“I went up to see the statue of Mother Georgia after 26 years. I remember we built this frame with the four pieces of wood, clamped the wood to the light stands and got the red tulips coming into the camera’s viewpoint”, photographer Brian Griffin remembers. “I never gave myself credit for this idea, but my Georgian assistant Sandro reminded that I really wanted to do it. The photo shoot was done one year after the tragedy of the 9th of April and the anti-Soviet demonstrations during which a lot of young people died. Red tulips were the symbol, a homage to them.”
The image Griffin describes was taken in 1989 and for a long time has played a curious part in the visual universe of Comme des Garçons. It captures the monumental statue of Mother Georgia in Tbilisi from the back, its towering 20-metre-tall aluminium figure framed by crimson red tulips. It has that elusive quality which Comme des Garçons visuals often have, like a found image from a parallel dimension, not really belonging to any time and space. For the viewer back in the 1990s it was probably partly true: Griffin shot Mother Georgia under the art direction of Rei Kawakubo as an editorial for Six magazine which famously had no words, just images. There were no clues to the location of the picturesque countryside in Georgia's wine region where most of the story was shot. Today it’s still hard to believe that the place and the people in the pictures are real — because of how much Georgia has changed.
“I remember going past a man on a ladder who was pulling blossoms off a tree, and Sandro said he’s going to eat this tonight. I also remember lots animal feet hanging from trees and sheep being slaughtered, and this wonderful hurdy-gurdy on a hill. Kawakubo was quite a demanding hirer, she was very fast, and I didn’t really want to work at this speed but I had to. After one day she was gone and we all got paralytically drunk, with Sandro and a Georgian male choir. What was Rei Kawakubo like? I never really knew,” Griffin adds.
It’s hard to imagine what would bring Kawakubo — founder of Comme des Garçons and already a legend of avant-garde fashion — to Georgia in 1989
It’s hard to imagine what would bring Kawakubo — founder of Comme des Garçons and already a legend of avant-garde fashion — to Georgia in 1989. With the Iron Curtain just starting to lift, it was a complete terra incognita. She picked Griffin as her collaborator, although he was not a straightforward fashion photographer: he made his name through portraits and cult album covers. Their shared admiration for the works of Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani might have played a part. Mother Georgia was created on the cusp of great change: in 1991 Georgia would gain independence, and two civil wars and a severe economic and social crisis would follow. This is a part of the series' endearing melancholic magic: the people in the images are oblivious to what’s coming, forever beautiful in strange garments from a Japanese designer they’ve never heard of, bathed in an almost spiritual light.
“The main reason for bringing the photos to Georgia and show them after so many years was that we as Georgians intuitively felt that these photos were as relevant to us now as ever,” says Natia Bukia, co-fonder of Tbilisi-based Project ArtBeat. The foundation was set up by Bukia, Salome Vakhania and Natia Chkhartishvili with the aim of promoting Georgian contemporary art. Griffin’s work, however, got them looking into the past: 12 images from Mother Georgia were exhibited under their direction during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi. “The images are very powerful, they immediately take you back to the past and you have a chance to observe how far we've come, from dark times and two wars to a stable progressive country. Sometimes we forget the past and take things for granted and Brian in his own magical way reminds us how strong we are,” Vakhania adds.
Griffin’s photos not only capture Nineties Georgia, but to some extent predict its future
According to ArtBeat's founders, Griffin’s photos not only capture Nineties Georgia, but to some extent predict its future. “Soon after, the Soviet Union collapsed people lost their jobs and had to fight hard to survive,” Vakhania says. “Men found it harder then women — their pride did not let them accept low-paid jobs easily, whereas women kept their families strong by traditionally more female labour like baking and selling goods, becoming nannies and cleaners. This pattern still continues with more Georgian women working abroad to support their families than men. Culturally, Georgia is considered to be a matriarchal society and in this exhibition Brian — while not knowing our culture very well — shows the strength of Georgian women, his main character is a female and the title Mother Georgia is no accident.”
It’s easy to see the pace of modernity in today’s Georgia: from shiny new glass and steel architecture to developed infrastructure and high-speed internet even in the most remote mountains. Fashion’s also moving ahead: the country not only has an ambassador among the ultimate fashion royalty — Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia — but also a rapidly rising new generation of talent. Emerging designers and photographers are making their own mark, shaping a new vision for their country — contemporary, young and diverse. Mother Georgia, shot decades ago by a Western photographer, could represent all they want to escape from. But, despite the major shift, they still continue to be inspired by Griffin’s vision.
Giorgi Wazowski’s latest lookbook for Georgian designer Tiko Paksa carries the traces of Mother Georgia’s creative heritage, at the same time being its antidote — the boyish model poses in a sleek white jumpsuit and shiny metallic blouse in the middle of the the sunlit countryside, the best illustration of tradition clashing with modernity. “Mother Georgia for me is a great an inspiration”, Wazowski says. “It is so unusual to see the combination of traditional Georgian pieces and Comme des Garçons clothes being worn by normal people. It is dear to me — seeing all the beauty of my country through the eyes of Brian Griffin and Rei Kawakubo.”
Photographer Grigor Devejiev, almost single-handedly responsible for the bold and dynamic portrayal of the cutting-edge Georgian fashion scene, also points out the importance of Griffin’s work. “I knew about the series for a long time, and it really impressed me the first time, although one of my key inspirations for folklore has always been director Sergei Parajanov. Mother Georgia is very close to me in terms of spirit, I always try to incorporate in fashion imagery everything which surrounds us today: real people, places, issues we deal with”, he says. There are also things which do not change, seen by the clairvoyant eye of the avant-garde fashion legend two decades ago. “I think that this series still reflects contemporary Georgia very well,” Devejiev adds. “Georgia is very multi-national, and all the nations have their own customs and tradition which are still being passed on. Georgia is full of micro-worlds which are not in a rush to merge with modernity”.