Friday, December 19, 2003

It may come as a surprise that the Georgians of the former Soviet Union and the Basques of ancient Iberia, now Spain and Portugal, have a common ancestry, but early Greeks and Romans called those Georgians and Basques Iberians. Stalin was so offended by the idea that Basque blood might have mixed with Georgian that he forbade the use of the name during his rule.

Marc Zuver, 69, curator of the Latino-Caribbean alternative space Fondo del Sol near Dupont Circle, courageously decided to explore the connections of the two cultures in an adventurous exhibition called “En Homenaje a Nuestros Antepasados/In Homage to Our Ancestors.”

He visually explores the still-debated theory that Georgians moved some 10,000 years ago from the Black Sea area to what is now the Basque area of northern Spain. For example, he effectively juxtaposes works such as Georgian Mamuka Mikeladze’s painting (“Untitled”) of a human-headed bull embracing a woman with Nicaraguan Alejandro Arostegui’s fierce “Beast.” That painting also is of a bull, but one with a ghost rider rising from a metallic-looking saddle.

The show also illustrates how certain archetypal Iberian forms, such as heroes on horseback, exotic-looking women and godlike bulls, may have been carried by Spanish Basque descendants to Latin America.

In the first part of the display, “In Search of a Lost Iberia,” the curator exhibits the paintings of two Georgians, Mr. Mikeladze, 43, and Vladimir Kandelaki, 63, that are rarely seen in the United States. In the introductory exhibit label, Mr. Zuver underlines his main thesis: Georgians and Basques spring from similar cultural and genetic roots. He writes: “A pre-Indo-European language and the rare Type O and RH negative blood factor are common to both Basques and some Georgians.”

Mr. Zuver says, “More research on the genetic connections still needs to be done.”

In a different focus, the show’s second section illustrates how Georgian and Basque artistic prototypes traveled to the New World, as seen in the highly textured art by Mr. Arostegui, 68, and the surrealist photos shot by Cuban Rogelio Lopez Marin, 50 (a photographer also known as “Gory”).

Mr. Zuver then caps the first two displays with Michael Auld’s impressive sculptural installation “Surviving Genocide: Remembering Anacaona.” The Jamaican-born artist, 60, calls it a tribute to the Taino and Carib Indians — the powerful Anacaona was a legendary female Taino chief in the late 15th century.

Mr. Auld researched all the details — how the female leader Anacaona looked, the materials of her royal “bohio” hut where she sits in a hallucinatory “cahola trance” and the symbolic trappings surrounding her.

“Though this was a grisly period with the Spaniards’ slaughter of the Indians, the history of the Americas began in the Caribbean in the encounter between Columbus and the Tainos in 1492,” he says.

For the Georgian art section, Mr. Zuver enlisted the aid of Norton Dodge, 76, the foremost collector in the United States of what Mr. Dodge calls “nonconformist art” (or art hidden from the authorities) from the former Soviet Union.

The collector recently contributed most of his 22,000-work collection to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

He says one of his favorite republics in the former Soviet Union was Georgia, and he amassed about 1,000 works by 130 of its artists. He considers Mr. Kandelaki one of Georgia’s best, and he’s obviously the best in the Fondo del Sol exhibit. In one of the wall labels, the collector relates that Mr. Kandelaki’s “art has been shaped by his proud Georgia heritage and the … upheavals that affected him and his family … during revolution, civil war and three quarters of a century of Soviet oppression.” Mr. Dodge adds that the artist lived in Philadelphia for a short time.

The collector also remembers the artist’s rebellion from Soviet strictures against painting typical Georgian subjects. “His preferred subject matter revolves around Georgian history, folklore, customs and city life — nationalist themes disapproved of by censors in Moscow. He retreated to his native Georgia from the capital in the 1960s to delve into these themes,” the collector writes in the accompanying book, “Vladimir Kandelaki, Between Two Worlds” (Cross-Cultural Communications,1998), on sale in the center’s sales shop.

For example, Mr. Kandelaki painted the charming “Memories of My Childhood,” a large oil-on-canvas work, to show what for him was the quintessential Georgia in earlier times. The artist realistically depicts the slaughtering of sheep in the right center panel, a glass repairman in the far right section and children playing games in the left panel.

Later in the 1980s, the artist created openly anti-government works. He painted a series of festive processions that spoofed the Soviet propaganda of “We’re bigger and better.” A particularly stunning oil is “Autumn Celebration in the City,” which is still in the Dodge collection. It shows succulent, shiny, oversized pumpkins and grapes, wine jugs and celebratory feasting tables.

“House of Cards” marks an even further and more biting departure for the painter. Mr. Kandelaki shows the former Soviet republic as a giant, collapsing pile of playing cards. Celebrating Georgians march with trumpets and drums around the “House.”

The other Georgian chosen for the “In Search of a Lost Iberia” display is the younger Mikeladze. He painted the more poetic, heroic subjects of ancient Georgia and modeled some of his works after old Georgian wall paintings.

“King David on Horseback With Lion & Fawn” is the most charming. The artist paints both the king and the animals as gold-decorated flat shapes. The king looks out beseechingly at the viewer. The blues and greens are brilliant.

Like the Georgians, Cuban photographer “Gory” delves into memories of earlier times. He shows silver gelatin photos of deserted scenes in once-wealthy Cuban homes.

Whether visitors can follow Mr. Zuver’s complex, and sometimes, puzzling, connecting of ancient Iberian influences on New World art is questionable, but most of the art is definitely first-rate and challenging. The exhibit is most valuable in that it may inspire museums in the future, and they can research the subject with larger staffs and more art objects.

But, for now, it’s a unique show well worth visiting.

WHAT: “En Homenaje a Nuestros Antepasados/In Homage to Our Ancestors”

WHERE: Fondo del Sol, 2112 R St. NW

WHEN: 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, through March 1

TICKETS: $3 for adults, free for children

PHONE: 202/483-2777

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