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