How Georgian Artists are Challenging Sexual Norms and Re-Imagining Their Country

 

Google is a rather precarious place for researching the conversation regarding sex in Georgia. Rather than a spew of pornography popping up on your search, you’re more likely to encounter blog postings of sex tourists, disgruntled expats, and Westerners lamenting the absence of sex in the country. An image is painted of chaste women and engorged men, where sex is for procreation and happens behind closed doors. The reality is that sex is part of every major conversation, and Georgia is no less sexual than anywhere else. Although attempts have been made to speak about challenging the dominant conversation regarding sex, individuals and groups have been often silenced and oppressed through ostracization and violence. Increasingly, individuals across a broad sexual spectrum have looked to change that conversation, and it is happening in front of our eyes. Two events have occurred recently that pose serious questions to the dominant sexual norms in Georgia.

The first event occurred when Papuna Ugrekhelidze was forced to resign his position as the head of the Public Registry National Agency following accusations of sexual harassment by ex-coworker Eka Meskhide. In a familiar pattern for anyone that has followed the #metoo movement, Ugrekhelidze accepted zero responsibility and claimed he was being attacked for political reasons. In an unfamiliar pattern for anyone who has seen how sexual assault is dealt with in Georgia, Ugrekhelidze was forced to succumb to the pressure and resign his position. While the #metoo movement has been mocked in Russia and other parts of the former USSR, the demands for respect and safety of women have shown some progress in Georgia.

The second took place on the Rustavi-2 TV station, when journalist Giorgi Gabunia made a joke about Jesus, which was also at the expense of political and business oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. In predictable fashion, fascist groups of men reacted with violence and tried to attack Gabunia’s car. The Georgian Patriarchate claimed the foundations of society were under threat and demanded protection from free speech in response. Half-heartedly, Gabunia did apologize to religious followers – if they took offense to his joke – however, he made clear that those groups that attacked him did not represent any of the values of Christ. Swiftly, NGO groups came to Gabunia’s defense and demanded that his right to free speech be protected. Far-right groups threats of conducting marches for ten thousand people turned out to be null while Gabunia still has his TV show and continues to make light of the situation on his Facebook page.

What these two stories indicate is that a shift is occurring in terms of sexual relations within Georgian society. The ideological (nationalism, chauvinism, fascism, etc.) and institutional (the church, media, political, etc.) foundations that have looked to police sexual relations in Georgia are being openly and successfully contested. In both instances, attempts at silencing those who speak up, through traditional methods of shaming and violence, were less than successful, and large segments of society spoke out against these cynical moves. Although these repressive power dynamics continue to dominate, they no longer hold a total monopoly on power. Cracks are starting to show among reactionary forces.

In the past, silencing individuals in Georgia that deviate from the prescribed norm involved instances such as the burning down of a sex shop, assaulting individuals marching against homophobia, and murdering members of the LGBTQ+ community. These efforts to marginalize occurred within conventional political arenas and the privacy of homes. This oppression existed throughout a multiplicity of forces of self-censorship, education, healthcare, within the family, and on the street. However like Foucault argues, where power exists, so does resistance.

Along with these two instances, there has been a growing trend at challenging sexual power dynamics in Georgia. Rape survivors have begun to speak up, celebrations of queer love have become more open, women have taken to the streets in the face of violence, and individuals living with HIV have spoken out. These acts of defiance challenge the sexually oppressive power regime by merely existing. Sexual repression has always existed on normalizing a strict and narrow concept of sexual relations. Individuals refusing to be silenced by violence and shaming show the fragility and emptiness of these norms.

These expressions of resistance against repressive sexuality in Georgia have occurred on many levels, ranging from Situationist’s pro-body positivity fashion, to the growing popularity of an inclusive Tbilisi’s club culture, and an ever-growing queer advocacy movement. Where the most radical and powerful critiques of dominant sexual norms have been within the artistic community. With increasing frequency, artists have looked to map out the spaces of ecstasy, alienation, and anger that define this open rejection of one’s body being monitored and subjugated. Despite the lack of attention of many festivals from the international media, and being forced to self-fund their own projects, these artists are managing to help shape and re-imagine how sexuality is understood in Georgia.

The first nude queer photo gallery show opened in Tbilisi by Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze on March 1 this year. Lasha’s photo series “Giorgi” opened at the Black and White Gallery. Exhibiting pensive and delicate photos of nude bodies, his work removes not only the clothing from his subjects but act as a revelation to the desire and love that so many are often forced to hide. His work is shot often within the confines of private spaces where, for a brief moment, those emotions can be expressed openly. Though both Lasha and his subjects continue to be marginalized sexually as well as economically, his work looks to reclaim at least some space from oppression. As he stated, “We all have been deceived. And those who lied to us had been deceived too. They have stolen our identities which we are willing and trying to get back.”

 

While Lasha’s photos look to reclaim private spaces, Omara Gogichaishvili, aka. Hitori Ni, shows a far more public face to a growing rejection of reactionary sexual norms. Working at the famed Tbilisi nightclub Bassiani, Omara shows a Tbilisi that is increasingly sexually confident and curious, where revellers display the joy of throwing off the chains of restraint and celebrating their desire for self-expression and love. His work showcases just how significant club culture has been in fostering not only safe spaces for individuals to explore their sexuality but normalizing love that is fluent and non-binary. His photos document how clubs become laboratories for renegotiating identities. In so many ways, his work is a celebration of love and a shift where “a couple of years ago the “Orthodox Parent Union” was fucking our brains, they’ll end up sucking us.”

 

Like queer artists, feminist artists have mobilized against patriarchy and sexual violence. The highly successful marches led by the Georgian Women’s Movement and other groups have led to greater consciousness among Georgian feminists. Through her drawings, artist Anna Kutaladze chronicles a far more sexually dynamic middle class of Georgian women. With more economic opportunity afforded to them, middle-class Georgian women have looked to assert their sexualities by either moving out or living with the partner’s unmarried. Anna’s work showcases this emerging class of women that treat sex sometimes as an expression of love but also for pleasure, curiosity, and boredom. Her drawings are whimsical and sexual, and forward. Her work is charmingly frank and almost appears as if it were lines taken directly from a diary. She confidently rejects any attempt by men, ex-lovers, or others to assert their domination over her. Instead, she just leaves them with the options to either “Pray for me or follow me.”

 

While Anna’s work speaks to a certain economic class of women, other women have turned to social media as a means of contesting sexual dynamics, particularly on Instagram. Both Mari Kanchaveli and Salome Ilicheva Ximenko challenge the dominant depiction of Georgian women by openly exploring their sexuality on the platform. Mari Kanchaveli’s account not_so_virgin_mari challenges not only the sexual domination of Georgian women that face but celebrates body positivity. An educator and activist, Mari’s Instagram account is an act of denunciation of a system that constantly looks to render women as either an object of control or sexualization. Her Instagram exists completely open to expression but completely closed to domination. Much in the same fashion, Salome Ilicheva Ximenko shows a Tbilisi that is unabashedly sexual and confident enough to show it to the world.

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Admittedly, these are hardly the first artists to challenge either sexual domination or the first to depict marginalized sexualities. Likewise, they very much are outside the mainstream of the Georgian art community. They reimagine Georgia as a country in a radical fashion where physical expressions of love don’t operate within certain parameters but are sources of exploration and joy. Their work does not exist within an abstract conversation but in a very tangible fight to contest one’s basic desire to exist, create and challenge injustice. Each individual artist above do not just theorize; their work is a direct resistance to domination.

Photo Credit: Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze