‘We fight propaganda with art’: the Georgian festival hitting back at Putin

In a giant former Coca-Cola factory, Georgian and Ukrainian artists united for Culture Week Tbilisi, a show of defiance and solidarity that captured the harrowing reality of life under siege

High on a hill above Tbilisi stands a cathedral-sized monument called the Chronicle of Georgia. On the stone floor between its vast, Stonehenge-style pillars, people are pasting 128 large printouts of black-and-white photographs of children’s faces. The children are all refugees, mostly from Russia’s war on Ukraine; a few older ones were displaced when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and claimed Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All 128 live in Tbilisi now, and have been photographed by Marina Karpiy, a local wedding and portrait photographer originally from Ukraine. “I asked a boy where he was from and he told me, ‘I am from a place that no longer exists’,” she tells me, as the final images are pasted in place. “He was from Mariupol.”

We onlookers move out of the way, and the faces on the floor are photographed by drones flying overhead. The spectacular sight will form part of Inside Out, a larger project by the French street artist JR celebrating communities around the world. The event is also a highlight of the first Culture Week Tbilisi, a five-day festival in the Georgian capital that seeks to bring together Georgian and Ukrainian artists in a show of solidarity, community, pride and defiance against their common oppressor. Or as the text at the entrance puts it: “We propose to fight propaganda with art, digital loneliness with live communication, and hostility with trust and openness.”

Quatro Ballet featuring Evgeny Lagunov (right) perform at techno club Bassiani.
Throwing shapes: Quatro Ballet featuring Evgeny Lagunov (right) perform at techno club Bassiani. Photograph: Marc Medina/The Guardian

Culture Week Tbilisi has been organised by Sofia Tchkonia, a Georgian impresario who previously launched a successful fashion week in the city, and who is now turning a former Coca-Cola plant into a cultural centre and art school. Called simply the Factory, it’s Culture Week’s principal venue. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Tchkonia went to the border to help get refugees to safety and met, she says, children who had suffered appalling violence. A woman of formidable drive, she managed to pull off Culture Week in less than two months, with a spread of events including art exhibitions, classical and pop concerts and two ballets, one of which takes place in Bassiani, a techno club in a disused former Soviet swimming pool.

The festival’s funding comes from some corporate sponsorship, ticket sales to the concerts (the art shows are free), and some money from Tbilisi City Hall. Logistically, says Eugene Bereznitsky, one of the festival’s curators, it was extremely difficult – not just because of the restrictions imposed by the war in Ukraine, but also because the festival has an avowedly anti-imperialist message. Tchkonia is known to be politically opposed to Georgian Dream, the current ruling party. In what the organisers suspect may have been retaliation for their views, the artworks destined for the show were held at the border by Georgian customs, and only released at the last possible moment.

Nonetheless, everything happens on time, viewed by a fascinated and appreciative cross-section of local people (and some Russians – 300,000 are said to have crossed into Georgia this year, many avoiding the draft). At the Factory, the attractions include a man crawling along the floor encased in brown leather from which roots protrude, who turns out to be the leader of Georgian queer art collective Fungus; a gig by the Ukrainian band DZ’OB, who play a remarkable hybrid of classical and avant garde dance music; and a live ceramics workshop by Ukrainian potter Yuriy Myrko, who tells me as he works the clay that making pots is “what saves me. When I do this it helps me to forget about what is happening.” There’s also a sculpture called Point of Sensibility by Giorgi Makkari Gogoladze, which transmits live sounds from different Ukrainian cities (Kyiv on the evening I experience it), the vibrations sent through two huge metal discs the viewer touches.

Giorgi Makkari Gogoladze with his sound installation Point of Sensibility
Bad vibrations: Giorgi Makkari Gogoladze with his sound installation Point of Sensibility. Photograph: Marc Medina/The Guardian

Some may wonder what use art is when your country is at war, but the artists I meet are adamant about its importance. “The first months of the war we hadn’t thought about music – you can’t think about anything except helping the people who defend you,” says Oleksii Badin, founder of DZ’OB, who, like the other Ukrainian men in the festival, has been given permission to appear in Tbilisi by the ministry of culture. “A lot of our friends and relatives have been injured and killed, people we went to school with. To just take a cello or violin and compose something, it’s impossible. But after several months you realise that this war is not just for territory. This is a war for culture. The aim of this regime is to destroy Ukrainian culture and we just realised that we have to be loud, and we have to go on playing, just to say ‘fuck off’.”

Ukrainian artist Roman Mikhailov with two of his sculptures
‘Total destruction has been inflicted on us’: Ukrainian artist Roman Mikhailov with two of his sculptures. Photograph: Marc Medina/The Guardian

Roman Mikhaylov, a Ukrainian artist, is showing two huge burnt paper sculptures; a series of canvases with explosions of green and brown; and a circle of turf that has been almost incinerated. “We’re in a war between the past and the future,” he tells me through a translator. His show is “about the total destruction which has been inflicted on us”. Nonetheless, he points out that green shoots are appearing through the ashes of the turf. And, like them, “Ukrainians are forming a very powerful resistance. It’s an unexpected unity which the Russians now face.” On his black hoodie he has written, in English, the word “victory”.

