While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle.
Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.
They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.
When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.
In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)
At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy.
Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.
But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.
While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.
I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.
I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.
The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.
Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.
And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)
But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.
Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)
I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.
I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’
I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…
Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.
I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.
More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.
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I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)
I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.
They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.
I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?
Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.
The performance was like an explosion of dynamic rhythm and melodious charging sounds. It was a ritual I would watch many times. And eventually I was able to understand the order and rhythm of most of the dances. Though occasionally they would switch one dance for another that I hadn’t seen yet. An official live concert would run to more than an hour and a half. All of the performers would be in traditional dress. The men in chokhas, the women in the many complicated styles of regal dresses with headdress and scarves. But here they were dancing in their black practice clothing.
Lines of men and women swarmed the stage. Shota the dancing drummer came out. Male voices filled every cornice of the grand hall. Three garmoni played a bold tune as drums and a bass guitar hit a driving beat. Suddenly there were sharp turns of melodic structure, fragments of harmonic dissonance. The male voices sang songs like yodels, songs that seemed to emerge directly from the earth, Songs like locomotives building steam as they careened down the tracks. Eventually there were numbers that featured the women, who seemed to float across the studio, men who stamped and jumped and spun. One man seemed to be able to turn like a spinning top all the while jumping on his toes. Another young wiry dancer named Tornike seemed to spin off into the air and land on his knees then coil up again from his knees and back down again like a slinky toy. The men danced with a ferocity and daring that had obviously been developed in years of warfare as Georgia has been the endless target of invaders for millennia. Meanwhile the women seemed to be on another plane altogether, which fairly sums up my observations of Georgian culture. The women were grace and beauty incarnate. And one interesting point in all of this. Though the men and women dance together in this show, they rarely, if ever touch. And that again says something rather instructive about Georgian culture.
I would come back over and over again. I would watch individual dances repeated and repeated. I would hear the songs the shook the room. One singer Ilia had a voice that could shatter glass. Eventually Shota the drummer came up to me and asked for a photo. So did Tornike. And in fact most of the singers became curious about what I was doing. Nina spoke more English and was able to talk with me a little eventually more and more dancers and musicians approached me. And when I made an online album of about 200 photos I became everyone’s friend. Eventually Otar would ask me to come along on the bus with them for a small version of the full dress performance. But I’ll save that story for another time.
Meanwhile I’ll say this, if this had been my whole experience with Erisioni I would have considered myself extremely fortunate. Yet there was indeed more to come!
დიდი მადლობა ერისიონის ყველა ჩემს მეგობარს.
1 / 4 /2018
Meanwhile deep thanks to those who have contributed to this journey along the way. It would sound like a cliché to say I couldn’t have done it without you, but it’s the absolute truth! Anyone wishing to help out too can easily using the PayPal link below. Thanks, Byrne
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
After getting lost in Genoa I ended up on La Superba, a massive ferry the size of cruise ship run by the Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) on what was supposed to be a 17 hour run down to Palermo in Sicily and ended up in, what I later discovered was typical Italian style tardiness, at 21 hours. I shared a room with a rugged and overly clean Italian truck driver. (I counted three showers during our voyage.) He slept most of the trip, except for the 3 hours spent playing arcade shooter games. And at one point he said to me, almost in disbelief, “You no sleep?” But apart from the usual 8 hours of sleep I am accustomed to, I did not sleep. Instead I wondered around and explored the vessel. And I ate a long meal for lunch and wrote.
But I did have one big worry. The Wi-Fi (say ‘wee-fee’) did not like my credit card. And having had problems in the past with my cautious bank back in Alaska suspecting fraud, even when I’ve been merely over the border in Canada, the thought of having the money spigot turned off mid-trip was not pleasant. And so task number one upon our late arrival in Palermo, was to get a few more euros from a ‘bancomat’ and to determine my financial state. Thusly I was suddenly, without much of a clue, on a warm, what to my Alaska blood felt like mid-summer, December evening thrust into the traffic maw of Palermo. But then I noticed something curious, as I tried in very broken Italian to communicate my need, that the Sicilians were indeed quite friendly. Though I met very few Palermitanos that spoke English I always received help when I gesticulated, and hand gestures are the order of the day, since Italians are fluent in that. And yes, I did still had a connection to my bank. I could breathe easier. All I had to do was find the B & B La Fenicia and to get there I had to find a bus, a sweaty proposition, and when I did hail a bus the driver waved me off when I tried to pay and took me straight to the station, which was near my gracious and friendly hosts Nadia and Ninni at the B & B. And so I after indulging in a spleen sandwich from a vendor in a cart across the street from La Fenicia I settled down for the night happy to be in Sicilia (See-cheel-ya) and with no idea what I would find.
Well after far too organized Switzerland to have one’s next town be Palermo Sicily is to all at once be slapped in the face by trash on every street and the noisiest city I think I’ve ever been in, and I used to live in New York City. Yet what a lively town! And made up of some of the most talkative people on earth. Renown for it’s street food, pane ca meusa (spleen sandwich) was just the beginning. And pizza? Yes! This was real Italian style pizza. One individual pizza averaged about 4 euros ($5). And fresh? Like the tomatoes were growing yesterday. And when I told my hosts Nadia and Ninni about the American penchant for putting pineapple on pizza at first they were uncomprehending. And then they laughed at the joke. After 16 years in New York I’d been too bitten by the Italian (Sicilian) bug to do anything but concur. And that’s the thing. In New York City most Italians are Sicilians and so this culture did not seem that foreign to me. And I was happy to see the Old Country.
