Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural - Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

The terracotta mural portraying a group of telecommunications workers is an interesting, and in some aspects quite charming, piece of public art which is probably missed by the vast majority of visitors to the once immensely popular, and populous, spa town of Tskaltubo, not far from the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia.

Socialist Realist?

I am presenting it here for its curiosity value alone and do not plan to look too deeply into what is depicted as I don’t consider it fits into the definition I’ve been following of Socialist Realist art.

Just because a piece of art is produced and put on show in a country that calls itself ‘socialist’ doesn’t then – automatically – mean that it is a ‘Socialist Realist’ work of art. Realist yes, even social realist, but not Socialist Realist.

This mural, showing workers doing their job, is radically different from the mural that sits above the main entrance to Spring No. 6 – which is only a few minutes walk away.

That mural, which represents a visit of Joseph Stalin to the town in the early 1950s, had a very specific rationale. It was produced to demonstrate a unity between the people in one of the Republics on the edge of the vast USSR with the leadership in the capital of Moscow.

On the other hand the mural on the wall of the telephone exchange is mere decoration. Charming though it may be.

The terracotta mural is of a much later date (although the exact one I don’t know – but would guess 1970s at the earliest). And that’s important. Three years after the death of Stalin in 1953 the then leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, not only denounced Joseph Stalin as an individual he basically attacked all the gains and victories that had been achieved since the October Revolution of 1917. He didn’t say that (after all he was a traitor to Marxism-Leninism and had to hide his revisionism from the assembled delegates at the 20th Party Congress) but all that happened during his time at the head of the Party and country, as with subsequent ‘leaders’ until 1990, was to turn back the construction of Socialism and allow the re-establishment of capitalism in the world’s first ‘Communist State’.

So those works of art produced from the mid-1950s onwards weren’t produced to aid the development of Socialism but to reflect the capitalist road on which the Soviet Union was now following. I will accept that there might have been works of art that challenged the change of direction but they still couldn’t be considered Socialist Realist as the economic base of the country was no longer socialist.

The Mural

Although the main body of the mural – which stretches the width of the shortest wall of the large rectangular telephone exchange – depicts men (and they are all men) in the task of erecting telegraph poles in an effort to create a means of long distance communication between the young couple at the extreme right and left of the mural. This is a 20th century activity but their look is essentially from the pre-revolutionary period.

This is especially the case if you look at the heads of all the workers. Their hairstyles are what you’d expect to see on some classical Greek sculpture and even their clothes point to an earlier era. This more ‘traditional’ dress is accentuated with the style of the clothing of the two young people at either end. It says more late 19th rather than late 20th century.

All the activity in the centre seems to be geared to uniting these two young ‘lovers’. They are in rural settings whereas the telecommunication workers indicate a city and industrial environment. The young woman is bringing a telephone receiver (the style of which you only see in museums now but which was ubiquitous for the majority of time of telephonic communication) to her left ear. Why the male doesn’t also hold a handset is confusing. He just seems as if he were walking on a cloud, not really aware of anything.

Georgian post-socialist depiction of women

Georgian post-socialist depiction of women

As for the young woman I have to make reference to her breasts as the unreal depiction of the female breast is ubiquitous in Georgian sculpture of the revisionist (post Socialist) period in the country’s cultural history. The breasts seem like small bowls that have been plunked on their chests. The vast majority of sculptures of women produced during times of the construction of Socialism I wouldn’t exactly say play down the female form but in Georgia it wasn’t until the success of revisionism that the emphasis on shape, and sexuality, seems to have become the norm.

This can be seen most obviously (sic) in the large sculpture of ‘Mother Georgia’ in the hills above Tbilisi. There are other examples; on the market mural, the sculptural group in the centre of the town as well as a number of (damaged) female sculptures in the courtyard of the Kakabadze Fine Art Gallery all in Kutaisi; the facade of the magistrates court in Tskaltubo; and even on the large sculpture of ‘Victory’ which dominates the hill above the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Vake Park in Tbilisi. (Links to these locations to follow.)

Contrast all these depictions with the only two female sculptures from the Socialist period still on public show, that I’ve seen in Georgia, which are part of the façade of the Rustaveli Cinema on Rustaveli Avenue in the centre of Tbilisi.

