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Guram Odisharia: We came to build, not ruin

By Nina Akhlouri
"Tabula" magazine, 21 February '13


The Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia became a source of great attention shortly after the parliamentary approval of the new government in October. The new Minister, Guram Odisharia, has started gathering representatives from different cultural spheres for round table discussions on various topical issues including the rehabilitation of the historical district of Tbilisi and subsidies for cinematography, among other things. Unpleasant incidents have also occurred related to Khatuna Khundadze and Yuri Mechitov, candidates for the positions of deputy culture ministers.

Various priorities have been outlined for the activities of the Culture Ministry. Alongside preserving Tbilisi’s historical appearance, Guram Odisharia’s entity intends to work in several other directions: promoting the country abroad, reviving cultural life in Georgia’s regions, improving the culture of relationships between people, to name but a few. Tabula interviewed Guram Odisharia to find out about the status of culture policy and to talk about other topical issues.

Why is a ministry of culture needed? The world’s culture developed and continues to develop without such a ministry…

Each state has its own characteristics. Perhaps there are some countries which neither have nor need a ministry of culture or any other ministry. There could be myriad reasons of that. We do not manufacture Mercedes cars, nor do we build ships; how then can we make ourselves attractive and interesting for the rest of the world? We are an ancient country with a rich culture; we have folklore, songs and a collective genetic memory. We are a country of culture and art. Georgians, along with Armenians, have always been perceived as men of letters in the Caucasus. There are countries whose first books were only printed or written a century or two ago, whereas our literature dates back to very early times. Therefore, the Ministry of Culture needs to operate in Georgia.

During the past 20 years, a notable deterioration in culture has been observed. They always say that the Baltic States have a high degree of political culture, in other words, the word “culture” has become associated with politics. Unfortunately, we must admit that our level of political culture is not high. I am not saying that this is the business of the Ministry – although to raise political culture is also an aim – but we must raise the culture of relationships between people. The Ministry itself must thus become a model for how people should conduct dialogue, how they should speak to each other and how to reach a common consensus based on diverse opinions.

Have you already identified the priority directions for the Ministry’s activities?

A priority for me and my friends is to revive cultural life in Georgia’s regions. When it grows dark, it is if life stops there. People go to sleep, one can only spot a few bulbs flickering, perhaps they have no electricity… or, to be more precise, they have, but as they have told me, are too short of money to pay the electricity bill.

I visited Belgium last year and I asked my hosts to show me a village. They took me to a village which has a night life. The village has a pub and a cultural center where locals can watch movies and young people hold discussions; elderly people can also have fun there. The center of that village is brightly lit and no one wants to leave, either to go to a foreign country or to Brussels, the capital city. I always cite that village as a model example – my dream is to live to see a time when we will have such cultural centers in every Georgian village.

In Tbilisi we have two cinemas – the Rustaveli and Amirani cinemas – and there is one in Batumi. There is no cinema anywhere else in the country. True, there is the Internet and TV where one can watch many things, but people, and especially the youth, aspire towards developing relationships. They want to watch movies together and to share their impressions about movies with one another. Now we are thinking of restoring cinemas, where practicable, and of purchasing equipment for them to enable the youth, and not only the youth, to get together.

The second priority is to promote the brand of Georgia across the world. Many perceive Georgia as a country where only conflicts break out. All European and Asian countries must have access to our culture. You know that Gabriel García Márquez made all of Colombia famous. Similarly, one great writer, Orhan Pamuk, made the whole world more familiar with Turkey. Therefore, we must support everything. We need to promote our literature and translate our books.

Thus, we have two main areas – the regions and promotion of Georgia abroad. We must also not forget to pay attention to those today who will create the classics of tomorrow.

You said earlier that the spheres of jazz and fashion should not be financed by the state. Why these spheres in particular? Moreover, after making that statement you still financed a fashion week in December. Why did you change your mind?

Fashion is a form of art. We cannot provide it and show-business with a hundred-percent funding. We may assist it with 80 percent funding and let them seek the remaining 20 percent. The next year, we may finance only 50 percent whilst four or five years later, when it becomes stronger and more popular, it will finance itself – this is in contrast to an area such as classical music, which always needs assistance. The spheres which do not require state funding in France or Italy need assistance here because we are a young state.

