Abkhazia artist Andro Wekua captures pre-war childhood

Image caption Georgian artist Andro Wekua uses old photographs to reconstruct images and memories of Abkhazia

As the disputed region of Abkhazia elects a new president, one Georgian artist tells the BBC's World Service about his childhood there in Soviet days, before the war which changed everything.

On 25 August, 2008 the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia was recognised as an independent state by Russia.

The announcement was joyfully received in Abkhazia but it put an end to any faint hope of return for thousands of Georgians who had fled their homes in Abkhazia in the war of 1992-93.

Andro Wekua, an artist based in Berlin, was just 13 years old when his family fled the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi.

Wekua uses flashbacks from his childhood to create the narrative of his artwork, and in one of his latest pieces he has re-imagined the Sukhumi of his youth in ghostly sculptures of the town.

"All these buildings here are made from my memory or from photos I've been collecting for years," he explains. "I had 1,500 photos and I've only recreated a few dozen buildings.

"I just wanted to show an empty ghost city. It was full of life and people, and then something happened. People left. So here it's abandoned, waiting for something."

Ice cream

The sculpture brings together the hotels and cafes of Wekua's youth, places where he sat eating scoops of ice cream from silver cups, while playing truant from school.

Image caption The Communist Party headquarters was at the centre of ethnic and political tensions even before the war of 1992-93 started

But the Sukhumi that Wekua has recreated is far from idyllic.

"I don't have any good memories or positive thoughts linked to this government building," he says describing his model of the Communist Party headquarters.

"It's ugly but I had to reconstruct it, as it was part of the city.

"I remember once I had to march in front of it at a special Soviet festival… I was in my Young Pioneer [communist party youth movement] uniform and I was holding a big balloon. Even this memory is blurred."

The end of the 1980s in Abkhazia was a turbulent and chaotic time. As the Soviet system started to collapse, protests broke out across the region affecting everything from workplaces to schools.

When Georgia broke free from the USSR 20 years ago, in 1991, Abkhazia was part of the new independent country - but the secession caused a rift among Abkhaz people.

Some groups called for independence for the region while others opted to side with Russia.

Parallel world

Wekua was still a young boy and took advantage of the emerging chaos to run truant around the playground that was his home town.

"When all the demonstrations started and the Soviet system started slowly collapsing, even our school was affected," he remembers.

"It wasn't as strict anymore. So we used to turn up in the morning, then decide where to go for the day.

"I lived in a parallel world that had absolutely nothing to do with protests and demonstrations.

"Everything changed when these problems reached me and turned my world upside down - when my father was killed."

Andro's father, Vova Wekua, was a leader of the dissident group that supported Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union.

He was said to be the only Georgian freedom activist friendly with Abkhaz intellectuals and thinkers and was able to mediate between those who supported the secession and Abkhaz nationalists who sided with Russia.

Father's death

But as a child Andro was totally unaware of the hostilities in his seaside paradise, or about his father's role.

"We spoke sometimes but never about politics, my memory recalls episodes of conversation about everyday, very ordinary things… He never spoke about his ideas and what he was fighting for."

Underground meetings of dissidents were often held in Wekua's house but the young boy was blissfully unaware of the impending trouble.

"Sometimes I saw people discussing things and planning action in our dining room, but my mind was elsewhere and I never took an interest in what my father was doing."

In 1989, Vova Wekua was attacked and killed at a demonstration in Sukhumi. He had been calling for reconciliation between Abkhazia and Georgia and his views had made him unpopular with extreme Abkhaz nationalists.

Shortly after his death Georgia was declared independent, but the ethnic tensions in Abkhazia escalated, leading to armed conflict in 1992.

When the war began, Wekua's family took refuge in Tbilisi. It was meant to be a temporary move but when Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 1999 their hopes of returning faded away. The artist has yet to return to the seaside resort of his childhood.

"After leaving Sukhumi my life has never been the same. I've moved from country to country and lived in different places but I've never been able to have the same freedom, the same carefree and relaxed life," he says. "I was free and I was happy, that's it."

Andro Wekua was speaking to Outlook on the BBC World Service. For more extraordinary personal stories listen to the programmevia iPlayerordownloadthe podcast

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