If we refer to another country which depict women in Socialist Realist art then there are many examples in Albania. To select just a couple there’s the the statue of Liri Gero (behind the National Art Gallery) in Tirana – but contrast that with the very recent sculpture in her home town of Fier where she looks like a 21st century young woman out on the town on a Friday night – or the sculpture of the female partisan and child in the Lushnje Martyrs’ Cemetery

How the mural is made

Method of construction

Method of construction

The method of construction is also quite unique (at least for me) in that rather large chunks of the terracotta seem to be made and then all is revealed when the pieces are put together as in a very large, three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. This same technique is also used in the mural on the west facing wall of the market in Kutaisi – not far from the marshrutka (mini-bus) stop to Tskaltubo. More information will be provided as and when I come across it.

Location

On the left on left as you go down Tseretseli Street from the main bazaar towards Central Park.

GPS

42.3271

42.6001

How to get to Tskaltubo

Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.

Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)

When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.

To get to the telephone exchange and the Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up) and the mural is on the left just as the road heads slightly down hill – the park spread out in front of you.

Chinese Revolutionary Art – 1975

Chairman Mao Tse-tung

Chairman Mao Tse-tung

More on China …..

Chinese Revolutionary Art – 1975

So far the emphasis on this blog has been on those examples of Socialist Realist art that I have encountered on various visits to Albania in the past few years – especially the ‘lapidars’ (public monuments and sculptures). One of the drivers for starting this project was the fear that due to both active political vandalism and simple lack of care many of these unique works of socialist art were likely to disappear in the near future and would be lost to posterity.

The Albanian Lapidar Survey of 2014 meant that, at least, those monuments that still existed and were identified at the time would be recorded in as much detail as possible, including a comprehensive photographic record of their condition in 2014. The fate of those lapidars has varied in the intervening years, some suffering further decay others suffering inappropriate (if at times well meaning) and destructive ‘renovation’.

With many of the lapidars I have visited I have attempted to carry out a deep reading of what they represent and have tried to put them in their historical context. I don’t even try to maintain that I have always got it right but in lieu of any other such record (much information about the more than 650 lapidars covered in the ALS investigation – and many other works of art, such as bas reliefs, mosaics, etc. – having been destroyed or lost in the chaotic years of the 1990s) I hope my efforts can help in reconstructing a comprehensive data base for the future. Although many have already been written about on this blog there are still many to follow.

Travelling quite extensively around the country I have encountered artistic elements of the socialist past that were outside the remit of the ALS. That includes the likes of the mosaics (Bestrove, Tirana Historical Museum and on the Bashkia in Ura Vajgurore – to name a few) and bas reliefs (for example, the Durres Tobacco Factory and Radio Kukesi) already mention as well as paintings (in the National Art Gallery in Tirana), statues (including the ‘Sculpture Park‘ behind the National Art Gallery and the 68 Girls of Fier), stand alone structures (such as the Party Emblem in Peshkopia) and murals (such as the Traditional Wedding Mural in the hotel restaurant also in Peshkopia), exhibits in museums and a number of other works that have (sometimes) miraculously survived the 30 years following the success of the counter-revolution.

By the time the Party of Labour of Albania had achieved victory over the fascist invaders in November 1944 the idea of Socialist Realist Art as something Socialist countries should encourage had become entrenched in the thinking of revolutionary Marxist-Leninists. I presented my interpretation of this when discussing art in Albania but the same arguments would suit the use of art in the other major Socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union and China.

I intend to look at Soviet Socialist Realist Art, initially, by reading the stories being told in the Metro stations, principally of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and Moscow.

When it comes to the People’s Republic of China there are already examples of the use of art in the struggle to establish Socialism in the pages of Chinese Literature. Various issues of that magazine are available from 1953 to 1981 (the final 5 years an example of how literature and art can be used to turn back Socialism in a similar way it was used to promote Socialism from 1949 till just after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976).

The Chinese approach to literature and art can also be gleaned from the works of the writer and cultural theorist Lu Hsun.

Here I present a slide show of a collection of posters from the last, full revolutionary year of the People’s Republic of China (1975) to give an idea of how Chinese poster art had developed to that date.

More on China …..