When will our museum life, at least in Tbilisi, become more enlivened? There are only two halls refurbished and not more than one percent of exhibits are displayed, everything is stored in vaults…

There are various ideas concerning this issue. You are quite right. We have a massive collection, so big that many large countries would envy it. One of the ideas is to organize a huge exhibition in the former parliament building [in Tbilisi] and to display everything there for people to see. Exhibits can also be displayed in the open around the city, as is done in Rome, for example.

Despite the existence of modern art in Tbilisi, no matter if it is good or bad, we do not have a museum of modern art. Do you think there is a need to open one?

By all means. I know that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili had a plan to build one and there is even a place allocated for it. We will do everything possible to open a museum of modern art till the end of this year.

What do you have to say about the problem of education in the modern arts?

There is not yet the situation here that requires the creation of strong private colleges, which focus not on providing an academic education but instead on developing modern painters. I am very glad that [Georgian stage director] Temur Chkheidze will return to Georgia in spring and will then work with several students in his studio. [Georgian set designer and artist] Gogi Aleksi-Meskhishvili, who has worked in the United States for quite a long time now and knows everything about the modern arts, will have his own studio as well.

In Soviet times, representatives from the entire Caucasus studied at our [Tbilisi State] Conservatoire and Academy of Arts. Everyone perceived Tbilisi as a cultural Mecca for the Caucasus region, much as Paris is perceived in Europe. We must strengthen this sphere, we have this ambition.

We have an ambition to turn the Ministry of Culture into one of the most important ministries. Culture will be used for facilitating relations with our neighbors, with the Abkhaz because it is a more acceptable format for them. Culture will thus also be a facilitator in settling conflicts.

A new draft law envisages broadening the powers of the artistic directors of theatres. Do you think that is needed?

I said from the very beginning of my appointment as Culture Minister that I would pursue a liberal policy. Any organization must decide for itself what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. There must not be a conflict in a theatre; a theatre must elect its own manager and stage those performances that it wants…

Conflicts still arise and I sometimes have to perform the task of a conflictologist. As regards the draft law you asked about, it came to pass that a group of theatre professionals drafted it without the knowledge of another group; the managers of the theatres then got together and declared that that was a terrible law and could not be adopted, the stage directors, on the other hand, were happy with that law and so on and so forth. Noticing that controversy, we invited everyone to join a joint discussion. A dialogue was conducted in a constructive manner and, in the end, agreement was reached that the draft law would be adopted in either March or April. Before that time, several groups will prepare their own variants of it and submit these to us before March. We will then again hold another discussion and only after that will we then send the draft to parliament for consideration and further approval. We do not want to adopt a law which all parties do not agree upon.

The law must not be tailored to suit this or that person, but should be one that endures time. Ministers come and go, but culture remains. We serve eternal values and the law must be drafted in such a way as to contribute to making such eternal values better and better.

What is your opinion about the ongoing rehabilitation work in the historical part of Tbilisi?

We organized a round table on this topic as the rehabilitation concerns Old Tbilisi. Many complaints have been filed with the Ministry by art professionals and representatives of public concerned that Old Tbilisi is losing its original appearance. Glass and steel constructions, high-rise buildings of various odd designs have appeared in this district – and nothing of this kind happens abroad. For instance, no one is allowed to build a new building in Strasbourg’s Old Town. Tourists will stop visiting there if they see such mixed architecture. The same holds true for Prague’s Old Town and Old Riga; the latter of which encountered some difficulties when some modern buildings were built in the old part of the city – these ultimately had to be removed altogether because, as one Latvian friend told me, Riga lost many good and refined tourists because of that.

Many old districts of Tbilisi have been rehabilitated very well. Unfortunately, everything in Georgia becomes a topic of hot political debate, as happened in the case of Bagrati Cathedral. Be it Bagrati Cathedral or the rehabilitated districts of Tbilisi, we must see not only the negatives but the positives too. The Bethlehem district in Tbilisi has been rehabilitated brilliantly. If am not mistaken, Norwegians worked on that together with local experts. Tourists love taking walks there. On the other hand, Guadiashvili Square was handed over to an investor and was partially destroyed… Tbilisi citizens were worried about the fate of the square and staged a number of rallies demanding that its authenticity be preserved. In such cases, the government must listen to the public.

Many criticize the glass bridge, but I like it. However, perhaps it would have been more impressive if built somewhere else.

The Music and Drama Theatre on Rike which is now under construction has become quite a topical issue of late and there is much talk about its possible dismantling. What is your stance on that? How consistent do you think the Prime Minister’s statements that the Rike theatre distorts the historical appearance of Tbilisi are, when his own business center and house do precisely the same thing?

