Fire Destroys 4,000 Paintings at Abkhazia’s National Art Gallery

The blaze, which spared only some 150 artworks, is a devastating cultural loss for the region

Fire at the National Art Gallery with emergency vehicles outside
Firefighters work to control the blaze at the National Art Gallery in Abkhazia on January 21. AP Photo / Robert Dzhpua

A devastating fire has destroyed almost all of the paintings at the National Art Gallery in Abkhazia, the region that broke away from Georgia in the ’90s. More than 4,000 artworks were lost in the blaze.

“We have been gathering this collection since 1963, and it went up in flames in seconds,” the gallery’s director, Suram Sakanya, tells BBC News’ Rayhan Demytrie. “Such a tragedy for us here in Abkhazia.”

According to a statement from Abkhazian officials, the fire began around 3:38 a.m. on January 21. It quickly spread through the central exhibition hall of the gallery, which is located in the capital city of Sukhumi. Officials think the blaze started at a nearby bank due to an electrical error, reports Ekho Kavkaza’s Elena Zavodskaya. By the morning, 11 fire crews from Sukhumi and nearby towns had gathered together and extinguished the flames.

Before the fire, many of the artworks had been stacked in crowded spaces “without adequate protection,” reports BBC News. Local artists had already been campaigning to move them to a safer location.

“We knew that this would happen. … We talked about it with both the previous leadership and the current one, but the response was zero attention,” artist Sergei Tsvizhba tells Ekho Kavkaza, per Google Translate. “We [are] left without history, without a past.”

The works destroyed in the fire include 300 paintings by Aleksandr Shervashidze-Chachba, known as “Abkhazia’s first professional artist,” according to the Art Newspaper’s Sophia Kishkovsky. He’s renowned for his portraits, landscapes, and genre paintings, and he worked with artists such as Pablo Picasso and Alexandre Benois.

Abkhazia shares borders with Russia and Georgia, and its status has long been disputed. While it declared independence from Georgia three decades ago, only a handful of countries recognize it as such. One of them is Russia, which maintains a military presence in Abkhazia. Most countries now classify it as a Russian-occupied territory.

In the aftermath of the fire, government officials from Russia and Georgia released statements about the cultural loss.

“The fire that destroyed Sokhumi’s National Gallery in occupied Abkhazia is a tragedy for us all,” says Salome Zourabichvili, Georgia’s president, on X, formerly Twitter. “I deplore what is a direct consequence of the neglect of cultural identity both by the de facto leadership and the Russian occupants.”

Zourabichvili adds: “I call on the international community to revive its attention to the protection of our cultural heritage in the occupied territories.”

Only about 150 paintings were saved from the fire, and Russian officials have announced they will send specialists to help restore them.

“There is a real tragedy in Sukhumi,” says Olga Lyubimova, Russia’s culture minister, in a Google-Translated statement. “Together with our colleagues from Abkhazia, we are thinking about how to help.”

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