Tearing at the threads of a romanticized history: crafts and women of ancient Cyprus

How unpacking the history behind the art of my home country led me on a path of self-discovery as a native Cypriot

It was an average winter day in 2006 at my gothic revival-type apartment in Budapest. My former Cypriot boyfriend and I had only been dating for three months and brief discussions of moving in together loomed out in the open. Well, that was until he exclaimed to me with fury that we needed to break up. The reason? His belief that I wasn’t good enough of a homemaker.

His irritation did not come as a surprise to me. He would often shame me for my cooking, cleaning and all around lack of classically defined “homemaking skills.” At first I thought this was an absurd reason to end our relationship. Eventually, reality set in and I began to feel shame and question my self-worth. “Are all the other qualities and skills that I bring to the table invalidated because I do not know how to make moussaka and clean dishes the proper way?”

I thought of the women in my life. Looking at my Cypriot friends and family, all I could see were “worthy” women that were perceived by many as perfect homemakers. These women did it all and never complained.

Part of me envied their ability to multitask and manage it all perfectly; a real prize for any man out there. I had no other real-life examples of what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like. I wasn’t even quite sure about what it meant to be a woman. Based on what I had been told, our role as homemakers was to take care of the house, cook, sew, take care of the children and be willing to have sex at all times. At first, I considered these ideologies relics of the distant past. In my attempt to develop my own identity, I subconsciously equated the word homemaker with my self-worth.

My family held the same belief. “How else are you ever going to become a mother and take care of your children?” I told them that I would meet somebody that loves me for the way I am. I also expressed, with conviction, that homemaking should be a shared responsibility and not just mine. Although no words were spoken after that, their expression said it all. Disappointment, pity, contempt. Cracks with my family ties had just begun.

In an unexpected opportunity to revisit the past 14 years later, a research scholarship offered to me during my art school studies led me down a crucial path of self-discovery. One that forced me to question my identity as a Cypriot woman, my life, and the day my ex-boyfriend broke things off for my unwillingness to accept an oppressive reality that I was expected to conform to.

I chose to centre my research around crafts and practices in ancient Cyprus and Cypriot women were at the centre of my focus. The topic of women and crafts in Cyprus during the 19th and 20th centuries was one that interested me. Growing up, I heard several stories about women and crafts of the past from my family. These stories were meant to teach us about weaving patterns, finding materials, and about the necessary labour-intensive process of homemaking with “primitive” tools on a daily basis. However, it was important for me to draw information from factual existing research to inspire my art practice.

I sought to develop a deeper understanding of how these women chose threads, colours, and materials to dye their fabrics, and how they made ink as part of their everyday ritual and practice.

As I dove deeper into my research, I was in awe looking at the beautiful patterns and weaves that these women created using basic tools, since the majority of them were poor.

I discovered how multiple households would come together to help each other “dress” the loom that took up an entire 10 foot x 10 foot room. My research motivated me to complete my tea towel and play a part in bringing forward a beautiful craft that has been partially forgotten.

I was going to attempt to weave a tea towel, learn to make ink that I was then going to use to paint my artwork and possibly compose an installation. I spent the next few months taking weaving classes, ink making classes and purchasing the necessary equipment to dye fabric — thus, walking in the footsteps of my ancestors and their craft practices through my own lens.

The weaving of the tea towel was well underway and I was beginning to get the hang of using the floor loom. Although this is not something I had done before, I felt an enormous amount of joy throughout the entire process. “It must be the bloodline of women that came before me that is now manifesting/speaking through me during this process,” I thought to myself.

As minutes, hours and days passed happily finding myself on the loom, a sense of dread and melancholy arose in me. I could not explain why I was feeling this way, “it must be the labour intensive process of weaving that is taking a toll on my body,” I reassured myself. I decided to take a few days away from the loom and focus on the writing aspect of my work. It was this moment when my feelings for the art that stood in front of me took a darker turn.

Initially amazed by the intricacy and beauty of the art, I soon realized that my vision of ancient crafts from Cyprus and women from the past had been heavily romanticized.

I came across a research paper titled The dowry in Cyprus during the twentieth century (1920-1974): from the agricultural society to a commercial economy by Chatzitheocharous-Koulouridou Panagiota. The “dowry” or proika (in Greek), was a term that I was familiar with from a young age. By definition, a “dowry” is a property or money brought by the bride’s family to her future husband at the time of marriage.

I often remember my grandmother talking about this. She would tell me how she had made me a number of quilts, blankets, bed covers, baskets, etcetera for when my day came. Eventually, these items were going to be the dowry that my family would give to my future husband. Initially, I felt proud looking at the large stash of handmade items made with love for me when I got married. The truth is, I did not fully realize the truth behind the dowry system and its impact on Cypriot women of the past.

After emerging from my office having spent days reading this paper, I came out a different person.

The research paper focused on the dowry system that was taking place in Cyprus during the 18th and 19th century; as a contract between the village priest and the two families that arranged the marriage. According to Panagiota’s paper, the village priest was the dignified middle man that negotiated the terms between the groom’s parents and the parents of the bride. Once the contract was finalized, the bride’s family, and by extension the bride herself, were given a deadline to fulfill part of the dowry/contract.

