Heidi Trautmann

Nov 22-Dec 23: Salih Mustafa Cizel Art Exhibition 'TRANSFORMATION' at the Art Gallery Cyprus.com

I have known Salih for many years. When I interviewed him I learnt a lot of Cypriot history.

Please read all details of exhibition on the poster

Life stories of creative people that live in our midst

Salih Mustafa Çizel – My School was Life

By Heidi Trautmann

On Friday March 5, 2014, was the opening of Salih M.Çizel’s 32nd solo exhibition, if I have counted correctly - and he has participated in 18 group exhibitions. Many people had come, police was crowding around the entrance of the Eaved House to ‘protect’ the honorary guests, among them Dr. Sibel Siber, who was to open the exhibition ‘Thoughts and Crafts’. Personalities from culture and governmental offices were present and also from the Army in their uniforms, very impressive. I had met Salih before at various art events, but we had never talked much. It was on the occasion of this new exhibition that I invited Salih for an interview, I wanted to know more about his life, and so it was that we sat together one day for several hours leafing through the pages of his life book.


Larnaka 1946. Times were still good when Salih Mustafa Çizel was born. Peaceful. His father was an ambitious man; he was a shoemaker and with time he owned a fine shoe shop in the city much frequented by Greek and Turkish customers alike. His mom was a housewife and his family life was a happy one.

It is said that people born by the sea are given a special gift and the pain of a certain longing to look far and beyond things and young Salih was one of them. When I asked him if he had done any sports in his childhood years, or any other pastime or hobby, he shook his head and said: “No, actually I had but one hobby and passion and that was painting.”

Salih went through primary and secondary school in Larnaka and was supported by his art teachers who realised his talent and encouraged him.

“We had teachers from Turkey, well educated, and especially one art teacher I remember with gratitude, Makkule N. Uyar, who later helped me in many ways when I had my first exhibition in Istanbul. In my school years I was appointed to do the theatre scenery,  that was what I did best, painting. I painted the life around me, the atmosphere, the streets we lived in, the sea and boats.”

Was there any other creative streak in your family, I asked Salih.

“My parents had nothing to do with art, my father did not mind my painting but my mother was absolutely against it, it was a profession without any future. But I had an uncle who did sculpting; he once did a carving of Queen Elisabeth which he sent to her in England and he got a letter of thank you back!”

Wow, that is something extraordinary, I exclaimed.

It cannot have been easy to get the material for painting in those days. What did he start with? “I did water colours but I was mostly interested in oil painting. I was impressed very much with famous painters such as Degas ,Van Gogh, Monet at that time. For many years I tried also pencil sketches. The paint? Where I got it from? I mixed it myself, you got the pigments and mixed it with oil …and canvas ? We got the material from the market, you know sail cloth, that was strong enough, and I nailed them on stretcher frames which I fabricated myself; you had to be inventive in those years, also I used hard-boards for many, many years. My goal was to become a painter, I wanted it desperately. In 1963, I remember, I had lost my spatula because I usually work with a paint knife ---also with my fingers---, and a new one was nowhere to be found, so a nice gypsy boy carved one for me from wood and he made it nice and flexible.”

What did you do with your paintings, when did you start showing your art work, I asked.

“I visited all the galleries around which I did anyway to see art, but most of them had their own artists they represented; one finally was willing to accept me, that was after I had graduated from lycee, and in that first exhibition I sold one picture to Mr Glafkos Clerides. Three artists, including myself as the only Turkish Cypriot, were then invited to talks in the Greek Radio. I am telling you, I was scared, but with Mr Clerides I was safe. You know, I was a fighter, I was with the army. All went well. My first coming out.”

That was when?

“That was in 1968. I was then asked to participate in three exhibitions in the North, in Nicosia, in the Saray Hotel, supported by the UN, the pictures had to go there through diplomatic channels.”

The Saray Hotel was then one of the very few venues for such art events as I know from other artists; in one Salih was with Emin Çizenel, Inci Kansu and Gönen Atakol, well known artists. It was a very difficult time, invitations to take part in an exhibition had to be sent secretly and paintings used to be sent through diplomatic channels to the Saray Hotel. Fikri Direkoğlu, the artist, was then Undersecretary at the Ministry for Education and Culture,  that was in 1965.

“I eventually resigned from the army after four and half years. I found work at the Petroleum Refinery in Larnaca. But it was so hard that after two months work I resigned. That was in 1970. As my father had thought to change our life with an investment for a good future and to give me a firm position; he had opened a small restaurant by the water near the Old Fort, a place where I could exhibit my paintings and where a lot of tourists passed by. It meant good luck for me and for my father, because my father went bankrupt three times (1959- 1963-1969).  I had got married in 1969 and we had one small child. My mother was helping my father in the kitchen and I did the service and all the rest, since I spoke English well. Our guests got interested in my art work and we talked a lot and I made contacts, especially with UN people coming to our restaurant, named ISKELE. The UN people tried to help me whenever they could, especially in 1973, after the Greek coup, when I got imprisoned. Everything was upside down, our house was in ruins and I had to get out and go to the North with my family. I tried to persuade my father but he would not believe that the situation was going to remain that way, “… it cannot be, they will come to senses, I cannot give up the work of my life”, that were his arguments; he stayed in Larnaka until 1975 and then came to the North as well. We could not take much with us, I took my painting utensils and my work, wife and child, and left. It was too dangerous to stay.”

