Fungus, an Art Collective in Tbilisi, Thrives in the Light

Reinterpretation of André Masson's cover for the first issue of Acéphale [1936]). Photograph courtes...
KOI., “Désarméé,” (Reinterpretation of André Masson's cover for the first issue of Acéphale [1936]). Photograph courtesy of Fungus Collective.

At Tbilisi Culture Week in early November—a joint venture by promoters from Tbilisi and Kyiv—the artist Uta Bekaia performed in a heavy synthetic leather costume of roots and branches, rolling on the floor for a stamina-challenging half hour. “It is carrying toxic masculinity on your shoulders, traditions on your back, that make you what you are—and it’s a heavy burden,” he said of the inspiration behind the performance piece afterwards.

The artist had been invited there to perform as the co-founder and elder statesman of Project Fungus, an art collective in Tbilisi that serves as a support group and social network for young queer artists. A burly man with a bald head, bushy black beard, and hoop earrings, Bekaia, 46, left his native Georgia in 1998 and settled in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “I was a young queer man, very confused,” he said. “We were very lost in the post-Soviet situation. We saw the system crumble with our own eyes. When you’re that age, you need your tribe. Going from a crumbling Soviet state to New York, it was like someone hit me with a hammer over the head. It was so intense.” He found employment in New York as a theatrical set and costume designer.

Five years ago, he returned to Tbilisi and, for the first time since his move to New York, stayed for a long time. “I started going to queer parties,” he said. “Techno is very advanced here. There would be queer nights with performances made by queer kids. That was the only safe place they could express themselves. It was something I had never seen.”

Inside the exhibition.

Photograph courtesy of Fungus Collective
GOD ERA x Lasha Kabanashvili. Photograph courtesy of Fungus Collective.

He decided he wanted to support it. “It is something that should come to light, even though it is beautiful and happens in the dark and you have to be careful not to fuck it up,” he said. “It was important for me to work with young kids. I felt like their mom a little.”

Sofia Tchkonia, who had created Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Tbilisi, brought on Bekaia and his young colleagues to participate in November 2020. “Sofia wanted to widen her perspective,” he said. “And fashion is a safe space for queer people. I thought it would be a good place to do what we were doing.” Because of Covid, the event was shifted to the digital sphere. The new queer art collective contributed a video.

Uta Bekaia, “Lost in patriotism.” Photograph courtesy of Fungus Collective.
Tony, "This Rage of mine." Photograph courtesy of Fungus Collective.

It was going to be a one-off. Then two young artists, Mariko Chanturia and David Apakidze, wrote a manifesto for the group. “That changed everything,” Bekaia said. “The idea of creating something long-term was generated by the manifesto.” In the text, the role of queer culture is likened to a fungus that grows in the dark and is neither a plant nor an animal. “Like fungus, we do not fully comply with social and cultural norms,” it reads. “We thrive wherever we get even a little chance to grow….We all have our own habitation rules, we speak different languages, but we are all rooted to one fungus base, whose task is to destroy the accepted social construct that seems to be standing firm, but actually rots from the inside.”

Project Fungus traveled to Ukraine in fall 2021 for Kyiv Art & Fashion Days, another Tchkonia enterprise. It called its exhibition “Anti-Fashion.” “The concept came from the idea that fashion steals the identity of queer people and uses it and doesn’t give credit back to where it came from,” Bekaia said. “It was five or six Georgian artists at a club for only two or three days.”

Less transiently, Fungus last spring leased a headquarters in a hip Tbilisi neighborhood of century-old buildings near the river. The ground floor serves as a gallery, and upstairs there is a place for the artists to hang out and occasionally hold meetings. “In the exhibitions that we do, a lot of people come off the street and see the images, and they get used to it,” Bekaia said. “Before, they would only see gay parades that come from the West. It is easier for them to understand when you show them a queer identity that is very local. It’s not implanted but very natural. For me, the most important thing for Fungus is that it is in the daylight for everyone to see.”

Unknown soldier. “Ukraine, 2022.”


Although Tbilisi has progressed vastly in its tolerance of homosexuality since Bekaia’s youth, it is a far cry from Brooklyn. “Georgia is a very hard place to be openly queer,” he said. “This is a homophobic country. Sometimes it’s physically dangerous to be as authentic as you want to be. Homosexuality for the Georgian right wing is the first no-go of why we should be pro-Russian and not have Western culture here.”

He maintains an apartment in the New York City borough, but his primary devotion has transferred to Tbilisi. And not only because he has a Georgian boyfriend. “Since I moved here, I feel I have more purpose,” he said. “It is not just egoistic building my career and going to parties. I feel I am part of something.”