And so then there was exploring the town. I walked through Ballarò Market area, which was fantastically labyrinthine and exotic, filled with marzipan in the shape of fruits, unbelievably long light green Italian zucchinis and Mediterranean seafood of all descriptions. All being hawked by a chorus of street vendors chanting their wares. Then I just rambled aimlessly for a while. And Palermo is a great town to just come upon some forgotten cobble stone street corner decorated by the statue of a saint under dilapidated buildings.
And that’s what I found so intriguing about the town. That beneath its layers of grit there was a vitality few towns have: Loud Palermitanos yelling from balconies to each other. Children playing on a safe bustling street corner in the evening. When they saw my camera they all wanted me to take a photo! And this same liveliness certainly extended to the puppet shows I saw. There were a few tourists there. But certainly not like Rome or London. And plenty of obvious recent immigrants. But then again Sicily has always had people dropping in (or invading) from all parts of the Mediterranean world, and beyond. Normans, Moors, Romans and the ancient Greeks have all left their mark. But in the end, those that stay become Sicilians. Sicily if just too much itself to be colonized and digested by the outside world. Where else would you see gangs of guys and girls with scooters (Vespas!) and small motorcycles hanging out behind the McDonald’s at the only mall in town, popping wheelies and coming their hair back in 2017? It’s an infectious culture. Everything is a lengthy conversation, backing the car into a parking space or discussions about the contemporary state respect for la famiglia.
On another journey through Palermo after trying to get my shoes repaired and being so tempted by a new pair of Italian boots that just felt so comfortable, while being unable to justify the cost, or the weight of lugging around my Doc Martens, and after I passed the Quattro Canti, the four way divider of the old town, I came upon the Pretoria Fountain, where strange animal heads spouted water amongst what originally were scandalous nude statues below a homemade banner that denounced the mafia. And in the midst of this scene a fashion spread was being shot featuring a willowy brunette model moving with curious rhythms on the steps. Somehow this mixture of archetypes captured an aspect Palermitan life for me. And so I stuck around to try to use the contradictions to create something for myself.
By far what made the strongest impression of my five day sojourn in Palermo was a visit to the Catacombes dei Cappuccini. A true city of the dead. Back in 1500s the Capuchin monks started to hang and dry the corpses of their dead brethren. Eventually the custom was adopted by many others as well and continued until approximately 1920. 8,000 corpses now hang in this underground mausoleum. Not skeletons, but desiccated humans in their finest. Palermitanos used to come in and point to a spot and say “I want to hang there.” And so I came to have a look, to confront my own mortality in way.
Descending into this dark world after paying my 3 euros I soon found myself engulfed in dried bodies. They surrounded me from above and below. I carefully peered into their faces. I found myself often passed by others who were obviously just walking through the place as quickly as they could. But I wanted to see. Some bodies were more or less skeletons. Others had a layer of shrink wrapped human leather covering their faces. Often there was the indignity of that expression that comes in time as the gases of the body leaving through the mouth creating the appearance of howling. There were bodies behind fences, bodies in boxes, bodies in vaults, in the marble floor below, bodies standing in alcoves, bodies reclining. And sometimes, when I really began to take it in, I would look up and see the skull of a cloaked figure, sockets without eyes, glaring down on me. Then look away directly across from the glaring skull to find a leathery figure gaze cast off into heaven as if to plead to God on behalf of the human lot.
And then came the inexplicable things. One section was for young children only. The dark sorrow here was beyond measure. Each of these children had been accompanied by mournful Italian wailing as they were placed here. Lives ended too soon. In another hall there was a nearly animated preserved young boy in a glass case. The monks had perfected a kind of embalming technique. Then there was a chamber for virgins, at the beginning of a hall for women. This too had a great sorrow attached to it. Girls in white. Hanging on a wall. Nothing of them left in the world but these remnants of their physical bodies.
And then looking further down the hall of women I would occasionally be arrested by the appearance of a woman, whom in her day must have truly been a stunning beauty. You could tell by the structure of her face, the parched skin clinging to her features, how this woman must have stopped hearts as she walked down the street. And yet here she is, just a lifeless doll on a shelf. And I thought about this: someday everyone I know will be this way. We shall all be stiffs in the ground. (Unless you escape up the crematorium’s smokestack.) Right now my mother looks like this. All of my good friends will end up like this. I will become death myself. My bones leeched of their essence. The howl of indignity on what is left of my visage. And so…
And so we live today. Not foolishly. Not addictively. Not proudly. But humbly, knowing we only have an allotted time to walk around. And then we shall be no more. (I’m not dealing with afterlives right now.) Then we too shall be corpses in the ground. But I can hear those folks who say “But I want my ashes to be scattered to the wind.” Yeah fine. But you might be doing this because you can’t face the meaning of the skeleton. But that’s one reason I came to Palermo. I knew this was here. I wanted to face death and consider my own. Which really means to consider the point of one’s life. And that I did. A frightening proposition.
But reason number one for coming? L’opera dei pupi. The Sicilian marionettes. One of the oldest styles in Europe. And my adventure among the pupazzi was just beginning. But first give me another arancine followed by a fresh cannoli!
Life and death indeed!
On the Rome to Milan train
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