NEW COLONIALISM AND THE ERASURE OF HISTORY
Some thoughts on centre, periphery and the in-between in Georgian contemporary art.
- Dec 02 2020
- Elene Abashidzeis a curator and editor who lives and works in Tbilisi.
When exploring the history of colonialism, Georgia is never mentioned as a former colony of Russia, Iran, the Byzantine Empire or others. Colonialism, as a historical event, is related to an early capitalist period, when the western European Kingdoms and Empires gathered capital from overseas lands - the age of so-called capital accumulation. I am no historian to speculate on such events in relation to Georgian history. However, as an art historian, I can speak of New Colonialism and its influence on the current development of contemporary art in Georgia. It is important to note that it is difficult to speak about Georgian contemporary art, without a clear understanding of who and what constitutes contemporary Georgia itself.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia, as a republic (be it togetherness of citizens, or its geographical borders) has been segregated. A vast majority of Georgian population lives in immigration, whereas many of those who stayed have been displaced. Georgian contemporary art scene at the moment mostly represents those with a Georgian surname. One can rarely meet an artist of ethnical minority. Moreover, the contemporary art scene is centralized in the capital city, where only with a few exceptions, one can meet artists from different regions.
In this regard, the situation in the regions is jarring. Dialogue between the regions and cultural centers is broken. There are only a few art festivals which operate in the regions, but they also mainly work with artists from the center. Their ‘participatory’ and ‘socially engaged’ art programs often play a fatal role in widening the breach between the center and the periphery. With a poor consideration of ethical norms, these projects tend to exoticize cultures and social and economic hardships of these regions. The large-scale exhibitions show reality in its purest form - here a human becomes a spectacle. For instance, the audience is welcome to take a selfie at one of the families of ‘participating’ social housing residents, to look straight into the eyes of the reality and walk out, as if to leave yet another spectacular territory. An artist’s ‘intervention’ might constitute a strange sentence written in a foreign language on an exterior wall of the social housing where, often, people below the poverty line, marginalized groups of ethical, or sexual minorities reside. The sentence will stay there forever, as social housings are rarely renovated by the state. The exhibition, will of course, be widely written about in various online and print magazines, without mentioning any names of the ‘co-participants’. I am drawing a general picture of Georgian contemporary art scene of the moment, which is considered to be itself at the margins of the world contemporary art scenes.
"Dialogue between the regions and cultural centers is broken. There are only a few art festivals which operate in the regions, but they too mainly work with artists from the center."
The development of art is wholly defined by the development of history. After the fall of the USSR, local research centers and institutes have fallen too. This is why my research is subjective and based on my personal fragmented experience.
“Contemporary Art” has been coined in the former West. It still resembles a tool for western cultural influence. Georgian contemporary art starts at the end of the 1980’s, when the independent art groups started to put up exhibitions, happenings and various events at their home studios, or various public spaces. Before 1989 knowledge on contemporary art had been entering Georgian realm as a fragmented and an illegal stream of information. It step by step contributed in the formation of the new wave of contemporary art in Georgia. Within the last decade, since the internet became widely accessible, the information about this knowledge has been accessible to all.
During the USSR era the cultural center was in Moscow, but after the fall of the Berlin the cultural center for Georgian art has shifted to the cultural centers of Western Europe and USA. The art of the USSR was mainly created collectively, whereas the art of the ‘independent Georgia’ has been created ‘independently’. But what exactly does this independence encompass?
Referring to Dependency Theory by Raúl Prebisch, a poor, underdeveloped state is dependent on a wealthy state. Here, the poor state delivers goods in their raw form to the rich state, which in its turn manufactures the goods and sells them back to the poor state for a higher rate. This short summary of Prebisch’s theory illustrates the main axis of contemporary colonialism, and as a theoretical framework exists in the post-colonialist discourses of Western Europe and USA.
"Colonial dispositions are clearly outlined in this process – the centre is not interested in the experience and thoughtful opinion of the periphery, it only engages with it as an exotic form."
If we take the framework for a discussion of contemporary art in Georgia, and look at contemporary art as another commodity to profit upon, we shall see a clear parallel with Dependency Theory. During the last decade, “basic”, “pure” and “raw” have been the principal characteristics of the works of Georgian contemporary art. To be more precise, this is the tendency when a work of art is almost wholly replaced by an artefact. Often, we see the examples of cultural appropriation as well, when an existing functional object turns into an art object by changing the context of its presentation. When observing works of art by Georgian contemporary artists in the former Western context, we see a large number of moving houses, furniture, primary construction materials and others. This is a trend characteristic not only to contemporary art, but in fashion and other creative industries too. Similar to Prebisch’s theory, here too, a rich state buys works of contemporary art from a poor state – Georgia, in its purest and primary form - as a raw material. Western art market therefore presents the work of art and sells it back to Georgia for a higher rate, as if it was a product, checked and verified by the West.
Colonial dispositions are clearly outlined in this process – the center is not interested in the experience and thoughtful opinion of the periphery, it only engages with it, as an exotic form - a new and foreign spectacle, which should be presented in an accessible, nearly primitive way, in its purest, ‘raw’ arrangement.
It is important to note that it is unimportant if we speak of the center in the Western cultural centers in relation to Georgia, or if we seek the center in the capital city of Georgia itself.
"New Colonialism and the Erasure of History" was published in Georgian in issue 13, "Eurothanasia"