First published on www.magazine.amcham.ge
Antiques and “interesting” things
A bus teeming with Turkish tourists pulls alongside an overgrown park in the center of Tbilisi. As groups of tourists descend into the heat, they are bombarded by a visual feast, a colorful collage of Georgia’s Soviet legacy and ancient culture. The crowded sidewalks are filled with a bonanza of artifacts – everything from weathered communist propaganda posters to bootlegged Russian pop music tapes is for sale.
Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge, a openly secret treasure trove of genuine antiques and handmade masterpieces, has metamorphosed from a simple sidewalk art sale to the city’s unofficial art bazaar, a one stop wonder that offers discerning tourists and jaded locals alike the chance to bargain for local art and historic heirlooms at cut-rate prices.
Fadi Achkar, a tourist from Lebanon, strolls the stalls looking for Georgian icons and other “interesting” finds during a recent trip to the Dry Bridge. “The country has a long history,” he said, adding that Georgia is one of more than 13 countries he has traveled to. “That is why you can find a lot of interesting things, very old and very beautiful.”
Masterpieces and landscapes
Both high rank artists and non-professional painters sell their pictures in the park, making room between their makeshift, open air galleries for artisans and pensioners to hawk family heirlooms.
Although there is nothing innovative about artists trying to make a sale on the street – Paris is infamous for its outdoor art market – the caliber of work available at the Dry Bridge on any given day is a purely post Soviet phenomenon.
During the seven decades of communism, artists were supported by the very bureaucracy that controlled the strokes of their brushes; different organizations had to buy pictures from the union of artists so the “approved” members never worried about making a living. Now the 1500 artists left from the union have little but their old membership cards to sustain them.
Alexander Mosiashvili, a painter selling in the park, was adopted into the class of Georgian Honored Artists in 1990. A year before he had been given a Great Medal in Tokyo. He had a personal exhibition in Moscow. He had works in European and American galleries.
Today Mosiashvili says his abstract pictures interest about 30% of the shoppers, but only an estimated 10% wants to buy them. According to him, that is a sign that few tourists actually appreciate ‘true’ art.
Turkish tourists glance at his pictures and pass by.
Marekhi Tikanashvili, however, has few of Mosiashvili’s accolades to support her work although she has managed to create a niche in the market nevertheless. According to her, she became an artist more by chance; her first painting, a picture of flowers, was bought by an oligarch who ordered three more pictures as well. After that initial success, Tikanashvili continued to paint and sell her pictures in the park.
Most of the painters in the park insist that ordinary people prefer to buy landscapes, since it is not hard for the undiscerning general public to understand.
Merabi Pipia, stands next to his colorful pictures of clowns, wearing a black beret. Although he believes that landscapes are useless in modern art, he appears resigned to the lowbrow nature of market economics.
“It is called kitsch in the international art language. I don’t work on it,” says Pipia. “Some people heard that it’s necessary to have pictures at home and they choose landscapes. They don’t read the picture; they buy what they see by eye.”
The art of market economics
The capricious nature of tourists and the lack of government support have made the transition from communist patronage to free market economics a rough one for artists like Pipia. “This profession isn’t profitable, the painters aren’t managers,” said Tsira Elisashvili, the lecturer of Cultural Heritage in Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.
To supplement his income, Pipia teaches in the art college during the week and sells his pictures in weekend. According to him, he sells about 40 pictures and earns about $4000 a year from his work.
He was one of the first with whom Turkish tourists began to deal.
“They want to buy for the half of the price I am asking. Bargaining is in their blood. It is pleasure for them. For example, Germans don’t bargain. If they like the picture and they can afford it, they buy it,” says Pipia.
“I don’t like to advertise my work, but sometimes there is a need to say that I have graduated from Academy of Art, I have diplomas. I don’t paint for selling. If I don’t like it, I don’t paint it [just] because buyers like it.”
