The Next Tbilisi: Interview with Dina Oganova

 

As the world slowly comes to figure out that for far too long they have been ignoring the goldmine of artistic talent coming out of Tbilisi, the name Dina Oganova is one that constantly is mentioned as one of the most impressive. Based between Tbilisi and Kyiv, Dina is a trained economist that originally wanted to be a film director, and eventually took up photography under the tutelage of Yuri Mechitov. Mechitov is a much acclaimed photographer in the former Soviet Union that at one time was the private photographer for the amazing Sergey Parajanov. Her work has been exhibited across Africa, Europe, and North America.

Dina represents much more than just another photographer in Tbilisi. Frequently, the aesthetics of Georgia are defined by an absence of light, dire poverty, and a comedic tormenting struggle with glamour. Although Georgia and most of the former Soviet Socialist Republics continue to struggle, Dina projects a growing confidence that is emerging among the post-Soviet generation. A global reputation for being a major tourist destination along with a growing cultural scene has contributed to the extra bounce in Tbilisi’s step. Her work showcases a Georgia that is both forward thinking while equally proud to be Georgian.

Specifically, her project My Place demonstrates this particularly well. Showcasing the first generation of Georgians not to grow up during the Soviet Union in the comforts of their bedrooms, Dina refers to them as “the special generation.” The individuals photographed demand more for their future and refuse to accept the status quo of autocratic governing and oppressing religious control. Work remains to be done on these aspirations but Dina allows the color, comfort, and calmness of the post-2008 War Georgia to be transmitted through her photos.

She kindly spoke to me, despite me being a half hour late for our meeting and mistakenly deleting her from Facebook. She’s lovely that way.

It is lovely meeting up with you. You’re currently working in Kyiv, where you’ve been living for some time while also traveling across the world. However, your work continues to be based very much in Georgia and tells stories about it. Can you explain what it is about this country that inspires you? Can you feel that same inspiration in other countries?

It’s hard to explain what Georgia means for me. It is the joy of my life, like my family and friends, but it is also my pain and tears. It is my home and where I became the person I am. I’m planning on living in this country because it is where I feel most inspired and comfortable in my work.

I think that Georgia has a specific soul. I can’t explain it. I don’t have the answer because it is intangible and words won’t do it justice. Whatever it is, it inspires me to want to make projects/stories because people should know more about my small but soulful country. I do find inspiration while traveling, interacting with different cultures, people, and more but I always want to return to Georgia. The language of my work conveys Georgia. I can’t disconnect Georgia from me

I recently read a story about our most famous billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili. He has a hobby of moving trees from around the country to his own park. He ships them on boats. Imagine that! I’m sure you can’t find people this crazy! No one has a more absurd sense of humor than Georgians. I’m sure writers and film directors are jealous of this imagination but that is Georgia: funny, sad, crazy, honest, sometimes rich, and sometimes poor, but all at the same time.

 

Recently, you were in Lithuania for a presentation about your work while also living in Kyiv as a Georgian citizen with Armenian heritage. You grew up throughout the 90s and are part of the first cohort of a post-Soviet generation that were educated and raised in a culture looking to reconcile itself with its socialist past and its uncertain future. How do believe your work represents your post-Soviet upbringing? Do you want to be understood as a post-Soviet artist?

I want to be understood as a Georgian documentary photographer. Yes, I was born in a country that we don’t have on our maps anymore. Maybe that’s why my generation that was born in this non-existent country are somewhere between everything and maybe nowhere because we are looking at ourselves all the time.

I hate when someone asks me where I’m from and I respond, “I’m Georgian.” They always follow that question with, “Is it still in Russia?” NO! Georgia is independent despite the continuing occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We are strong people and those lands will be free one day. I think these upcoming generations will be the ones that eventually succeed.

Your project “My Place”, which showcases the first generation of Georgians that grew up during the first years of Georgian independence in their bedrooms really intrigues me. In contrast to depictions of Georgia in the 90’s that tend to deal with this subject as a point of trauma, the photos are rich in color while being situated in the comfort and safety of a bedroom. They hint at an element of balance and security. Would it be unfair to interpret these photos as an optimistic reading into a post-Soviet Georgia?

I don’t like calling it post-Soviet Georgia. We are Georgia as a whole and unabridged. I am tired of the past and want to show contemporary life. I love Georgia’s newer generations. I believe in their future and my optimism for the future inspired me to make a project about them.

Most of my work is black and white but this strong and energetic generation just has too much color in them to ignore. Most of the people featured in “My Place” are friends of mine while some where people I met in the streets, cafes, and demonstrations. I have contact with all my characters because I’m going to follow up with them every 10 years to document their lives. I hope we will all grow older together and live in an even brighter future.

 

Lastly, Tbilisi is quickly growing into one of the most in vogue tourist destinations in the world because of all the natural beauty you’re far too aware of. To meet the growing tourist demand, the state has begun major infrastructure projects along with Middle Eastern-financed projects like hotels and malls. As much as it is good to see more people seeing Tbilisi, do you worry at all about the corporatization of the city? Has any degree of home been lost?

I like that many people are visiting my beautiful home city but I’m worried about the changes. There are many really terrible new buildings in the Old City and elsewhere, killing the mood of the city. I never want to wake up in the morning and see a new hotel instead of Mama Daviti from my window. I don’t want to talk about politics but what is happening isn’t making any sense. Most of these buildings are tasteless. Politicians need to understand that people are coming to visit Tbilisi and are not looking for something else. We need to care for what we already have and appreciate that. We don’t need to be something else. Whether good or bad, we can’t just delete it and start again.

In both Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia, we had a lot of beautiful Soviet mosaic paintings but most of them were destroyed. The Soviet Union was a painful time but why couldn’t they be moved into a museum possibly? It is part of our history and people should know this side of our life. I just hope the state stops doing mindless stuff and think about what people actually want.

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