Demonstrations in central Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Demonstration - 26th November 2018

Buenos Aires Demonstration – 26th November 2018

The day of the demonstration – or two

I was lucky on my first Monday morning in Buenos Aires/Argentina. I was looking for a shop to get a local SIM card. I didn’t find the place I was looking for but in the process came across people congregating for a demonstration – or was it two?

It seems that the little garden area to the south of the Obelisk, on Avenida 9 de Julio, in the central part of Buenos Aires is the traditional starting place for workers’ demonstrations. Arriving at that part of the city at around 11.00 on Monday 26th November 2018 I noticed a number of banners and went to investigate.

It was immediately obvious that this was a left-wing, anti-government gathering. The first banner I saw was one of the MST (Movimiento Sin Trabajo – Unemployed Workers Movement) but this was still in the early stages of people arriving and others were in the process of fixing their banners to their carrying poles.

In various Latin American countries there’s a form of displaying your banners and statements which is nation specific. Many countries don’t use poles at all and the banner is carried in the hands of the supporters. In many ways these banners are not designed to be preserved but address a particular issue. Here in Argentina they seem to go closer to what was the British tradition. That’s having a distinctive and long-term banner which indicates who the organisation is that is supporting the aims of the march.

Whilst not being as ornate as some of the Trade Union Banners that used to be paraded through the streets of various cities and towns of Britain (many of which, with factory and whole industry closures many of these are now only seen in the museum context of the People’s History Museum in Manchester) some of the banners had had significant time and effort expended upon their creation.

There was a variety of Party Political banners (not all of their political allegiance I could work out) but also a number of very local neighbourhood (barrio) banners. I liked that approach, in a way, as it was good that people are demonstrating in a way that shows solidarity based on where they lived. Trade Unions having been attacked and seriously challenged in all countries for various reasons what the working class needs are organisations which bring people together with something in common. ‘Issue politics’, which is becoming dominant throughout the world divides us rather than unites us. Where the working class live is still a positive uniting and organisation positive.

As we got closer to midday more and more people started to arrive. This demonstration was not going to be damp squib. But at that time I didn’t know of the strange situation that existed, but which all those there did.

One matter that struck me as I walked amongst this crowd (which had a higher presence of women than most of the demonstrations I have been on) was that this was not a representative selection of people from Argentinian society. I’ve only been here for a few days but on the streets there’s a mix of people from those with European features to those whose roots are obviously from a pre-Columbian culture. The latter tend to be shorter and with a darker complexion.

The overwhelming features of the crowd congregating close to the Obelisk were with an indigenous background. This is not really surprising. Throughout Latin America those with roots pre-Hispanic invasion are lucky to have survived. Those who have will almost invariably get the dirty end of the stick. Racism is as rife in Latin America as in other parts of the world. This ‘racial divide’ indicates that Argentina still has some way to go if the workers want to face the severe situation that is worsening by the day.

What was surprising, and disappointing, when I had the chance to think about my chance experience, was the lack of any organised, working class, trade union presence at this gathering. If they were there then I didn’t see them and there were certainly no work related banners. Organised labour was absent and that has obvious serious consequences for any struggle. It just demonstrates the effectiveness of the ruling class in being able to divert any struggle into a local matter (however important) rather than confront issues from a class standpoint.

This ‘neighbourhood environment, however, did have its positives. There was evidence that the ‘barrios’ had organised food for the people who had come to the demonstration. Some of them marched as a group to the meeting place, together with their drummers. As a foreigner I could see that people wanted to be with those they knew, their neighbours and friends. The jockeying for places was something I’ve never seen in the many demonstrations I’ve been on in my political life.

Without any announcement, at least which I heard, at 12.00 a section of the crowd moved away from the garden in the middle of what I understand is supposed to be the widest road in the world and started to form up at one of the slip roads.

Remembering two martyrs

Remembering two martyrs

But I should be giving an explanation of why this demonstration was taking place at all, To the best of my knowledge it was a reaction to the murder of a 36 year old activist, Rodrigo Orellana, who was involved in the occupation of a piece of empty land in an area to the south of Buenos Aires. He was shot in the back by the police very early in the morning of Thursday 22nd November. Another activist, Marcos Jesus Soria was killed by police in Cordoba last Saturday. There were other issues, there always are, in a time when the working class throughout the world are still paying the cost of the last capitalist crisis with the next one only around the corner, but Rodrigo’s and Marcos’s murders seems to have been the main reason for the calling of this demonstration, when the week itself was full of events due to the G20 meeting.

