Georgia as a postcolonial state
14 November, 2013
Georgia as a postcolonial state
When I was growing up in Moscow during early stages of what was to be the breakup of the Soviet Union, I wasn’t aware of my nationality as a Georgian. I was Soviet and that was the extent of my identity.
Decades later, I am doing research for my thesis focusing on works of two Georgian contemporary artists who question their identity and memory through use of architecture. Both artists were presented at the Venice Biennale two years apart from
each other. Andro Vekua’s Pink Wave Hunter was presented in Arsenale in 2009, as an independent work, and Gio Sumbadze’s Kamikaze Loggia headed the Georgian Pavilion in 2013.
My theory is that the life of a forced exile may have a different effect on the artist’s work, versus that of an artist who is free from forced relocation. It was a bit of a challenge to do this kind of research on young living Georgian contemporary artists, but I managed to get the thesis accepted, as I contextualized their works among those of Mike Kelley, Louise Bourgeois, Rachel Whiteread, Liam Gillick, and many more well-known artists in the global art world.
My point of entry into the world of Georgian contemporary art, especially with Wekua (who was exiled from Abkhazia during the First Abkhaz war), were Edward Said’s essays on postcolonialism.
I hit my first roadblock when my advisor did not agree with my assessment of Georgia as a postcolonial country. I was told that since no one else, especially not Said, had ever written about Georgia as a colony, then the term did not apply. The problem with my assertion was that it was that of a grad student and not of a known and established scholar.
I retreated into my research, but found a happy surprise in the form of David Chioni Moore, who is a chair of the international studies department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” Moore boldly argues that the Soviet Union engaged in its own expansion and dominion over neighboring areas, treating Georgia as a colony rather than an independent state.
There are other similar characteristics of colonialism in the treatment of Georgia by Russia, such as imposing its own language and societal rules; dominance in high posts; and claiming of the intellectual and moral high ground regarding the issue of the disputed territory of Abkhazia.
Moreover, this colonization did not start with the Soviet Union, but almost two centuries earlier. As Ilya Chavchavadze wrote in his Notes of a Journey from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis, the Russian Empire’s subjugation of the Georgian people - who in the opinion of Russians did “not even know the meaning of “civilization”, “association”, “argumentation”, “intelligent”, “cassation” and “philology”- was facilitated by its attitude that Georgia was its colony.
My research into the tumultuous history of Russian/Georgian relations concluded that there were no friendly feelings, or even a pretense of equal partnership, from the very beginning - Russia always saw Georgia as a land that needed to be dominated and subverted. For Georgians to say that Russia has always been our friend would be similar to India saying it was always friendly with Britain, even when it was a colony of the British Empire.
It seems absurd that a colonizer and frequent invader of Georgia should still rate so high in public opinion, and just as absurd that a flag of that country can be seen flying in Poti, a city that just a few years ago was bombed by that country. Is it the stupid oversight of a committee member who chooses to live in a state of denial of centuries of colonial
treatment? Is it an admission of defeat?
Because make no mistake about it, we are at war. While Russia is occupying our homes and continues to treat Georgia as an amusing blip on the radar screen, we cannot expect anything like a normalized situation. We are no longer branded as Soviet - we are reclaiming our identity as Georgians, and no one, either inside or outside the country, can pretend that this isn’t happening. This is a war of identity, personal and national, and it is one that artists, politicians, and the rest of us wage on a daily basis. And a good start toward reclaiming your identity is rereading the history books, even if you don’t have to write a thesis.

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