In the late afternoon of an autumnal weekday in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, crowds gather at the newly-opened Stamba hotel for the launch of the annual Tbilisi Photo Festival. The venue, which combines the brutalist interiors of a disused Soviet publishing house with a library and urban garden, is among a new wave of creative establishments that are changing the city’s dynamic.
“Tbilisi has historically been a cultural, political and economic centre in the wider Caucasus region,” says Tbilisi-based curator Nestan Nejaradze, the festival’s founder. “It sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, and is a meeting point for different cultures.” The city, which Imperial Russian and Soviet lore praised for its food, wine and culture, suffered a turbulent transition in the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But since 2008, economic reform and growing ties to Europe and the US have created new prospects for contemporary culture in the city.
From Ria Keburia’s collection Water Butterfly, presented with a performance photographed by Natali Do for Tbilisi Fashion Week 2018. Courtesy of Ria Keburia
A morning walk through the quiet and leafy capital tells a complex story. On the one hand, layers of architectural history, medieval, art déco, Soviet modernist and po-mo, imbue Tbilisi with the romance of splendour and ruin. Institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art remind visitors of the role that artists, poets and intellectuals once played in the city.
Today, rampant property development threatens this landscape. A state of the art public service hall - which has never been used - is one of many extravagances commissioned by former president Mikhael Saakashvili in the early 2010s. Though Georgia is one of the fastest growing economies in the Caucasus region, its high levels of poverty are visible on the city’s streets and in the crowded Soviet housing blocks of the suburbs.
Amid this shifting landscape, the arts sector has suddenly flourished. A new story-telling festival, Zeg launched this June, and last year saw the launch of the Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF), the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, as well as two new non-profit platforms: the Tbilisi Kunsthalle, which showcases contemporary art, and the Tbilisi Photography and Multimedia Museum, which was co-founded by Nejaradze.
David Kakabadze, Rioni Power Station (1931). An exhibition celebrating the centenary of the avant-garde Georgian artist's birth will be presented at the Tbilisi Art Fair 2019. Courtesy of the Tbilisi Art Fair
The art fair, which opened its second edition in May this year, brought together international and regionally based galleries. “We’re trying to develop the city’s arts ecosystem through the commercial fair and our non-profit programme,” explains TAF’s artistic director Eric Schlosser. “Local galleries are adopting the international standards set by the fair, and the prices are more regulated and transparent.” “The fair will help us build a stronger collector base in the city,” says curator and fashion designer Ria Keburia, who hosts a regular art residency programme in Tbilisi.
A new generation of Georgian artists is making its mark locally and on the international stage. The work of Vajiko Chachkhiani, who represented Georgia at Venice Biennale in 2015, had a solo show this year at one of Germany’s most important museums, the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. In addition, Georgian expatriates, such as the artist Maia Veriani, are returning to the city. “Today they can work from Tbilisi without losing touch with the artistic networks they developed in cities like Berlin, London and Paris,” explains Schlosser.
Iranian sculptor Shirin Shahroudi at last year's inaugural Tbilisi Art Fair (2018). Courtesy of the Tbilisi Art Fair
Modern Georgian art is also being revived. This year marks the centenary of the birth of David Kakabadze, one of Georgia’s leading avant-garde painters, and TAF presented a commemorative exhibition. The son of farmers from Imreti, a region west of Tbilisi, Kakabadze is famed for his portrayals of rural Georgia, that brought together avant-garde painting with a local vernacular.
Tbilisi-based artist Nata Sopromadze sent the Russian photographer Irina Sadchikova to photograph her old home in Abkhazia, which she fled as a child. Sadchikova and Sopromadze, from the series Broken Sea (2018), photography and double exposure. Courtesy of the Tbilisi Photo Festival 2018
But rapid change also comes with resistance. On my last night, we head to Bassiani, the biggest nightclub in Eastern Europe, which has fuelled a new generation of dance music lovers and a queer scene. Yet Bassiani’s permissiveness has been at odds with the city’s more conservative structures, including the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, and the club faced shut down last year after a police raid.
At 5.30am as my eyes roll sleepily in Bassiani’s techno dungeon, my host, a human rights lawyer and dedicated raver, scolds me. “There was nothing like this in Georgia five years ago,” she says, “People come from all over the world to party here. Do you really want to go to bed?” Actually, after three days of gallery hopping, grape-tasting and festive meals, I don't want to leave Tbilisi.