Abkhazia, fire devastates the National Museum of Fine Arts

A fire broke out on Sunday January 21 in the building which houses the entire collection of Abkhazian pictorial art, destroying nearly 4,000 works of 20th century art. Only 200 paintings survived, saved by residents who rushed to remove them from the burning building. It is an inestimable loss for this former autonomous republic of Georgia, whose independence – proclaimed in 1992 – is only recognized by Russia and six other allied states.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Suram Sakaniya, the museum director attributes it to a short circuit in the electrical wiring. Local authorities say they are investigating all possible scenarios, including that of arson.

For Suram Sakaniya, the disappearance of this collection is a real tragedy. “This is irreparable damage for us, it is impossible to assess the damage caused to Abkhazian culture”, he complains to the local newspaper Apsnypress. Olga Lyubimova, Russia’s culture minister, has promised help from Russian specialists in restoring the surviving paintings.

Gathered since 1963, the collection was kept on the second floor of the central exhibition hall, in the heart of the city of Sukhumi (65,000 inhabitants), the capital of the territory. It included works by local and Russian artists, such as Varvara Boubnova (1886-1983) or active artists such as Serguey Sangalov (born in 1959) or Alexander Gabelia (born in 1984). Among the destroyed works, 300 were created by the painter and scenographer Aleksandr Chachba-Sharvashidze (1867-1968), an important figure in Abkhazian art.

Georgian President Salomé Zourabichvili considers that the fire is “a direct consequence of the neglect of cultural identity on the part of both Russian leaders and occupiers”. The collection was in fact kept in very poor conditions, crammed without protection in small rooms and narrow corridors of a building shared with the Abkhazian Artists’ Union. The local authorities had committed to building a specific building so that the works could be properly exhibited, but this promise never came to fruition. In 2016, director Suram Sakaniya himself described the premises as “not suitable for the storage of paintings, nor for their exhibition in any manner whatsoever”. This situation is the result of insufficient aid from the Abkhazian state, which allocated 30 million rubles (around 310,000 euros) to culture in 2023.

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