ARTIST ITINERARY:

  • Merab Kostava Street
  • Rustaveli Avenue
  • Aleksandre’s Fabric Shop
  • State Silk Museum
  • Eliava Bazaar
  • Tsisartkela-Rainbow Factory
  • Aleko’s Tone
  • My Studio
  • Budka
  • click for more information

I want to tell you about the warmth of the spring sun on my skin. I want to tell you about the sweet-tart taste of newly ripe mulberries, the muted cocoon of bolts of fabric in an old, wood-paneled Soviet fabric store. I want to tell you about ripping hunks of warm, slightly saline flatbread off the loaf while in the Tbilisi studio of Nino Kvrivishvili one afternoon last week. But I can’t tell you any of this, because I wasn’t there. I was in Melbourne, Australia, peering into my phone and making pizzas with my family on a dark, cold, autumn evening. Nino calls on WhatsApp, and I pick up to her beaming face.

Early in the pandemic, I read a story about a group of indigenous scholars quarantined in a convent during a smallpox outbreak in Mexico City during the 16th century. They were at work on a massive compendium of Nahua knowledge, now known as the Florentine Codex. Smallpox hit during the production of book eleven of twelve. Broken supply lines meant dwindling pigments, and color slowly drains out of the codex, until, by the end, it is entirely black and white. Some 90% of the Americas’ indigenous populations died from outbreaks such as this one, a devastating reminder that the racialized hierarchy of biopolitics amplified by the coronavirus, and leading to widespread global protests, has always been with us.

I think of the Codex as analogous to the “books” of Incidents (of Travel), with Tbilisi—where I was meant to be, with Nino—the latest entry in the series. A form precedes the pandemic, but is irrevocably altered by it, even as it persists in replicating that form. The way in which it registers adaptation and transformation though its very act of continuation is what makes the Codex so wrenching, so stunning as a document of a pandemic, and which gives it its charge as a potential curatorial ethics. Will you, dear reader, witness an emptying out of color in this Incident? A narrative laced with grief or generosity? An attempt by Nino and me to “bear the intimacy of scrutiny” of this new world order? An act of radical, and yet utterly common, Georgian hospitality?

Nino Kvrivishvili prepared a tour of Tbilisi that took us through the city’s former silk industry. This was a bit like sharing with us the beating heart of her practice, which often incorporates found and gifted Soviet silks, onto which she paints vivid abstractions, or fashions into exquisite sculptural installations. The pleasure Nino takes in silk and its histories is matched by a deep loss, of an industry, but also a form of knowledge. Silk production began in Tbilisi in the 5th century (for a millennium the city was part of the ancient silk trade along the Silk Road) and continued throughout homes and factories alike until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. (Loss haunts Incidents (of Travel), too—John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, looted the Yucatan Peninsula of what he considered to be the very best examples of Mayan artifacts, all of which were lost in a fire in New York City in 1842).

Nino is calling from a place she loves, a former silk factory and grove of mulberry trees, planted to feed the silkworms housed inside the building. She came here as a student for drawing classes, when she was an aspiring textile designer. The yard is lush and overgrown with wild nettles, tucked away smack in the city center. Newly renovated, the building is filled with startups and constructions companies. A few cars are outside, as people begin to return to work.

Nino shows me a disused fountain of a young woman pouring water from a jug, her small child at the hem of her skirt. The lack of water is like a silence, Nino observes, and she’s right. It’s a silence for something stilled, something lost—not just the silk industry that operated here and throughout Tbilisi, but also the stories and labor of all of the women who worked in the Soviet textile industries in the last century, including Nino’s own grandmother, a young Russian immigrant who decades ago arrived in nearby Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, to work in the cotton industry.

Nino spins the phone around, attempting to give me a panoramic view, but the resolution is poor, and it hurts my eyes. Many Georgian families kept silkworms, she tells me, and would sell the cocoons to the silk industry. But no one talks about this industry today, she continues, partly out of fear to speak about 1990s property grabs.

