Issue 1, 2013. February-March



Monica Ellena

Kote Sulaberidze, "By Eyes of the Colourblind,"

Merab Abramishvili, "Man-eater of Kuamun," 2005

Kote Sulaberidze discovered he was colour-blind aged 18, on the eve of his entry exam to the Tbilisi Arts Academy. Not ideal if you want to be an artist. Under Soviet rule, he needed a medical certificate stating he was healthy in order to get into the academy. But since it was 1985, a bribe got him the document. He went on to become an internationally-recognized painter.

"I'm daltonic; I confuse red and green," explains the 44-year old artist while juggling a red diary. "To my eyes, a green meadow full of poppies is a sea of red with green dots..."

Far from holding him back, his colour-blindness provided him with a world to explore. He made his own colour-wheel chart to match what he saw to what other people see. Now his work, "By Eyes of Colour-Blind" has been selected by Sotheby's as part of its first-ever selling exhibition on contemporary art from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The event, which will take place in London from March 4th, will showcase non-conformist and socialist-realistic art from the 1960s, as well as emerging trends in Georgia and other post-Soviet states.

"We are looking at developing sales for post-1960 artists from these regions," explains Joanna Vickery, senior expert on Russian art at Sotheby's in London, in an e-mail interview. "This collecting category is new to the international market, in which many exciting and talented artists are coming to the fore. It will certainly present collectors with some extremely exciting and appealing acquisition opportunities."

Beyond Pirosmani

Georgia used to be the most affluent republic in the USSR, with a rich cultural history and strong intellectual elite. Yet, as in so many other post-Soviet countries, decades of censorship- followed by economic collapse- stunted the development of the art scene in more recent times.

Art in the latter half of the twentieth century was dominated by State-approved propaganda, which is now more of greater historical interest than of aesthetic value. Kitschy, slipshod imitations of XIX painters like Niko Pirosmani abound near the Dry Bridge- Tbilisi's outdoor art market, where once-revered artists hawk their wares to tourists at low prices.

Some Georgian artists do figure on the international art scene, however. Classical names like Pirosmani, Zurab Tsereteli, and Lado Gudiashvili can fetch seven-figure prices. Gudiashvili's By The Black Stream, for example, was auctioned for almost $1.5 million at Sotheby's in London last November. But the category of "Georgian Art" is under-developed: both Tsereteli and Gudiashvili tend to feature as "Important Russian Art."

"There is a Georgian trait, but it is difficult to define, as you do need to put it in context," says Berlin-based artist Sophia Tatabadze, founder of GeoAir, an organization that provides a database covering more than 40 contemporary Georgian artists. "East and West, the fall of the USSR, and the search for an identity, could all be key themes. Amongst artists from the first half of the XX century, you can see a clear "escapism;" an avoidance of reality and an attempt to beautify. The 80s' and the 90s'generations are trying to set themselves free from this and to be more conceptual," says the 35 year old artist, who represented Georgia at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

Tatabadze maintains strong ties with Tbilisi, but she is better placed in Berlin. Like her, the big Georgian names on the international scene only made it after relocating to the US or Europe - Thea Djordjadze, Gia Edzgeveradze, and Andro Wekua, to name but three. The latter, for example, sold his collaged images Black Sea Surfer in London last year for $53,000.

"Their work is remarkable, but they are not the result of a development process in the local market," says Baia Tsikoridze, founder of the Baia Gallery in Tbilisi. "Their work is different- more conceptual. Artists operating here are more influenced by the Georgian environment and culture."

Another difference is price: buying art in Tbilisi is significantly cheaper than doing so in Europe. "The same painting would fetch twice as much in the US," smiles Alexander Mujiri, who founded Tbilisi's Vanda Gallery with his twin sister. "The economy is healthier, the buyers richer and, in general, the art market is more dynamic." Mujiri is also an art collector and, for over a decade, ran an art gallery in Atlanta, US, and, for five years, a gallery in Kiev, Ukraine.

Good investment or simple enjoyment?

For savvy buyers, the Georgian market could be worth discovering. But choosing the right artist for an investment is tricky. "Without a doubt- Merab Abramishvili, whose quotations skyrocketed since his death in 2006," agree both Tsikoridze and Mujiri. Others include Kote Sulaberidze, Irakli Parjiani (who both feature in the Sotheby's exhibition), Oleg Timchenko, and David Kakabadze.

"There is an appetite for new discoveries," Vickery says, "but this is not the fundamental reason for having this exhibition. We live in a changed world, and artists from these regions are under-represented on the global market."

Still, international profile boils down to finance- something which is hard to come by in Georgia. Artists, curators, and gallery-owners advocate for additional state support. Having the right people and the right idea help too, Tatabadze notes.

The Georgian government has been busy as well. In 2007, the Ministry of Culture enabled Georgian artists to participate in the Venice Biennale. In 2008, it commissioned Magda Guruli, a curator, and Iliko Zautashvili, to launch "Artisterium," a two-week international contemporary art festival which has been held every year since.

But the key to putting Georgia on the international map lies in consolidating the local market. Currently, many art projects depend on foreign organizations like the British Council or the Goethe Institut.

Both Tsikoridze and Mujiri stress the need for "a structured art policy, a contemporary museum, and a supportive legal framework." Artists find it difficult to insure art work for exhibitions or sale abroad.

Unlike in many Western countries, for example, businesses and private individuals do not get tax breaks for sponsoring art events, and purchased art works are not tax-deductable.

Perhaps the Sotheby's exhibition will provide the kind of stimulus that the Georgian art market needs.