The contract included land, money and animals in cases of a wealthy bride. It was a list of items that brides had to make in order to prove their ability as acceptable homemakers. The bride had to display the complete list of items required by the contract. Additionally, the entire village would have to come to her house to view her worth as a homemaker, which was later followed by a visit from the priest who would decide whether the contract had been fulfilled. Her fate was sealed, her worth was decided, her label as a homemaker was given.

These stories struck me like lightning. Although well hidden, the remnants of this relic belief system are still visible to this day. While a dowry may not be explicitly required and a contract is not formed, the idea of evaluating women on their ability to manage a home is a perspective that I believe is still prevalent to this day. I’ve faced the consequences of this mindset head-on.

I was taught from a young age about the expectations that I had to fulfill as a daughter entering womanhood. I was meant to have children and become a good homemaker. I can still hear my mother, aunts and grandma telling me and the other girls in the family — “Pay attention, you will need to learn these skills for when you get married.” I never heard them say this to any of my male cousins.

These parasitic ideas are woven into us since early childhood in more ways than one. It was a form of daily brainwashing performed by family members, teachers, politicians and even the media. Eventually you began to suppress yourself; their job was done. The stories that I came across revealed how these patriarchal ideals employed craft and material practices as means to suppress women. My findings expressed the reality that weaving and suppression went hand in hand.

Diving into the waters of my research led me on an unexpected journey. One that unveiled the darker reality behind historically romanticized pieces of art. One that unearthed the voices of those who had been suppressed for decades. Voices of women that were silenced by men and other women — such as mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etcetera — that were meant to protect them the most. The same voices that were meant to protect me.

The dread took over me as these stories occupied my mind. My weaving time at the loom began to feel like a chore. The act of weaving itself brought up conflicting emotions along with more questions than answers for my art practice. “How can I love something that was used to suppress women? How can I identify with a culture that takes the freedom and artistic expression of women and transforms it into a weapon against them?” These were questions that I asked myself over and over again.

My tea towel was not complete when I chose its new identity. I named the artwork Weaving Blood. I named the artwork Weaving Blood, which reflects the idea of weaving until you bleed and numb yourself from the emotional pain and burden you experience. Weaving with joy that slowly turns into dread and blood, just like the transformation of my feelings during this research project. Weaving your way into womanhood, where you lose your virginity and everyone wants to see the blood on the white sheet to prove your purity. Weaving with the hope that you wake up from this play of fate that birthed you a woman. Weaving to prove your worth.

A principle stands out to me when I look at my art pieces: we control our body, we control our craft, we control our threads. My journey of unravelling my identity as a Cypriot woman has just begun.

I began to unravel — and will continue to unravel for a very long time — romanticized relics from my fabric of life. I am beginning to heal the parasitic thoughts that poisoned my mind as a young child by weaving my own ideas and perceptions. In doing so I am re-writing the stories of and for many Cypriot women of the past as well as the present. Stories that unveil their resilience while being minimized into mere objects, ready to manufacture craft goods and children. While these may have been uncovered stories of the past, their impacts loomed heavily on my experiences in the present.

I met my husband in 2014. He is tall, kindhearted and a better “homemaker” than what my family ever expected me to be. What struck me the most when we first met was that he was not your “typical idea” of what you would expect from the category of “man” in a relationship; at least compared to some of the guys that I’d been with in the past.

He knew how to take care of himself and kept things tidy, which was no longer left as a job for me. He had a profound joy for cleaning and organizing. It was refreshing to meet someone like him. Even though I exhibited confidence in finding a partner with such noble qualities, deep down I never deemed it to be possible.

My husband never placed traditional expectations on me or pressure me into changing who I am as a modern woman. He accepted me for who I am while embracing the idea of homemaking for the both of us. It was a match made in heaven.

By the time we got married, the rift between my family and I had grown bigger. I kept my marriage a secret. While I was happier than ever to have met the love of my life, my family didn’t hold the same approach. When a whistleblower eventually informed my family that I was married, they callously and dispassionately announced that I was “his problem now.”

I didn’t hear much from them after they found out about our marriage. To them, I was just a piece of property for sale that had “finally” been sold and taken off their shoulders.

At the time, I could not understand why having an additional X chromosome gave anybody the right to dehumanize me to a mere burden. I often contemplated how my external physical attributes “made me” a woman and laid the fertile ground to manufacture disheartening ideologies about what exactly a “woman’s place” was.

I rejected my family’s given identity and embraced my new life and the beginning of a journey I could never have imagined.

We welcomed our daughter into the world in 2017. Today, it’s become imperative for me as a mother to show my daughter on a daily basis what it means to be a woman and embody the potential of womanhood.

Expressing how historically rooted gendered oppression has impacted my life experiences through my art is important to me. Turning to my art is my way of creating something new with my life and showing my daughter that our history does not define us.

The stories that I’ve shared are only a tiny fraction of the suppression and abuse I endured growing up. The reality is much more stark and complex. That is why I choose everyday to do the work and strive to heal, and re-write my story while re-discovering my identity and being a role model for my daughter . I do it to heal and I always strive to be an example for not just my daughter but for all women out there who are actively and maliciously being suppressed by their “benefactors.”

Accepting the suppression is normalizing it, and normalizing it means more of it. I urge women and anyone reading to create your own ideals, to work towards healing, eliminate and replace these ideologies that infested our minds on the grounds that others are superior to us. Our handlers no longer have power over us. We hold the keys to our own innate power within us. Seek it, find it, embrace it — and above all, embody it.


Visuals by Catherine Reynolds

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