The pipes [the theatre on Rike is in the shape of two large diameter pipes] have taken over that entire space. Even the new building [of the Public Service Hall of the Ministry of Justice, on the bank of the River Mtkvari] that stands opposite the Ministry is good, but it blocks the view of Tbilisi and the Mtkvari River in its entire beauty – all that must be easily seen. There are buildings which must be put in remote places. I can imagine, for example, those pipes in a vast green field; they would have been beautiful in such a spot, while here [at its current location] the proportions are different.

Opinions about the glass bridge were divided during the round table we organized to discuss the issue of the rehabilitation of Old Tbilisi, whereas in regards to the pipes [the theatre on Rike] the majority of opinions were negative. We do not have the powers to stop that construction yet. Dismantling is ruled out. We came to build, not ruin. Something has been done already; we will not change what we cannot change.

We must remember one rule for the future – we must not build anything in rush, nor must we rush to ruin – as happened in the case of the so-called IMELI building [the former Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin] on the Rustaveli Avenue. True, it had Soviet symbols in the form of bas-relief, such as stars and things like that… But we should have retained those symbols because that is the history we have passed through. That does not mean that we are nostalgic about that past. Much blood was spilt because of Napoleon, but statues of Napoleon are everywhere; Nero burnt down Rome, but busts of Nero can be seen in many places. That is history and we have passed through it. It would have been better if we had not had to pass through that section of history. If not for the [Bolshevik] Revolution we would now be at a completely different level of development.

Since we are the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection, we must protect every monument. We have written to [the Mayor of Tbilisi Gigi] Ugulava, asking him to stop several constructions; for example, the construction of a very high-rise building is about to start next to the IMELI building. This will inevitably distort the authenticity of Tbilisi’s appearance.

You say you deem it incorrect to ruin old monuments because they represent our historical heritage, but what do you have to say about the busts of Stalin which have recently been erected in Georgia? How acceptable is it for Georgia to restore monuments of Stalin?

For me personally it is absolutely unacceptable. It is unacceptable for my friends, as well as for the state, and those busts were erected in Akhmeta [in the Kakheti region] and somewhere else without our consent.

What is your stance on the restoration of Oshki Cathedral, in a historical province of Georgia that is now part of Turkey, in return for the reconstruction of the Aziziye Mosque in Batumi?

Negotiations on the restoration of Oshki are in progress and I have talked about that with the Turkish Ambassador to Georgia. It is painful for us that Oshki is crumbling. It is one of Georgia’s architectural masterpieces and we cannot allow it to fall apart. For me personally, such a trade is unacceptable – I will restore Oshki and you construct Aziziye. I believe that good will must always exist. Before taking a decision, the state must hear the opinions of society and some agreement must be achieved. Batumi residents must be asked whether they like the idea of reconstructing the Aziziye Mosque in Batumi and what this means for them because it will be constructed in their city.

One of the options is that Oshki will be restored by the Turkish side working under our supervision. There is another option too – we suggested that we will reconstruct it ourselves. Negotiations have not been completed yet. The Turkish side had claims regarding Rabati fortress [in Akhaltsikhe in southern Georgia]. They believe that the restoration has damaged the mosque. According to them, they sent four letters asking the [former Georgian] government not to paint the dome in gold and saying that the lattices have to be less showy and painted black. Therefore we now have to talk about repainting the golden dome and about other such topics.

Negotiations on Oshki are still going ahead. The same is true for the issue of the Armenian churches – there are six Armenian churches in Georgia, five in Tbilisi and one in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The Armenian side is demanding that those churches be transferred to their ownership. At the same time, there are Georgian churches in the territory of Armenia. Even though our congregation does not live there, we want them to make them operational monasteries – this is the number one demand of the Patriarchate.

The Catholic Church, the Armenian, Muslim and Jewish communities have long been asking for the return of their historical monuments, part of which are currently under the ownership of the Orthodox Church. You said you would set up a commission to study this issue. Who will be in this commission and what will its functions be?

This is a very delicate topic. I talked the other day with [the State Minister for Reintegration] Paata Zakareishvili, as this issue concerns his entity as well – we protect monuments, he takes care of political conflicts. We will also be in touch with the Foreign Affairs Ministry as there are issues concerning emigration and European integration. We will thus work together. The commission will comprise professionals who will consider the nuances of any steps which we will undertake that may trigger conflicts. Therefore we will take steps very cautiously. This is a sphere which looks very much like a minefield - one incorrect step and you get blown up. Therefore we need people in the commission, in the ministries and in Georgia, in general, who know how to walk on a minefield.

