From public art and cutting-edge film to LGBT activism, The Calvert Journal meets five trailblazers who are helping transform Tbilisi into Georgia's capital of creativity. These are the people catalysing the city’s cultural revolution and spreading its waves across the New East.
Public art activist
Elene Margvelashvili, 25, recently gave up her promising career as a talk show host to devote more time to campaigning for the rights of pedestrians and public spaces. There aren’t many twenty-somethings who would give up presenting a nightly show on a big channel for the cause of trying to save the city. But then there aren’t many cities as inspiring — and endangered — as Tbilisi.
We meet in a semi-abandoned building on the banks of the river Mtkvari. Ornate and colonnaded and once clearly very grand, it is a bus station from the early 1950s. Today, a mechanic’s, a parking lot and an improvised taxi-driver latrine obscure the building’s crumbling elegance, but not for Elene.
“One tool we use to restore the connection between the people and the city is public art,” she explains. “One of the artists we work with chose to try to save some of the pieces of a building that was being demolished. It was an important building architecturally, so we brought the pieces here to another endangered building, so it's kind of symbolic because this is a space where public transportation used to happen.”
Elene’s organization Iare Pekhit (Go On Foot) is devoted to saving Tbilisi from itself through art, activism and building connection between people and public space — hence the installations in derelict buildings. “Public art is a good way of making that connection because you bring people to these spaces and you make them experience the spaces in a totally new way. You create new public spaces in areas where nothing is happening, you create some kind of connection, some kind of new life. And when — which is always very possible in Tbilisi — this place becomes endangered, when someone wants to build a big hotel or restaurant, you have people who already consider this an important place, who already have been there, have spent time there, have taken their children to play there and so on.”
Elene and her fellow activists face an uphill struggle. No detailed city plan for Tbilisi, a city of over a million, has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 25 years since, cheap second-hand cars have choked the roads and shoddy new builds have replaced street upon street of elegant 19th century buildings. Together, the car fumes and the construction dust have combined to give the city some of the worst air-quality readings on the planet — all while mature trees are being cut down and green spaces concreted over.
“Tbilisi used to be urtiertoba,” says Elene, using a word that literally translates as "together-one-ness". “Tbilisi used to be about relationships, togetherness, communication with people, it was almost a cliché.” Elene is here to make sure that the spirit of together-one-ness lives on. WD
I meet Levan Koguashvili, one of Georgia’s most talked about directing talents, on a wood-carved balcony of an old mansion that his family has retained since the early 20th century. A rare exception in Tblisi’s cityscape since most such family mansions have been either converted into communal flats or been razed to the ground.
Despite an idyllic set-up — a balmy evening with a feast laid out on the table — Levan thinks that Tbilisi has changed beyond recognition. “Back in the day, it was like a big village where everyone would know each other. Now it has a completely different aura which I don’t really recognise,” he says whilst helping me to some watermelon.
This might not sound too surprising coming from a man who spent six years sharpening his filmmaking skills in New York. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he tells me. “I went to an acclaimed Moscow film school in the 1990s and it was there where I fell in love with film, but it was my studies and life in New York that turned me into a film director.” This mixed artistic background has prompted many critics to compare Koguashvili with other Georgian greats, namely Otar Ioseliani and Zaza Urushadze, whose work has introduced new narratives and techniques into the Soviet-centric film tradition.
“I do feel a lot of influences but above all I feel connected to the rich history of Georgian filmmaking with its unique ability to tell sad story with humour,” says Koguashvili who returned to Tbilisi in 2008 to find himself in the epicentre of a burgeoning artistic scene.
“I’ve been constantly busy since my return — editing, writing, filming and thinking. I don’t remember spending a single day where I would just sit idly,” he says, insisting that poor infrastructure and tiny budgets don’t stop local youngsters from moving into the film industry. For his latest film feature Blind Dates, he made the decision to cast amateur actors as they could act “more authentically than professionals”. The film received accolades from the press and critics alike, and was screened extensively at international film festivals.
Blind Dates follow the lives of ordinary Tbilisi dwellers who fall in love, betray each other, fight and make up – in short, behave like themselves in front of the camera. Koguashvili’s previous work Street Days also took place in Tbilisi, providing a devastatingly honest look at life in contemporary Georgia. Will his next film be centred on Tbilisi’s entangled social fabric?
“Not really, I’m currently finishing a documentary about a man who spent 14 years in jail and is now rediscovering a taste for life in a remote village. He has recently found the love of his life on a dating website. However, his mother doesn’t approve of his choice as his would-be wife is impressively overweight. I like documenting such weird moments — finding the comedy in life,” muses Koguashvili who’s also moved outside of Tbilisi where, in his words, people are “purer and more fragile”. IZ
The square in front of Georgia’s imposing, Stalin-era parliament building is Tbilisi’s time honoured site of popular protest. The location of massacres, revolutions (and an anti-gay pogrom), it is the perfect place to meet a next generation Georgian activist.
Pako Sabelashvili has been on the frontlines of Georgia’s fight for social justice since the late 1990s. Working to protect the rights of the marginalised and the dispossessed is now thoroughly in his blood. “Activism is an incurable virus — once you get infected there is no way back,” he says. “I got these doses of infection throughout my life. You know when you are raised in Georgia in the 90s you're surrounded by lots of injustice. First I started working with an NGO for disabled rights, then I started working for an organization that tried to protect the rights of internally displaced persons, then I got into LBGT activism because I’m gay myself and there were lots of things that hampered my wellbeing. I decided not to leave the country, to go to a better place where others had fought for equality before me, but to do it here.”
Sabelashvili has now set his sights on Georgia’s draconian drug laws — this is a country where possession with intent to supply can get you a longer sentence than murder, and where anything over one gram can count as intent to supply. Sabelashvili, well-connected and highly educated, was lucky: “while doing the LBGT activism I was busted with a small amount of weed that was for my personal use. I got in big trouble. I got a five year suspended sentence, I had to pay money to get permission to leave the country for four years — I spent about $5000.” He is now one of the main organisers of White Noise, a grassroots movement that regularly brings tens of thousands of Georgians in front of parliament to demand more sensible, humane drug laws. “We are not asking for the legalization of all drugs: we are asking for human justice and human dignity for drug users. The threats to them are much more existential than someone’s recreational habits. People risk going to jail from five to eight years for possessing anything under one gram, or from eight to twenty for possessing anything over one gram. This is not about making some highs legal and making it easy for us to achieve pleasure, it is about saving hundreds of people from further harms caused by the punitive system.”
Amazingly, in this archly conservative, post-Soviet country, it seems to be working. White Noise provides free advice to those targeted by police. Activists show up at late night court hearings to watch for irregularities and make it harder for people to be railroaded by the system. Sabelashvili was instrumental in bringing a case to the Constitutional Court, which has now ruled that jail sentences for marijuana possession are illegal, and senior politicians have proposed decriminalisation of some drugs. But for Sabelashvili, this is just the start.
“Some people say there is change, there is progress. But we activists say — it's not enough. With social technology, people are becoming exposed to other cultures and so on these changes happen quicker, but they don't happen quickly enough. It should have happened years ago.” WD
“This is our show space,” Sophio Khuntsaria takes me into a vast abandoned factory, straight from Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This former power plant is a ruin porn paradise with a chipped roof, rugged concrete floor and green shoots climbing through the bricks. The plant is just a small part of Artarea TV — a cluster of buildings and projects that occupy a little industrial neighbourhood in central Tbilisi, and most of Georgia’s cultural airtime.
Khunstaria is no stranger to television. Formerly a host of a popular national news show, she moved into advertising and communications before setting up Artarea in 2012. “It was a perfect way to combine my two biggest passions — journalism and arts,” she explains whilst escorting me into a picturesque vine enveloped courtyard. This cosy and intimate space offers a welcoming contrast to the post-apocalyptic terrain surrounding Artarea’s offices. As we sit down behind a rustic table, I can hear a choir singing from an adjacent room. “It’s a theatre rehearsal, we will be premiering a new play soon,” she adds.
This is typical for Artarea, which stages cultural events, from outdoor public lectures to experimental music acts, and turns them into video content. The channel broadcasts in Georgian through their popular website and cable networks, providing local viewers with content that is hardly accessible on commercial television. “There are few conversations about contemporary culture on public television, which is alarming as Georgia is still a very television-oriented country”, says Khuntsaria.
