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The Dispatch

Dispatch – July 23: Geometry of fading colors 

Heatwaves plaguing European countries are yet to reach Georgia, and if you trust the grumbling locals, foreign tourists, too, have not stormed the country the way they used to do before. But it is late July, vacation season has kicked in, and city Georgians are on the road. Some are trying to escape the political heat of Tbilisi, others flee the urban dust, and some simply want to explore the ever-theorized and mystified “rest of the country.”

What will they find? Their own forgotten selves, newer truths, or mere echoes of their prejudices? It can easily be all of them.

Here is Nini with the Dispatch from the hills and plains of Western Georgia. 

The geometry of fading colors

It may take some time for first-time viewers to figure out what Davit Kakabadze, a famous 20th-century Georgian avant-garde painter and inventor, tried to capture in his western Georgian landscapes. The Imereti series he painted features hills and slopes covered in many squares, triangles, and other geometrical figures with surreally bright colors, ranging from green to yellow to orange or red. The artist’s unique vision, responsible for these captivating landscapes, is often attributed to Western artistic influences from his time in Paris, while his precision is thought to be the product of his prior training in exact sciences. Today, that mixture of strict geometry and vibrant colors might be hardly discernible from what has become digital art. 

David Kakabadze, Imereti, 1919. Photo: Georgian National Museum

But those who have traveled the same Imereti roads as little kids might immediately recognize what the artist had in mind. The region, stretching from Colchis lowland to adjacent hills and mountains, wasn’t really known for wealth and abundance. After all, the satirical image of impoverished yet proud small nobility from the region made one of Georgia’s most prominent literary tropes.

But the locals had still mastered to make the most out of the little they had. They would actively till their parcels of land on slopes sometimes so steep that the local joke went they planted the seeds with slingshots. The work would, over time, produce many tightly connected irregular patches of crops that would change in shades and colors depending on what was planted, their growth stages, and the weather. The visuals would amaze any beholder but particularly stun those young and unfamiliar with the pattern.

The scenery apparently impressed young Kakabadze as he grew up in Khoni, a municipality in Imereti’s western part today. The impressions would later turn into masterpieces to depict the region – and the broader country – in all its colorful diversity. Yet that did not leave the artist’s work immune from Soviet censorship and the claws of formalism once Georgia was occupied in 1921. The Soviets pressured him to include Socialist realism elements in his art. 

This is how Manifestation in Imereti was born – the 1942 painting shows the peasants rallying, waving red flags, and holding banners of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Lavrenti Beria, the mightiest Communist leaders at the time.

We don’t know what the censors saw when they first glanced at the painting in its final form – but it is truly impossible to unsee the way the size and beauty of the Imereti landscape, supposed to be only the background, swallows up and dwarfs the “loyalty to party leadership” theme that the censorship forced into the piece (we have nothing against workers’ organizing in general though). 

David Kakabadze, Manifestation in Imereti, 1942

The painting would thus symbolize the imminent conflict between art and political power but also the inevitable synthesis of the two. The visual contrast also demonstrated the power of art to find ways to overcome the pressure of totalitarian rule. 

Yet that’s not the end of the story: after Kakabadze died in 1952, Manifestation in Imereti lived a turbulent life of its own. Censors took another look at the painting during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization drive, scraping off the faces of Beria, then Stalin.

But the symbolic power of the painting does not reach its limits there either – we can always summon our imagination to fill in the blanks with the faces of our choice – perhaps even the modern ones.

Dis-united colors of Georgia

But if we resist that temptation for a little while, we may get a nagging feeling that perhaps, for quite a while, our attention has been captivated by the flag-waving crowds, so that those vivid colors in the towering background have started to fade away. 

One sees less of such colorful patterns when one travels Imereti roads these days, just as I do now. Over the decades, lights have been going out in little village houses one by one. Some of those vibrant colors disappeared when their erstwhile creators found it impossible to sustain themselves only on crops and went to look for opportunities in the capital or abroad.

The patchy patterns are still there, but increasingly with different shades of green. Some colors might have waned along with the childhood imagination. But most of them ceased to exist simply because there is nobody to see them anymore, or when those who deign to look, project their black-and-white vision on whatever they encounter.

It is the summer of 2023, and the many colors of Georgian regions reach the capital city either as exotic touristic attractions or bad news about tourism-related accidents. But it is also the year before the major parliamentary elections, which will put a rare spotlight on “the rest of the country.” 

More government leaders will be traveling there, promising to turn places into “hubs” of all sorts, talking up the “tourism potential,” opening “new infrastructure,” and shaking hands with civil servants they “happen to encounter” as jubilant crowds

More opposition politicians will be visiting on short trips, too, hoping the general dissatisfaction and plain promises will be enough to beat the widespread distrust in politicians and counter the power of administrative resources (read – those jubilant civil servants) that the ruling party deploys. 

More civic activists and organizations will struggle to determine the best awareness-raising and disinformation-beating methods in the countryside. More reporters will be out there for pre-election drama, and more of us will be learning the names of new villages by controversies or “incidents” that happened there. 

There will be more discussions about the best ways to “talk to people” and yet little focus on how to listen to them. There will be more movement and exchange, and little bonding, insufficient readiness to lead the conversations as equals.

Davit Kakabadze once was one of those bright colors on the hills of Imereti, and his birthplace – today largely known for a mental asylum that is located there – was once also home to other great artists that would make the best out of their backgrounds.

He was a swath of color just as bright as fellow artist Niko Pirosmani, whose wonderful naive art would reportedly burgeon out of the visual impressions he’d get as he would travel the country as a railway worker. 

But that was in the past centuries, and now Georgians are leaving the three decades of post-independence hangover with lowered expectations and monochromatic visions. 

Will this year’s rainy summer wash away the grey blur and let the colors shine through?

We hope so, beyond hope.


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