Eric Schlosser, the director of the Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF) in Georgia, could be forgiven for almost abandoning their third edition after two delays – the first because of Covid-19 in 2020, the second because neighboring Russia earlier this year year invaded Ukraine. He was therefore relieved to finally be able to welcome visitors to this year’s edition, which took place from September 22-25, through the doors of the ExpoGeorgia venue in the capital.
“When the war happened, not only did we think about postponing the fair, but we also wondered if it would ever happen again,” he said The art newspaper Last month. On August 22, a wave of Russian men fleeing the “partial mobilization” of the Kremlin swept Georgia, which shares a (de jure) 556-mile border with Russia. Despite this background, Schlosser wants TAF “to be known for a place where everyone talks about art, not politics.” Because of this, the fair bucked a widespread trend in the art world to blacklist Russian artists and galleries, although the latter was not the case this year. “TAF is not about boycotting culture, we believe it goes against the basic principles people are now dying for in Ukraine,” he added.
However, avoiding politics was always unlikely at TAF 2022. Georgia’s and Ukraine’s relations with Russia are strikingly similar: 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory is currently occupied by Moscow’s military. Sympathy and support for Ukraine’s plight runs deep in these parts, as evidenced by some of the work on display. Painting by Georgian artist Alexander Sandro Antadze dreams in TAF’s HIVE section for solo presentations by artists depicting the burning Kremlin. “The work does not express anger at the Russian people, it is anger at the Russian government – Georgians want to see an end to Soviet imperialist aggression,” he said The art newspaper.
Eighteen of the 28 galleries settling at ExpoGeorgia were from Georgia, with a particular focus on emerging artists. Several gallerists said they noticed fewer international visitors compared to previous years, but locals had appeared more – and more money was spent than in 2019, according to Schlosser. “Around 140 works were sold, not counting those bought directly from the artist studios, plus more around 20 sales are still under discussion,” said Schlosser after the end of the trade fair. “Photos that cost between 150 and 4,500 euros are particularly popular.”
Georgian-Russian collector Georgy Djaparidze bought a 2022 portrait by Georgian painter Nika Kutateladze for $4500 from the Artbeat gallery in Tbilisi and several photos from an archive created by Georgian photographer Daro Sulakauri in the 1990s . “There is no ego in Daro’s work. That resonated with me,” said Djaparidze The art newspaper. . Artbeat Director Natia Bukia said TAF’s encouraging sales were driven by the rising quality of both artwork and curation in the country. “Prospects for Georgia’s art scene are very positive, it has been developing rapidly in recent years,” she said. “We started our project in 2014 because we saw the potential in contemporary artists in Georgia. Since then, more and more galleries have opened, they’re gaining more international experience, people are learning and curation is improving.”
Another gallery in Tbilisi, LC Queisser, also sold well, placing a sculpture, a fabric work and three photos. “During TAF the whole city is activated, Tbilisi is the center of the creative life of the caucuses and many people are very curious about Georgian art. Collectors are becoming more open to non-Western artists,” said gallery director Lisa Offermann. “It’s important to dispel this centralizing notion that Tbilisi exists culturally on the periphery of Moscow.” Nevertheless, she added that “some” of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have sought refuge in Georgia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began , “to be able to contribute something positive to the country’s cultural scene”. Bukia wasn’t so convinced. Speaking of the recent influx of Russian immigrants since the start of the war, she says: “This is a negative thing for Georgia – if you are fleeing your country as a refugee, then you should behave accordingly and not celebrate [in bars and restaurants]. The Russians who are arriving need to be more aware of what is going on.”
REAR MIRROR VIEW, simulation is simulation, is simulation, is simulation (2019), artist Anna KE’s huge “architectural setting and video installation” of the Georgian Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale, proved popular with visitors outside the main exhibition hall. Lounge cabaret Mañana by French artist Yves Bartlett and Franco-Algerian-Russian artist Arslane Smirnov was a three-day performance where audience members reclined on sofas next to the artists while they performed music. The audience was also invited to scribble the duo’s work on the walls.
Schlosser believes TAF offers a tailored experience for visitors, paying more attention to the details than simply trying to sell art, “everything from the thickness of the walls of the gallery booths to the way we treat our guests.” Another benefit, he added, is that TAF isn’t “distracted by commercialization and waking culture,” which he believes is grabbing art at fairs in Western Europe and the US. “Instead, we don’t like having an overarching theme at the fair, let’s focus on the art that is being made on Europe’s outer borders, from the Baltic States to the Caucasus. Here you see work that is often rooted in artisanal and folk methods – there is a clear nod to tradition.”