Tbilisi-based queer art collective Fungus thrive amid hostility. By creating unapologetically bold art and a supportive community, the group of 20 artists are carving out a safe space for queer youth in a society seeking to marginalise them. “Fungus thrives in damp and dark places,” the group’s manifesto reads. “It plays a vital role in the ecology of the biosphere. By decomposing any organic matter, it creates rich soil. A counterculture prospers similarly.”
Fungus has evolved to become a collective movement, bound by individuality and defiant in their ideas
The inspiration for Fungus began underground, in Tbilisi’s gay techno scene. Clubs like Bassiani and KHIDI have long offered artists safe spaces in a society steeped in homophobia and intolerance, providing room for Georgian youth to find themselves and others like them amid drag performances, video art, and the respite of an inclusive atmosphere.
Uta Bekaia, a multimedia artist who splits his time between New York and Tbilisi, wanted to bring this safe space to a more accessible artistic environment. Along with artists David Apakidze, Mariko Chanturia, K.O.I, and Levan Mindiashvili, Bekaia first formed Fungus in order to hold a queer art show alongside Tbilisi fashion week.
Covid-19 restrictions meant that their plans were put on hold — but the delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of a singular exhibition, Fungus has evolved to become a collective movement, bound by individuality, and defiant in their ideas. “It has become a very left-wing liberal base where people can express themselves with different mediums of art. Not necessarily visual artists, but writers, musicians, anyone who wants to express themselves and experiment,” says Bekaia, “[here] they don’t feel alone: someone is supporting them; they don’t have to hide.”
In this regard, Fungus is revolutionary. Currently, Georgia lies at an in between. Thirty years out of Soviet occupation, one of the world’s oldest cultures is struggling to find its identity that, for the better part of last century, was stifled by Soviet-era Russification. Now, the country is confronted with a blank canvas, lacking the confines of pretext, and fertile for experimentation. Those who favour conservative values guided by tradition, and a more liberal, revolutionary youth, are both vying for the reins. This context makes Fungus much more than an artistic experiment: it is a cultural one too. Taking part in queer, feminist, and anti-capitalist actions at such a stage in Georgia’s cultural formation, ultimately means trying to determine what Georgia will be like for marginalised groups in the future.
Currently, the situation for queer people in Georgia is dangerous. While on the legislative level, Georgia has made some progress to protect LGBTQ+, many marginally progressive laws are not implemented. Homophobic violence and hate speech is commonplace, and just 27 per cent of the population feel that LGBTQ+ rights are important, according to ILGA, The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Before Fungus, the only visible level of LGBTQ+ support in Georgia came from non-governmental organisations, which rarely strained into the artistic realm, and often came from abroad. LGBTQ+ stories were rarely told by queer Georgians themselves. “There was an empty space,” Bekaia says, “the queer community was very…” His voice goes silent, before concluding: “it is hard to be queer in Georgia.”
Now, Fungus are unapologetically rebelling against the boundaries that confine them both by creating art, and a supportive community. “We are trying to help ourselves. Those in the group are punks. They are anarchists. They are badass. They don’t want help from anyone who is capitalist in any kind of way,” says Bekaia.
The artists of Fungus do not fit into societal confines, and neither does their art. Instead it contorts them with a futuristic and, at times, satirical genius. Currently, the group is using Fungus’ Instagram page as a platform to explore provocative topics and reflect upon personal experience. The topic of hunger, for example, saw photographer Dato Koridze document a man begging for food, commenting on the societal indifference to poverty, while writer Ana Nikoladze wrote on her experience with an eating disorder. For these artists, giving oxygen to topics that are often suffocated by taboo provides an important space to heal and share emotional burdens.
The group also prides itself on conceptual fearlessness. The work of Andro Dadiani is a prime example: photographed by Levan Mamaladze and K.O.I, these works forcibly interrupt the banality of the everyday with a futuristic surrealism and performative boldness. Similarly, GOD ERA, (photographed by Nata Sopromadze and edited by Ana Niniashvili) steps beyond modernism through the use of artificial materials. In doing so, both Dadiani and Sopromadze’s works are empowering and forceful in their non-conformity, the figures hold strong, and stature. In this, there is a certain power conveyed that runs deeper than aesthetic difference.
Other striking work comes from Lasha Kabanashvili, who appropriated the concept of vanitas to explore the sacralisation of the consumer experience in an increasingly secular and capitalistic world. Through his installation, Kabanashvili critiques the monopoly that science has over truth in our contemporary life. “God is dead, time is linear and profane, and death is understood as the end of the subject,” he writes. “After the symbolic death of god, the discourse of capitalism resurrects him, re-sacralises reality and experience, and preserves the function of myth.” Kabananshvili expresses this in his work’s dualism: one side representing the ritualisms of entertainment culture, the other side a manifestation of the transcendental. Both sides are festering and unsettling.
“Fungus thrives in damp and dark places,” the group’s manifesto reads. “It plays a vital role in the ecology of the biosphere. By decomposing any organic matter, it creates rich soil. A counterculture prospers similarly.”
This kind of work will form the backbone for their first exhibition in a suitably alternative, dark and expansive former factory, planned for the May Tbilisi fashion week. However, the group is painfully aware that with exposure comes hate. In late 2019, Georgia’s conservative forces made themselves felt during the screening of Georgia’s first LGBTQ+ film, And Then We Danced, with protests outside the premiere in Tbilisi, and the burning of a Pride flag. Many members of Fungus have experienced homophobic violence and harassment at the hands of those opposed to free expression.
“We are definitely ready for the backlash,” says Bekaia. “Of course, we are not going to jump in anyone’s face; we are going to keep it safe. But this has to happen one way or another, and it needs to happen. I think the fact that these artists are going to be pioneers will change the history somewhat. That feeling that you are actually part of something bigger than you are is more than what you fear. We know that what we are doing is something that has to be done, and it should happen at some point, so why not now?”
In many ways, Fungus is paving the groundwork for Tbilisi’s continued rise as the region’s creative centre. The group’s curators are currently trying to spread the message to queer artists as far as Russia, Ukraine, and Armenia through online platforms, and in doing so providing many in the region greater access to not just a safe space, but a space to grow.
Fungus’ manifesto states that they “feed and grow on poison”, but the unity they have found in the face of adversity, is where Fungus truly thrives. Those who are victims of hate are brought together in defiance, a bond far stronger than any outdated norm is capable of breaking. As their manifesto concludes: “we are all rooted to one fungus base, whose task is to destroy the accepted social construct that seems to be standing firm, but actually rots from the inside.”