Georgia: The Bishop, the School of Fine Arts and the Conflict Zone


In the village of Zemo Nikozi, memories of the 2008 war are hard to hide. The walls are riddled with bullets and shrapnel; a unit of Georgian soldiers is stationed in the cemetery behind a barricade of tires. A few hundred meters to the north stands a post manned by the Russian and South Ossetian armed forces.

The permanent tensions To exacerbated the common exodus to most rural areas of Georgia: according to census figures, the village’s population increased from 1,053 in 2004 to 643 a decade later.

But help for Zemo Nikozi came from an unlikely source. The Georgian Orthodox bishop of the region has established an art school and an international animation festival in the village.

“Bishop Isaiah convinced us to stay in Nikozi for the education of the children,” said resident Pelagia Gvaradze, 42, mother of six. Gvaradze and her family were forced to flee their home in a nearby village, Achabeti. But this village ended up on the other side of the de facto border that emerged as a result of the 2008 war, so the family moved into their parents’ house, which was itself damaged by war.

The family considered moving to the nearby town of Gori, where schools have a better reputation and where the government has given them a chalet in a camp for internally displaced people. But the presence of the art school convinces her to stay in Zemo Nikozi.

Nikozi Art School offers local students a variety of classes after the end of the regular school day, in subjects such as design, choreography, ceramics, piano, folk song and instrumental music, literature, embroidery and doll making. There are also English and Russian language classes, Bible studies, and even indoor rock climbing.

“In Gori, I would not have the means to enroll even one of my children in a cultural activity, whereas here they have all taken several courses each year, it is of great help. Said Gvaradze. “Many other families have stayed here thanks to the art school.”

(Facebook / InternationalAnimationFilmFestivalNikozi)

The school’s greatest achievement to date is Giorgi Magradze, who studied folk music at the Nikozi art school and piano, before switching to oboe and graduating from Tbilisi State Conservatory and enrolling in a master’s program in Switzerland.

“It was at the Nikozi art school that my teacher introduced me to classical music and the works of Bach and Mozart,” Magradze told Eurasianet. “Without school, I wouldn’t have become a musician.

“We can say that Giorgi reached for the stars, but so did all the other children,” Bishop Isaiah told Eurasianet. “Years spent in this art school will not disappear and maybe this place will remain a bright spot for them; it is probably an even greater joy if the years spent here help someone at their critical moment in life.

Bishop Isaiah
Bishop Isaiah (Julien Pebrel / MYOP)

Isaiah – born Zurab Tchanturia – tried unsuccessfully to enter Tbilisi State Academy of Arts in the early 1980s. After having worked for several years in painting workshops, he managed to get hired in an animation studio run by famous director Gela Kandelaki. Eventually he studied with Kandelaki in the animation program of the Shota Rustaveli Theater and Film University, but when he graduated it was in 1993, at the height of Georgia’s post-Soviet instability, and there were few options for a facilitator.

If events in our country had developed differently, I might have remained in animation, my favorite field, ”he said. Instead, he chose religious life, joining a monastery in Abkhazia in 1993. He was forced to flee several months later, however, for a monastery near Tbilisi. In 1994 he officially became a monk and the following year Patriarch Ilia II appointed him bishop of Nikozi and Tskhinvali.

He informally began educational programs in 2004 with drawing and reading groups, as well as animation workshops, but the 2008 war provided the impetus (as well as support from foreign donors) to develop them further. . “I thank the war for its unwitting kindness,” Isaiah said. “The war is destruction and a lot of our facilities have been bombed, but it has brought us so much good also.”

Zemo Nikozi Card

Isaiah started art school in 2009, which he then followed with the formation of the Nikozi International Animation Film Festival two years later.

The festival, despite its humble origins, quickly acquired an international stature and now maintains permanent partnerships with several major European festivals and academies.

“If I was the coordinator 10 years ago, I would think it was really unimaginable to organize a festival in Nikozi because no one would be interested,” said Eter Glurjidze, 23, a graduate of the school of ‘art and now the coordinator of the animation festival. “But for each edition, the number of countries from which the guests came increased more and more.”

The festival may even soon have a new modern venue: a “Nikozi Palace of Arts”Which will include an exhibition space, a rehearsal studio, dining rooms and a 300-seat room. The source of the funding remains uncertain, but former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia recently visited Nikozi and pledged 100,000 lari (around $ 32,000) to the effort. A call for tenders for the construction should be announced soon.

The festival usually takes place in early September, but it has been postponed this year due to the dire COVID situation in Georgia. Isaiah, meanwhile, is working on his own short film creative documentary on the war that he hopes to become a feature film.

“Cultural activities are very close to spirituality,” said Isaiah. “Art is an area where you can build bridges between people and different cultures. […] I think this is one of the most valuable things I do in my practice.


Kayleen C. Rice

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