SUKHUM / AQW'A — In the devastating fire that ravaged the Central Exhibition Hall of the Union of Artists of Abkhazia overnight, the National Art Gallery's entire collection, housed on the second floor, was almost completely destroyed. Acting Minister of Culture Dinara Smyr reported the loss of over 4,000 art pieces, including more than 300 by the renowned artist Alexander Chachba-Shervashidze, a significant figure in Abkhazian art.
Abkhazian artist Vissarion (Sergei) Tsvizhba, amidst the rain, watched somberly as firefighters and volunteers carried out soaked and partially burnt paintings - the few remnants of the collection. His emotions and assessment of the event were profoundly pessimistic:
Elena Zavodskaya: What can you say about this tragedy?
Sergei Tsvizhba: I am not alive; we are living dead. What can I say?
Should someone be held responsible for this?
- All of us, the entire nation. Everyone is equally responsible.
For what exactly?
- For the state the National Art Gallery was in. We knew this would happen; we talked about it every time, with both the past leadership and the current one, but our concerns were met with zero attention.
How was the condition of the storage facility?
- Terrible. The paintings shouldn't have been left there. There was a fire here 15 years ago, during the day. We were all here, trying to remove the artworks, but it was impossible to save them all. That fire started from the rear part of the building due to the tenants. Thankfully, it was extinguished then.
What does the loss of the collection mean for Abkhazia, for the people, for artists?
- We are left without history, without a past, like savages. For me, it's comparable to the Latakia tragedy, that downed helicopter. It's irreparable.
What happens next?
- I don't know. The Union of Artists is also closed now. There's probably no future for us. For me, certainly no future, and perhaps for the young too, if we continue to treat ourselves this way. We are to blame for everything. The Georgians during the war couldn't do this, but we did.
Did the Union of Artists raise the issue of the Art Gallery and the storage of the collections?
- Constantly, endlessly. We reported on television many times, made programs…
And what was the government's response?
- That they have financial problems, showing absolute indifference. In my opinion, they don't understand what we lost. It doesn't get through to them, unfortunately.
When you say 'these people,' whom do you mean?
- Those on whom it depended. Couldn't 20-30 million rubles ($226K - $340K) be found in Abkhazia to repair a proper place and move the paintings there? When there was nothing, Vladislav (Ardzinba, the first president) allocated a place and covered the roof. All that was left was to make repairs. Vladislav found the money after the war; he thought about it. But who thought about it after him? From thousands of works, not even illustrations are left. It's a horror - Bubnova, Chachba-Shervashidze, Petrov, Kontarev, many others - it's our entire history, the history of Abkhazia. Nothing can be restored. In case of the archive, something might be brought from abroad, some materials might be restored. But here – no!
War veteran and public figure Akhra Bzhania commented on the unacceptable state of the National Art Gallery:
- We have suffered an irreparable loss, as is often said in such cases. Since the 1930s, we've been gathering our finest masters. Hundreds of works are lost. Probably, we all are to blame because such a national treasure should have been adequately protected and guarded, especially from such senseless accidents. I see the youth carrying out paintings; God grant that something is left. But it seems to me that much is irretrievably lost. This reflects our attitude towards our heritage, our failure to understand that we live not just for today. A hundred years, a thousand years will pass, and we'll be judged by these things... It shows our level of civilisation and irresponsibility. Why must we only think about what needs to be done after being struck by such a calamity? It's a heavy day, a day of irrevocable loss.
Akhra, in the 30 post-war years, has not one president, prime minister, or minister of culture done anything to address the Art Gallery's issues?
- That's exactly my point. They were probably approached, asked for help. But our culture is financed as an afterthought, though it is what will forever stand as a testament to our civilization, our inability to preserve our culture.
- This is a grave event for our culture, our historical memory, our spirituality. I hope we can learn from this. We must build our politics and management correctly, or we risk regressing into the Middle Ages, a semi-savage state. Why have a state for those who want to live outside their culture? They don't need a state at all, they don't deserve one.
Neither the president, the prime minister, nor the minister of culture, nor any officials were found at the site of the fire during the day. Perhaps they will remember the disaster later and come to witness the results, including the outcomes of their own efforts. Meanwhile, only firefighters and volunteers, amidst smoke and rain, strive to save what little remains.
This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.