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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abkhaz Refugee Builds House of Imagination

wpGeorgian sculptor Izana Goletiani walking through her "house" in Moscow, an exhibit that illustrates the devastation brought by war.
It is a house like no other, Izana Goletiani's. A house of imagination, of an idealized past that no longer exists many long years after Goletiani was forced to abandon her real home in one of the many nasty, little-noted wars of the post-Soviet decade of strife.

A decade after she had to leave it, Goletiani has rebuilt her lost home in a brick-walled exhibit hall in central Moscow, filling this new artistic version with bronze-sculpture depictions of refugees and papier-mache furniture, with poems of mourning and other totems of loss. On the seat of one chair lies a black-and-white picture of her friend, shot dead on the street.

Like so many others in the former Soviet Union, Goletiani is a refugee, her beloved house a ruin in an obscure place sundered by war. She is from Abkhazia, a region of Georgia taken over by pro-Russian separatists 10 years ago. As an ethnic Georgian, she cannot go back. For now, the little town of Gagra and the cozy house at 36 Sukhumskaya Ulitsa that she loved exist only in the memories she struggles not to forget.

"They said that my town died, and my home together with it," she laments in a poignant collection of writings, "Letters From a Derelict Home," that accompanies her exhibit. "I'm not to come back."

The exhibit, which opened last month at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Community Center in Moscow and will run through Sunday is a remarkable rendering in art of what wars do to real people, of how they rip past from future and force their victims to accept "tragic messages about the irrevocable," as Goletiani puts it.

It is a tribute not only to those displaced by the war in Abkhazia, but also to the millions more uprooted next door to Georgia by nearly a decade of on-again, off-again war in Chechnya. And to those who suffered in even more obscure post-Soviet conflicts in areas such as South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh. And to all "the victims of local wars," as her catalogue calls them.

With a new threat of war looming in Georgia and the long-running Chechen conflict yet to be resolved, her exhibit serves as a timely commentary on the consequences of post-Soviet violence.

But the idea of Goletiani's that art can help recover what politics has lost is not a popular notion today, with the Russian military bogged down in Chechnya. Few came to the opening of the exhibit. Some who did were disappointed, or disturbed by what they saw as Goletiani's use of art as anti-war propaganda. "It's upsetting to me," said one young lawyer as he left. "They shouldn't call this art. It's political agitation."

Such views make Goletiani's husband, Maxim Poleschuk, furious. "No one wants to have anything to do with this," said Poleschuk, an ethnic Russian who is a successful builder here. All the leaders of the Moscow art establishment had been invited, he said. None of them came. "They think it's politics; they don't want to touch it."

The controversy over Goletiani's intensely personal effort to come to terms with her lost home hints at a larger political truth. Although public opinion polls routinely report widespread opposition to the war in Chechnya, there is little, if any, sympathy for the civilian victims of the conflict and few protests. Television channels spend little time on the human costs of the war.

"Clearly, this is not a popular war," concluded one recent study conducted by U.S. scholars Theodore Gerber and Sarah Mendelson, based on extensive survey research. "But the reasons for the lack of popularity have little to do with concerns over human rights norms. Russians are twice as likely to direct their anger about the war toward the Chechens rather than the Russian government."

And increasingly, Georgians such as Goletiani who live in Moscow have also felt the wrath of Russians about the Chechen war. Just recently, President Vladimir Putin publicly warned that he was prepared to attack Georgia, blaming the Georgians for allowing a safe harbor for Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge.

Against such a backdrop, Goletiani's small act of artistic protest has become a rare thing here.

Even so, the opening had the warm, intimate feel of a housewarming party, filled with family and friends celebrating the new home Goletiani has imagined for herself. Clutching an enormous bouquet of flowers, the artist fussed over the photographs on the wall and wondered whether she should rearrange the furniture, even as her anxious mother urged the guests to eat and drink, tearfully toasting her daughter.

It was no ordinary house party. The pictures on the brick walls are all stark black-and-white images, hung askew, of buildings destroyed by war. There is Grozny, flattened by Russian bombing raids. And Sukhumi, the capital of Goletiani's beloved Abkhazia, with a row of eerie-looking palm trees populating the ruined plaza in front of a standard-issue Soviet government office.

In the center of the exhibit hall the "house" is a structure of four metal poles. One "wall" is a frame of charred and burned wood. There are papier-mache renderings of an austere chair, split in two; an umbrella, filled with holes; a child's ball; a book. Sculptures, all of them of women, populate the house. In one particularly gripping piece, an old woman sits on top of an oversize suitcase next to a bird, waiting patiently. It is clear she has nowhere to go.