We visit two former fabric shops on Tbilisi’s main drag, the grand Rustaveli Avenue. One is the site of the popular Univermag, now a brand-new glass-façaded shopping mall, and the other is Gigla’s, now a grey-shrouded construction site. People pass by, a few wearing masks. We cross the river to one of the few remaining Soviet-era fabric shops. Aleksandre waits for us, urbane and gracious, wearing a soft-grey suit. He has worked here for thirty-four years. It smells of wood, Nino tells me. Since Georgia no longer makes silk, Aleksandre’s fabrics are imported, mostly from Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. Young Georgian designers come here for fabrics. Everyone has his number.

I think about how much effort it takes to focus on her. I think about how we take for granted how much information about our surroundings we take in, effortlessly, though our sensorium. Nino is on her way to the State Silk Museum. She’ll call me back in fifteen minutes, she says. My eyes are tired, and I’m grateful for the rest.

The museum is closed but the museum’s director, also named Nino, has arrived to let us in. The museum is dedicated to silk, and its collections include exquisite things: a wall of 5000 white cocoons; lovingly decorated, perforated boxes used to transport silkworms along the Silk Road; the elaborate, splayed root structure of a mulberry tree; photos of 19th century Georgian silk-making huts; silks dyed with indigo from Persia.

I learn that the germ theory of disease arose from studying silkworm disease in the 19th century: essentially the link between infection and microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, and fungi was established by Agostino Bassi and later, Louis Pasteur, at the behest of the Italian and French silk industries. Somehow the prehistory of the coronavirus is found here, in this museum, and the world is disclosed as infinitely cyclical and interconnected.

After visiting the ramshackle, DIY Eliava Bazaar; the massive, ghostly Tsisartkela-Rainbow Factory; and stopping for Georgian flatbread, we arrive at Nino’s studio, where she shows me vivid, colorful paintings on silk and delicately woven tapestries. We talk about the women who came before us, who worked in these industries, under desperately hard conditions, and whose lives remain hidden, their stories untold.

— TARA MCDOWELL

It’s now spring, and only a few days ago Georgia announced an end to the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus, though some restrictions remain. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, lies on the banks of the Mtkvari, at the crossroads of Asia and Europe through which the Silk Road passed. Slowly, the city returns to life. I first imagined this itinerary as a conversation that could be told through the city and my work, the textiles and materials familiar to me. As time passes, I notice that I grow closer to and believe more in the city in which I live. I want to lead you to places that somehow preserve their unique value, that make a new form of their history, and that have been important in my practice. Although some of these places have now reopened, public transportation, schools, universities, and shopping malls are still closed. Luckily, we can at least see all the places I planned for the itinerary, even though we can’t enter all of them, and you can’t physically be here with me.

MERAB KOSTAVA STREET From the busy streets of Tbilisi you might miss a beautiful, old brick building hidden in a grove of mulberry trees. Originally built in 1856 and now occupied by small startups, it was a center for the Georgian silk industry, producing and supplying precious silk to the most notable fabrics shops in Tbilisi and around the country. In the Soviet era, the silk industry had a prominent role in city life, culture, fashion, and economics, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, textile industries went into steady decline. The silk industry is non-existent today, and no one speaks about it. I often ask myself how I feel and what to do when such important moments and places of the city disappear. Sitting in the beautiful yard here, I imagine how industry workers, including my grandfather, would relax during their harsh working hours. Perhaps he sat near the fountain, where a wondrous sculpted woman pours water from her jug.

RUSTAVELI AVENUE For my 2016 exhibition Soviet Rainbow: From Textile Shop to Museum, curator Irena Popiashvili and I placed exhibition posters at two locations of former fabric shops on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s central artery. The first was the renowned Gigla’s fabric shop, whose vitrines once displayed precious and colorful fabrics. The second was in the former Univermag shopping mall, located near the metro station at Liberty Square. Placing the posters at these two sites was an act of anthropological mapping that traced the paths explored by my pieces in the exhibition, acknowledged the public’s memories of these shops and invited them to revisit this history in the museum.