Where did you go to in the North, I asked.

“We from Larnaka were originally sent to Trikomono, Yeni Iskele today, however, I could see no future there, it was an absolute lost place, there was nothing. I wanted to go to Kyrenia which I had seen once before and I had the picture of this beautiful place in my mind,  that was to be it and nothing else.”

So you settled in Kyrenia in 1974? “Yes I did, you should have seen the old harbour then; it had character, its own typical harbour style, not spoilt by the things they have today; the scenery was great and the people that lived and worked there were a very special community; for example Judy Finley, the elderly lady who ran the Harbour Club, what a fine woman and what a fabulous place it was. There was the artist Anna Alexevia, a portraitist, who was seen daily in the harbour, painting and my special friend Dolimani, who owned a bar and with whom I became very friendly.”

You owned a restaurant again? “Yes, we called the place ‘Iskele’ again in memory of Larnaka; it was a small place, 30 seats inside and outside, it was where today the Akpinar Café is, set back a little further, opposite the Atatürk monument, with a view of the sea, a true little harbour restaurant; my father joined us there and we were again a family enterprise, so I could put up my easel again and paint the new scenery, and I was again with the sea, now facing the north.” The North being Turkey.

“Our new restaurant brought me luck; we had many international and interesting guests that were regulars in the season, many expats that lived here but also tourists; North Cyprus was still a hot tip among travelers. The guests saw my paintings and so I was able to sell them to them; one of our customers was Norbert Spichtinger who was managing the Hilton Hotels in Turkey, the Far East and Pakistan; he had a house on our island and one day he asked me if I wouldn’t like to exhibit in one of his hotels, for example in Istanbul? Why not come and find out first how I would like it, I would be guest of the hotel. Can you imagine my feelings? And to cut a long story short, I had my first exhibition out of the country in 1988 in one of the finest hotels – and they all came for the opening, everything was organised to the finest; I am indefinitely grateful to this man, it was the beginning of my career.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, I am telling Salih….. “It was one for me….but it does not end here, you know who bought a series of my paintings there and then? It was Asil Nadir who came by in the corridors of the Hilton and said,… ‘these are the colours of my homeland, I want to have them’….in that time his empire was still in order then….things I shall never forget.”


I looked at Salih, he is quite moved by the memory of it. You have licked blood, then? “You can say so, I had licked blood, and I realised one thing, I have been wasting my time for so many years with doing service in the restaurant business for 23 years, I must find more time to do my work.” So you left the restaurant to your father and family?

“I did, we later gave it up altogether when my father got sick. There was no more excuse. I had to find a house with enough space for living and working and I found it eventually in Lapta. It used to be an old ceramic factory and was badly in need of repair; I invested a lot of money and did a lot myself, but finally I moved in with my second wife and three children, My wife was a hairdresser and she used half of the building for her hair salon and it worked out well; later in 1997 I added the Atelier Rönesans where I have now my paintings displayed.”

Now, that you could fully concentrate on your work, I can see from your CV that you exhibited nearly every year, and besides Turkey also in England, Germany, Austria.

“Several times again, Mr. Spichtinger gave me the opportunity to exhibit in his hotels and I had some exhibitions abroad.”

How did it come about, I asked.

While I was having my exhibition in Turkey I contacted a Mr.Küfi Seydali, a Turkish Cypriot living in Austria and the President of the North Cyprus Friends Association, the address was given to me by the musician Arman Ratip and he helped me to arrange an exhibition in Vienna. I had two exhibitions in Austria.  

Mostly I did exhibitions locally. It was hard work, you know, I was fighting for every painting I started. Do you know of this fight? It starts in the head and it does not leave me, day and night, it appears in my dreams, it wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I walk to my studio in my pyjamas and slippers and then it overcomes me that I scratch off all the new paint of the day before and start afresh. It is sometimes a nightmare. It is a fight each time and it hurts.”

That is the destiny of every artist, my friend, art and creativity have to be fought for.

Your line is landscapes of your country under different light conditions, the sea still attracts you and you now have included the vast plains which offer so much different shades of colour.

“We have to see the world every day with new eyes, its nature, its flowers, I never stop learning and then I want to share it with others; that is the most important for me. I love people, they belong to my world but sometimes…..I feel isolated…” He hesitates and I look at him, there is hurt in his eyes… “I feel isolated from the colleagues in the local art scene.” That is probably also part of being an artist, you are always alone and you fight a lonely fight, that is the prize.

“Working and painting is my whole world which I share with my wife, and in the middle of a new work I stand back and watch what I have done and then I go and sit with a coffee and a cigar and watch life around me…until the waves settle and then I go, take up my brush or my paint knife, or my fingers and continue. And I will go on until the last day of my life.”


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