On September 8, 2016, doctoral student Giorgi Papashvili gave a presentation for the Central Eurasian Colloquium titled “The Ethnographic Portrait of the Caucasus around 1900.” His talk focused mostly on paintings and portraits produced during the late 19th century by Georgian artists. He emphasized how outside cultural influences, mainly those from nearby Russia and Iran, played into the human “types” that were depicted in the various pieces.
Papshvili focused on three main themes that influenced the various works being created during that time period: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Nationalism. Even though Georgia always remained a secular state, Papashvili pointed out the importance of Christian and Muslim influences that were evident in the artwork and architecture of the earlier periods leading up to the creation of the ethnographic portraits, which depict mostly Oriental qualities. For example, Qajar art, which refers to artwork and architecture produced during the period of the Qajar Dynasty in Iran (1789-1925), can be seen vividly in early Georgian paintings and daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s. Papashvili pointed out that one Georgian artist in particular, Lado Gudiashvili, actually capitalized on the Oriental stereotype associated with Georgia at that time. Papashvili stated, “Even though he studied in Paris among some of the great western artists of the time, such as Monet, he still represented himself as Asian,” referring to a black and white self-portrait of the artist where Lado is dressed in traditional Georgian attire of that time period. Unlike many artists who were flocking to Paris to capitalize on the nouveau modernism style, Lado stuck to his Georgian roots.
Papashvili claims that Georgia has often suffered an identity crisis throughout its history as a nation, even before being absorbed into the Soviet Union. This can also be seen in the paintings and photography that he has been studying. Papashvili insisted that even though the country always strived for autonomy within its borders, it was continually bombarded by stereotypes from all sides. Papashvili argued that, “Russia always referred to Georgia as being an ‘exotic’ place, while western countries considered it as part of the Byzantine Empire.” Papashvili presented a series of photographs depicting men with similar features – large eyes and thick facial hair – that, he argued, became thought of as a negative stereotype for the Georgian people.
Hayley Pangle, a dual degree graduate student in both Central Asian studies and Library Science who was in attendance, was very interested in the self-portraits. She said the photographs gave her a bit of nostalgia. She traveled throughout the region when she was a 2014 - 2015 Fulbright Scholar in Azerbaijan. “I was so entranced by all of the pictures. They really took me back to my trips to Georgia,” she stated after the presentation.
Mr. Papashvili is currently a doctoral student at Tbilisi State Academy of Arts as well as a Research Fellow at George Chubinashvili National Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation. He has been in the U.S. for several months as a Fellow of the Smithsonian Institute’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. His talk was sponsored by the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, and the Russian and East European Institute.