A visit of the Chairperson of the Writers’ Union, Makvala Gonashvili, to Nagorno-Karabakh had dire consequences – Azerbaijan declared her persona non grata. Do you think such incidents may sour relations with friendly states?

Such incidents cannot sour relations between countries. I am a conflictologst myself and have often visited, and intend to visit in the future, conflict zones. Makvala is a very generous person who wants to mend fences between Armenians and Azerbaijanis by means of literature. Culture is a strong tool in settling conflicts. In that particular case, a mistake was made – when visiting Karabakh, one must inform the Azerbaijani government about making such a visit – that is what they ask for. It seems she accidentally forgot that, otherwise no one would have prohibited her from going there. Makvalai visited Karabakh with good intentions, not bad.

You defended the candidates nominated to be deputy culture ministers, Khatuna Khundadze, who before the elections wrote obscenities about the former government on her Facebook wall, and Yuri Mechitov, who features in a YouTube video telling unpleasant jokes about Georgians. You said that Khatuna Khundadze’s Facebook wall had been hacked while the video footage of Mechitov was just a joke. Despite this, at the end of the day, you did not appoint them as your deputies. What was the reason for that?

Khundadze’s Facebook wall was indeed hacked although she did make some of those comments on Facebook, and that is her private business. Mechitov was indeed filmed telling jokes naked from the waist up, but that was not an important issue for me. The important thing for me was how these people would work with me. The uproar that was caused was too exaggerated and was, I believe, incorrect. On the other hand, when I think about that, I understand one thing – no one is interested about the identities of the deputy ministers of agriculture, or what kind of jokes they tell; everyone, including me, tells jokes. The deputy ministers of economy could have made way ruder comments on their Facebook walls, but hardly anyone would care about that. That is not true for the Ministry of Culture as interest towards us is very high. That means that this Ministry means much for society and that its activities are perceived as very important.

Therefore, we decided that we needed some reorganization and it affected Khundadze and Mechitov too. However, they continue working in this ministry, one as the deputy head of a department, the other as an employee of another department, and they will continue to work here. The point is that Georgian society does not see them as deputy minister material and we support public opinion. Appalling comments were made on Facebook [regarding these candidates] which were completely unacceptable, that’s why I defended my colleagues; however, there were more measured comments made as well, conveying the thoughts of their authors about what kind of ministry of culture they want to see… Believe me, I want it to be better. We will succeed in making the culture ministry number one over all other ministries. Our ambition has thus grown.

Do you agree with the existing form of subsidizing cinematography and do you intend to change something in this direction?

We intend to change everything for the better, of course. The National Cinema Centre of Georgia has worked well and Georgia has become a member of Eurimages, which is important. But there are also many problems. Cinema is a very expensive art and therefore we will help as much as we can, but we must also seek alternative means of funding.

What will the aim be of the “Georgian houses” that you intend to open in various countries? What is the difference between organizing cultural days, which are well-tested in Europe, and the so-called Georgian houses?

We have a large number of emigrants, some one million, I think. I visited Barcelona recently where there is a large community of Georgians who, with their own money, rented a building and arranged a church there. They pray there and the church also serves as a place where they get together. They asked me to help them establish a cultural center. Several Georgian painters and writers live abroad as well. Our main goal is to bring our emigrants back, but before that we want to promote our culture throughout the world, don’t we? We will send dancers, singers and writers, but they want to have a building where they can be received.

We also want to launch a TV channel dedicated to cultural issues alone and thus reach the entire population. The country has become very tired of living in this overheated political space and only culture is able to lower that temperature. We declared that this year will be the year of more culture and less politics. Houses of culture will help us in achieving this objective.

You intend to work in very many directions. Will the Ministry of Culture manage to fulfill so many promises in 2013, especially given that your budget funding has been slashed?

We have decided to seek money ourselves. We want to draft a law on sponsorship that will exempt those people who assist us – for example, in setting up a house of culture in Spain – from state taxes.

We will not be able to fulfill everything that I have talked about here, but we will lay the foundations for everything. We will amend laws and conduct round tables on various issues to involve society in various projects. We are full of hope. We will first try to raise the importance of the Ministry of Culture. Our aim is to make it the number one ministry because that is what each of us needs.

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