Khuntsaria sees her project as a tool to raise awareness of contemporary practice in art, music and theatre “among masses”. Although funding such an ambitious mission would always be a challenge, most Artarea TV events are free to attend. One such project is led by a film director Nika Machaidze, who is eager to replenish art history education in Georgia which, according to Khuntsaria, has been “cut off from the evolution of modern art for 70 years”. The appropriately named series 70 Missed Years presents different chapters devoted to important cultural developments around the world from the 1930s onwards. Another project-in-development would feature various Georgian thought-leaders giving free public talks right on the streets.
“Georgia is a highly politicised country; there are protests and rallies taking place almost every day. It would be interested to see if people could gather in crowds not only to protest but also to learn and create,” says Khuntsaria. As a coincidence, most local artists rally on an interview day outside of the capital’s mayor's office to protest against “rampant urban development” — a pressing topic in today’s Tbilisi. “With a bit of cultural awareness, such dubious architectural projects would never see the light of the day — so it starts and ends with investing into education.” IZ
Valeri Chekheria doesn't do things in half measures. Before I switch on my dictaphone, he mentions casually his company's latest grand plan - building a private runway in mountainous Kazbegi next to their iconic hotel to shuttle guests from Tbilisi in less than 30 minutes. I took the same scenic route by car and would never sacrifice this experience in favour of a speedy flight. Valery politely remarks: “We have quite a few time-conscious travellers who would like to see more of Georgia without all the hassle of a road journey.”
As CEO of Adjara Group, the most influential Georgian hospitality company, Chekheria is the man to blame for the ongoing creative transformation of Tbilisi. He thinks the artistic boom that the city is experiencing is partly fuelled by an influx of figures from the worlds of design, film and arts who have discovered the country thanks to Rooms Hotels, a duet of the super-stylish venue in Georgia’s capital and the converted Soviet sanatorium in the mountains a hundred miles away. Now with the opening of Fabrika - a massive hostel, co-working space and creative quarter - Adjara Group wants to attract creative travellers on a tighter budget. “Fabrika will become a breeding ground for the new Georgian talent. It is designed as a meeting spot for locals and global visitors to play and learn from each other,” adds Chekheria who looks so enthusiastic he’s ready to start jumping on an armchair any minute soon.
As two nuclear strong cups of espresso arrive, I look around the lobby of Rooms Hotel. This sophisticated combination of vintage furniture, wood panels, concrete slabs and occasional Soviet details reveals a particular aesthetic sensibility that Georgian designers and architects are known for. Behind Chekheria is a picture of a thoughtful woman riding a zebra, drawn by contemporary Georgian artist Eteri Chkadua. I ask Valery if it was difficult to source the design items. ”No, we collected them from all over the world, so it's a genuinely international set-up assembled by Georgian designers,” comes the reply.
Chekheria graduated from Columbia University in New York before moving back to Georgia where he was appointed CEO of the Adjara Group in 2011. Now the company owns four hotels across the country, three in Tbilisi and one in isolated Kazbegi, but it plans to build more in other parts, some extremely remote. "We don't like easy solutions. Now we look for a hard-to-reach location, a bit like Kazbegi, where we can build a winter hotel to reinvigorate the region and boost the Georgian ski industry."
Chekheria often mentions how fundamental Rooms Hotels success was in inspiring a new generation of Georgian creatives. “No one believed that you can build a world-class design hotel in a country that few people had heard of, and then make it a top global destination. This example has prompted Georgian entrepreneurs to raise their bar and start new projects,” he says, while smiling and waving to another bypasser. It seems there is hardly a single person in the entire city who doesn't know Chekheria personally.
As we discuss ways to make Georgia more attractive to foreign tourists, Chekheria remarks that he believes the country's key asset will always be its people and their boundless hospitality. It couldn't be a more apposite point as our waiter brings yet another cup of coffee with a piece of delicious homemade chocolate. “The best part of our hotel is our team,” he adds. “I couldn't be prouder of these guys. We tried to recruit young and open-minded people who would work here because it's a cool and fun place. Their enthusiasm is what drives me forward and keeps Tbilisi moving in the right direction.” IZ
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A last glimpse of Moscow’s beautiful and derelict Soviet cinemas