On a late summer afternoon recently, as evening crept up in Georgia's Shida Kartli region, the long balcony of Villa Garikula filled with celebrants. A banquet was beginning as dusk enveloped the 19th-century manor house. Karaman Kutateladze, the founder of Georgia's only artists' colony, toasted a group of six visiting Austrian artists whom he'd invited to erect a creative pavilion on the site.
A striking man in a fedora, with piercing blue eyes, shaggy dark brows, and a philosophical temperament, Kutateladze founded the non-profit artists' colony a decade ago. "In Georgia, we saw tectonic destruction. It's important to create a future," he says.
Georgian artists, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Caucasus, suffer from isolation from the major art markets and museums of the West. Those who have achieved a broader reputation in the European or American gallery world -- boldface names like installation artist Gia Edzgveradze, or the sculptor, painter, and collagist Andro Wekua -- have often spent years living abroad, making connections with prominent galleries and curators.
Their success stories offer few object lessons for those artists who stayed put in Tbilisi during the roller coaster years of war and peace -- artists who have witnessed democratic evolutions and devolutions -- and somehow kept their wits by working.
At the grassroots level, the Georgian art scene is lively, influenced by postmodernism and the pure-faced icons that adorn many ancient churches.
Yet artists in Georgia face an uphill struggle. No museum for contemporary art exists in Tbilisi. Many of the national institutions are shuttered for lengthy renovations. Some are asking whether the government is missing its chance to promote Tbilisi as a contemporary art destination -- a more intimate version of Prague or Berlin?
"We have a problem in the market[ing] department," admits Minister of Culture, Monument Protection and Sport Nikoloz Rurua. "We do not have any institution that produces art curators or managers; we can't really publicize what we've got. Art is becoming business -- you need promoters and critics."
A 2008 presidential fund for development sent 130 Georgian graduate students in these artistic fields to leading Western institutions on full scholarship. Last year, the ministry also sponsored a major art exhibition of contemporary works -- dubbed "Born in Georgia" -- at the Netherlands's Cobra Museum.
These are steps to get the word out, but bringing the art world into Georgia remains a challenge.
The Ministry of Economic Development's Department of Tourism has not yet targeted this market. Only 20 percent of Georgia's 1.3 million international visitors in 2008 came casually, on holiday, to explore the country, according to the ministry's estimates. "The price of flights is high. It's a destination where you have to be motivated to go," says Department of Tourism spokesperson Natalia Partskhaladze. "We'll never be like Turkey, with its millions of tourists."Last October's contemporary art festival, Artisterium, brought a sizable cross-section of international artists to Georgia. Alongside Georgian colleagues, they exhibited hundreds of works, filling every Tbilisi gallery. Opening just two months after the invasion, Artisterium jolted the local art scene out of its doldrums. Nonetheless, it got little play in the international press.
Rurua opines: "You can't count on prolonged attention triggered by war or occupation. The ability of our Georgian artists to reach out -- with human stories -- is more important. Georgia shouldn't be presented as exotic. It was part of European civilization, and then torn out by brutal force."
While bad news about Georgia's political discord fills the newspapers, Villa Garikula's Kutateladze speaks about optimism for the future. "We have chosen a democratic government. We are full of energy. Our job is to say to people from other countries what we can change in [the] social situation, and how art can integrate with politics to make a contemporary place."
For this reason, Kutateladze is planning a cosmopolitan autumn at Garikula, with the Austrian artists' pavilion to be followed by artists' delegations from the Netherlands, France, and the United States. Kutateladze's long-term goal is to create a recognized contemporary arts center -- a Yaddo of sorts for Georgia.
"We began here as squatters," Kutateladze says about the colony's origins at rambling Villa Garikula, which is the focal point in a landscape completed by streams and meadows. "During the Shevardnadze era, I needed a lot of time to find out who was the owner." He persevered in his quest, discovered the building was publicly held, and got the keys. Though the house was in an advanced state of disrepair, Kutateladze has overseen its careful restoration, using public and private funds.
The grounds outside the manor display stone torsos and heads, peach and plum trees, and perhaps a recumbent artist or two. There is space for long strolls to a nearby hilltop monastery, and ample room for outdoor installations. Garikula exists as a world apart from the turbulence of Georgia's national struggle.
It has been that for Frankfort-born Isabel Becker. Last summer, the 31-year-old artist came to Georgia to help conduct workshops with rural children. While in Gori, she found herself in the epicenter of the Russian invasion. She witnessed bombs falling and tanks occupying the roads.
The sights remained with her. "When I got back to Vienna, it was difficult to continue the art I did before." When a friend proposed a return to Georgia -- in peacetime -- to make an artists' pavilion at Villa Garikula, Becker saw the wartime experience again in her mind's eye.
She began drawing images of soldiers and artists sharing the same compositional field -- childlike sketches of tanks colored in hot pink, juxtaposed with her own face, peering out of a helmet and a flak jacket. She exhibited these works for the first time at Villa Garikula's Austrian pavilion.
Her return is emblematic of a small but determined international community who want to participate in the artistic renaissance of Georgia, come what challenges may.
Pamela Renner is an arts reporter and Fulbright Scholar who spent 2007-2009 in Georgia.
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