivid clear colours and in elaborated detail. One can see this work combining the intricacy of his latest ‘Cypriot’ series with the wild energy of his signature abstract brushstrokes.
Turning to the ‘internal’ lockdown experience, however, there is a completely different feeling: uncertainty, loneliness and the anger of a wild animal in a cage. These are poured onto disturbing canvases, exploding with splatters of black and white paint arranged in unsettling compositions. ‘Expression’ is the core of this line of ‘quarantine’ work, and ‘Cadenza’ is its name. Like a virtuoso soloist playing, Efstathiou completely lets his guard down and allows his brushstrokes flow in a free rhythm, changing from powerful to subtle, from harsh to gentle: “If black and white are outcasts and don't count as true physical colours, it is ever so challenging and, at the same time, enjoyable, to take the black and bring it to life on a canvas, using abstract elements, gestures, risk, spontaneously. This is like the raising of Lazarus!”
And like Lazarus, he himself has once again risen, eager to paint, prepare new shows and keep on with his exploration of life. “Give me another lockdown!” he jokes and heads to work in his studio at the Cornaro Fine Arts Centre. Today, he enjoys his life in Cyprus and, as never before, is full of creative energy, new ideas and plans.