The Ukrainian and Georgian artists at Tbilisi Culture Week strongly feel that they have to assert their cultural identity after years of it being appropriated by Russia. Both nations were subsumed into the Soviet Union and even now, says Bereznitsky, who is Ukrainian, Russians will put on work by artists from his homeland and claim that they are from “south Russia”.

Or else, Badin adds, they will dismiss Ukrainians as “rednecks, not very educated, a very simple and stupid culture”. He points out that Ukrainian poets, musicians and artists were killed when Stalin came to power. Even borscht, he says, is a Ukrainian dish that Russia has passed off as its own.

Many Georgians feel that they have suffered similar oppression to the Ukrainians: for instance, artist Simon Machabeli, who is descended from Georgian aristocracy, which the Soviets stamped out. He has created a beautiful installation in the Factory, which, through collage, film and paintings, details the way in which his nation’s culture has been suppressed by whichever power was dominating it at the time, from the Russians to the Persians. Tchkonia says that Georgia is still under Russian occupation now, with the annexing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, about 20% of its territory. And though the Georgian government has expressed its support for Ukraine, it is still allowing goods destined for Russia to pass through Georgia, weakening the sanctions against Putin.

Simon Machabeli’s installation at the Factory, which uses wall paintings and smaller works inspired by Georgian religious icons.
Suppressed: Simon Machabeli’s installation at the Factory, which uses wall paintings and smaller works inspired by Georgian religious icons. Photograph: Marc Medina/The Guardian

Nonetheless, while the Georgian government may be ambivalent, popular sentiment seems to be squarely with Ukraine. Walk around Tbilisi and you see the yellow and blue flag everywhere, painted on doors, hung from balconies and pasted on the front of shopping malls, while the city’s graffiti-sprayers have been busy expressing their hatred of Putin and his regime with statements such as: “Russia is a terrorist state.” One Tbilisi bar-owner made headlines for refusing Russians entry unless they filled in a visa form in which they denounced Putin and endorsed the sentiment “Glory to Ukraine!”, so that “brainwashed Russian imperialists do not end up in our bar”. And while most Georgians (and Ukrainians) speak Russian, post-invasion they would rather speak their native languages – or English.

Like many Ukrainians, Badin says that he no longer wants to read Russian literature or listen to Russian music, though he makes an exception for Shostakovich, since the composer suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets. Others are less hardline – at a party on the final night of the festival, the Georgian pianist Beka Gochiashvili gives us a burst of Rachmaninov, but some Ukrainians in our party of journalists covering Culture Week say they feel triggered when they even hear Russian voices.

Bereznitsky says that the fact Georgians and Ukrainians are almost all (at least) bilingual is indicative of the way the two nations’ cultures are much more outward-facing than that of Russia. For instance, though I’m told that the Orthodox Church has driven widespread disapproval of homosexuality in Georgia (in a 2021 poll, 84% said that gay sex was wrong), Culture Week Tbilisi includes an element of queer visibility. As well as Fungus, there is a film by Arsen Savadov called Voices of Love displayed in the show, in which the (straight) 90s Ukrainian pop star EL Kravchuk appears in Marilyn Monroe drag performing to hundreds of cheering soldiers.

Oleksii Badin of DZ’OB
‘A lot of our friends have been killed’: Oleksii Badin of DZ’OB. Photograph: Marc Medina/The Guardian

According to Bereznitsky – and suggested by the existence of a thriving queer scene whose high point is the thrilling club night Horoom Nights – things are slowly opening up for LGBTQ+ people. “In all post-Soviet countries it’s more or less like that,” he advises. “In Ukraine, people are very tolerant, so if you do not go on the street and pinch every other man on the ass, it’s very improbable that you’re going to be beaten.”

Everywhere you look at the festival, there are demonstrations of grit and defiance. Georgian artist Lia Bagrationi has made a replica in unfired clay of Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs, then drips water on it until it eventually collapses: “I wanted to show how these various strong institutions with power must be dissolved by time,” she says.

Meanwhile, Violett Fedorova, the editor of Vogue Ukraine’s website, who is also covering Culture Week Tbilisi, is heroically creating content for her fashion-hungry readers while anxiously checking two apps that tell her when Russia is next bombing her home. Since the war, Vogue Ukraine has been online only, and its staff are determined to relaunch the print magazine next spring – with a cover, she says, that will celebrate Ukraine’s victory.

“We’re trying to show that Ukrainian people are strong and that life is continuing,” says Ukrainian ballet dancer Evgeny Lagunov, who closes Culture Week at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State theatre in Radio and Juliet, a ballet set to 11 Radiohead songs. “We are fighting not just for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe. And we’re going to win.”

  • Flights and accommodation were provided by Culture Week Tbilisi.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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