ALEKSANDRE’S FABRIC SHOP Crossing the bridge to the left bank of the Mtkvari will take us to one of my favorite areas of the city: the colorful, old, and densely populated Didube-Chugureti District. The Dezerter Bazaar and central railway station are nearby. One unassuming shop is inscribed with beautiful writing: ქსოვილები in Georgian script, and ткани in Cyrillic: both meaning ‘fabrics’. Aleksandre Utmazyan has worked in this textile shop for more than thirty years, fiercely preserving its uniqueness. The shop’s interior smells like wood and is like a gallery decorated with wooden walls and old metal curtain rods used for hanging fabrics. I am very fond of visiting and talking with Aleksandre, as he has a profound knowledge of textiles. He always looks impeccable, and can speak endlessly about how a beautiful dress can be made out of black chiffon.

STATE SILK MUSEUM At the State Silk Museum, Nino (Chuka) Kuprava, artist and director, will lead us through the building, even though the museum is officially closed. The museum was founded in 1887 by the biologist Nikolay Shavrov, and is one of twenty-three buildings in Tbilisi’s Mushthaid Garden originally known as the Caucasian Sericulture Station, which were set up to promote and develop silkworm farming and silk production throughout the region. The museum preserves 40,000 objects from fifty different countries.

Konstantin Zanis, known for his photographs of Caucasian women wearing silk in the 19th century, had a studio in the museum’s attic. In 2016 I worked there for three months combining objects discarded during the museum’s renovation with fabrics produced by the Tsisartkela-Rainbow factory to make a new body of work.

ELIAVA BAZAARI visited the Eliava Bazaar many times while preparing my exhibition at the State Silk Museum. It was founded in the mid-1990s as a place to purchase building materials and second-hand clothing, to barter for goods, and find casual labor. Eliava is vast, chaotic, and has its own aesthetic. It is a trap for me. As I consider how many interesting things can be made out of nothing, I always leave having spent all my cash.

TSISARTKELA-RAINBOW FACTORY The suburb of Sanzona is a microclimate, a multiethnic place once blanketed with orchards yet now covered in 1960s low-cost, concrete-paneled Khrushchyovka-style buildings. It’s another former silk industry neighborhood and has been an important place for Jacquard fabric production since the 1970s. I often come here to meet with former industry staff, who now work for other companies located in the building. They happily tell stories about the past and wear rainbow-colored silk scarfs.

ALEKO’S TONE Because of the restrictions due to coronavirus, all my favorite cafes and restaurants in the city are closed. But on my way to the studio I will not be able to ignore the amazing smell of Shotis puri, which Aleko will be baking. Shotis puri is a traditional Georgian flatbread made from white flour which you can find all over the city. The round shape of the clay oven, a tone or tandoor, gives it a distinctive canoe shape. Since the pandemic began, Aleko keeps coins in a can of Chacha (a common Georgian spirit made of grape pomace).

MY STUDIO When I’m not teaching, I spend the majority of my time here, in my studio in the Saburtalo district. I worked on the exhibitions Reflected Positions and Searching for Traces here and now use two different types of silk, one for painting and the other an old, uniquely patterned Soviet silk. I get quite emotional when looking through my windows as I can see the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research Center, where COVID-19 patients are slowly recovering.

BUDKA Before the lockdown, Budka was often where I would meet my friends at the end of the day. Located on a small and beautiful street in the center of Tbilisi, Budka hosts groups of people around the collective supra, or feast table. These gatherings remind me of Begos’ Friends, a 1910 painting by the Georgian outsider artist Niko Pirosmani, although Budka evenings differ radically from the traditional festive supra which it depicts. Budka has been closed throughout the pandemic, but hopefully it will reopen in summer.

— NINO KVRIVISHVILI

INCIDENTS
(OF TRAVEL)

TBILISI,
GEORGIA

TARA MCDOWELL
&
NINO KVRIVISHVILI

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