A fire in the capital city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, an autonomous breakaway region of Georgia, engulfed the national art museum and destroyed over 4,000 works. Only around 200 paintings survived the blaze, a devastating blow to the small territory’s cultural heritage.
Flames erupted at Abkhazia’s National Art Gallery around 3:30am on Sunday, January 21. Eleven fire crews arrived at the scene and extinguished the blaze at 7am. The museum’s Director Suram Sakania told local news outlet Apsny Press that emergency responders blamed the disaster on a shorted electric circuit.
The institution, which opened to the public in 1963, contained historic and contemporary works by artists including Varvara Bubnova and Sergey Sangalov. The museum also held over 300 illustrations by early 20th-century stage designer Alexander Shervashidze, considered to be Abkhazia’s first professional artist. None of his designs survived.
“This is an irreparable loss for the national culture of Abkhazia,” Acting Minister of Culture Dinara Smyr said in a statement.
Situated on the Black Sea, Abkhazia separated from Georgia in a 1992–1993 war that elicited human rights concerns from the international community. After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, a days-long conflict prompted by Russia’s invasion of its southern neighbor, Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation. Only a handful of other countries have agreed with the designation, and Georgia categorizes Abkhazia as a Russian-occupied territory.
“The fire that destroyed Sokhumi’s National Gallery in occupied Abkhazia is a tragedy for us all,” Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili wrote on X. “I deplore what is a direct consequence of the neglect of cultural identity both by the de facto leadership and the Russian occupants.”
Photographer Liza Chanba, who grew up in Sukhumi and helped to rescue the 200 spared paintings, told Hyperallergic about her childhood strolls through the National Art Gallery with her father. “We visited all the important exhibitions together, hand in hand,” Chanba said. Later, she began traveling to the institution by herself and started working as a photographer for the museum.
“I was in a state of shock as soon as I heard about what happened,” Chanba said. She arrived at the National Art Gallery while the firefighters were still there, managing to enter the building even though there was still smoke inside.
“Those who were nearby decided to quickly free and save what was left,” Chanba continued. She captured video footage of firefighters and volunteers carrying blackened paintings from the rubble.
“I hope that at least something will remain in the memory of my children,” said Chanba.
Abkhazia’s Ministry of Culture wrote on Telegram that a team of representatives from Russian institutions, including Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, will inspect the National Art Gallery’s remaining paintings and draft a plan for their restoration.