But Elisashvili noted that the painters don’t have a success if only they graduated from the Academy of Art. However they are celebrated when they return from abroad, a common solution for those who have both the means and the access to clients and galleries overseas.
Malkhas Dekanoidze sells work at the Dry Bridge during the weekend but prefers to sell his pictures in galleries. He goes abroad, leaves his pictures there or he sends them to his friends. This system has worked throughout the world; he has sold work in Holland, France, German, USA, even in Jerusalem and Egypt. Dekanoidze estimates that he makes about $5000.00 a year from these foreign sales.
However he notes that before collapse of Soviet Union local tourists were the best clients. “When tourists came, there were queues here. We didn’t have time to paint. I was painting even here.”
Dekanoidze recalls that some people even brought their dogs and cat and ordered their portraits. The animals posed right in the park.
Despite his international success, he has also had to supplement his income by moonlighting at the “Georgian Film” studio and taking orders like icon painting at the new Sameba Church.
Other artists have found success by creating niche markets within the larger community at the bridge.
Nukri Lekveishvili is in the park every day. He has sold about 5000 pictures since 1990 but found commercial success by developing a special art form – pictures from bird feathers. A physicist by training, he devoted nearly 30 years to perfect his method and has been honored with three personal exhibitions and in traditional handcraft competitions. His works were included in Georgian CD encyclopedia "Discover Georgia".
According to him, his income depends solely on sales to tourists. Sometimes he makes as much as $1000.00 a month.
Artists at the bridge know that their work is often worth much more than the going rate, but there is little they can do about it – other than hone their own bargaining skills.
While Lekveishvili chatted, a Turkish tourist admired his work and offered 25 lari (about USD$ 14) for a picture priced at 45 lari (about $ 26). At last she agreed to the original price, paying the full 45 lari for a picture.
Besi Kuzanashvili, an artisan who specializes in making pictures from wood, knows foreigners have resold his innovative pieces overseas for several times the price they paid him. He said he once sold a picture to a foreigner for 150 lari (about $88) and then found out that it was sold in London for 700 pounds (roughly 2100 lari or $1235).
“Its pity that the art is not valued appropriately here.” Kuzanashvili said, adding that he came to the park seven years ago so he could earn enough “to buy bread.”
Creating a community
For Lekveishvili, the relationship with his clients is not always just commercial. He noted that sometimes his customers come back – baring gifts.
“One Australian returned and brought me feathers,” he said with a smile on his face.
Although there have been rumors circulating in the Georgian press that the Tbilisi local government is trying to move the art bazaar and ‘clean up’ the Dry Bridge, no one from the local or national government could confirm the speculation.
The artists themselves are keen to stay. According to them, over the past two decades they have managed to turn the makeshift open air gallery into a real community for local artisans.
They other often sit together as the tourists peruse their work, playing backgammon and card games to kill the time between sales. They have breakfast, lunch and supper together, working and living in harmony on the side of the road regardless of whether the country is at war or in peace. In fact, at times they even help one another make a sale.
Vakhtang Martiashvili has been selling pictures in the park about 21 years. He says he is one of the community’s ten founders.
“We opened in May 19, 1986. We were forbidden to stand in Meidan Square (in Old Tbilisi, next to the bath district). Komsomols were sitting there and choosing the pictures, ” remembers Martiashvili, noting that even once they relocated to the Dry Bridge they had to fight for their right to stay. “We came here. Then the regional committee (raikom) and the police came and expelled us. We came again. It was the times of reconstruction (perestroika). After that everything was changed.”
Although there have reportedly been offers to relocate the artists to another location in the city, the newly remodeled Funicular Park in Vake, Martiashvili doesn’t plan to go anywhere.
“The artists stand in the center of London for 200 years,” he said, adding that they are providing the city with a real value. “We don’t sell tomatoes and cucumbers.”
After an afternoon of browsing, the tourists wrap up their new treasures and pile back on the bus. It pulls away – taking a piece of Tbilisi with it.