If I have read the situation correctly it was very impressive that so many people could have been called out onto the streets in such a short space of time.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Up to now there had been no obvious police presence. That changed when the first part of the demonstration moved away from the garden and onto the road. At first I was pleased that so many people were on the streets and would cause traffic chaos. But however many people were there it was all controlled by a couple of motorcycle, city police who were at the front of the march. The hundreds, thousands, of people who were on to the road would only be allowed to cross an intersection if the chaos of people blocking junctions could be minimised.

For reasons that make no sense, other than making a statement that the state is always ready to stand up against any workers manifestation of defiance, at the very place where the head of the march formed up, a contingent of about 30 riot police, with all their ‘necessary’ equipment were standing on the pavement, letting the demonstrators (many of whom were with very young children) know who was really in control. These miserable lapdogs of the ruling class are a carbuncle on society – in whatever country they might appear – and a rational approach to how to deal with them is something that should be in the thoughts of all revolutionaries. As a demonstration of female inclusiveness there was one woman, at least, in this group of state-sponsored and armed thugs.

Slowly more people joined the others on the road and the area around the garden started to empty out and eventually the MST banner mentioned above was at the rear. For some reason there appeared to be some hesitation to move off but when it did I was bemused to see that there were still hundreds of people, and a not inconsiderable number of banners still by the Obelisk – and there was no sign that they were going to move. All kinds of thoughts came through my mind. Was there some sort of political schism that I was unaware of and there had been a decision to split the march? I certainly hadn’t been aware of any animosity when I was mingling with the crowd. I just couldn’t work it out.

The march moves off

The march moves off

I followed the march for a few blocks to just before it turned right off the main avenue, heading in the direction of the Congress Building only a few more blocks away. I didn’t know what to do. I would have liked to have seen the march to its end but wanted to try to find out the reason why those who had not joined the march did so.

(From my political point of view I did see a banner and a flag of an organisation calling itself the ‘Partido Revolutionario Marxista-Leninista – which doesn’t seem to have an Internet presence (which I personally is over-rated but must be there if for no other reason that to direct people to Party publications and activities) so don’t know if it is a realistic entity. Depending upon my future plans I will attempt to search out this group in the coming weeks.)

Arriving back at the meeting point it was soon obvious that this was very much a neighbourhood event (ALL the banners were displaying that fact) as speakers were making their thoughts known. However, the PA system was far too inadequate for any but those really close to the speakers to be able to hear anything. Being at a busy traffic intersection didn’t help. This rally was also about deaths at the hands of the authorities and probably had been planned for some time – the reason that two separate demonstrations were taking place at the same time.

I don’t know if that rally was to later go on the streets and make their feelings known at a government building as the rally seemed to be going on forever and there was no sign of movement. Later that evening, reading a newspaper in a bar, a lot of my questions were answered – even more so the next day when the big demo that had moved towards the Congress Building was reported in Tuesday’s papers. I didn’t see any mention of the rally.

I can see that there might have been a desire on behalf of the organisers and supporters of this neighbourhood rally to have their case separate, in the hope of giving the issue more publicity but I don’t really understand why some effort wasn’t made to incorporate the original cause in the wider movement.

An efficient and effective PA could have been set up and the speakers could have addressed the whole of the crowd that had assembled. Then together the expanded group could have marched to the Congress. Nothing will change based on either of those two events but it would have been a move forward to unite all the grievances of the people against the ruling class of Argentina and the world.

(When I first planned this post I wasn’t aware that the 2018 G20 summit was due to take place here at the end of this week. That presents a couple of issues. First is that the area I am staying in will be virtually shut down from Thursday night until late on Sunday. That creates a logistical problem as I have a flight to the south early on Friday morning and, as of now, have no idea how to get to the airport as all the buses and transport are seriously disrupted. The other issue is that I would like to be here as I know there are a number of demonstrations planned and I’ll miss out. Hopefully, the Argentinian National Airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, are planning strike action this week and that might give me the opportunity to change my flight and stay for another few days. Time will tell.)

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