Alexandra Bernshtein is a Belarusian ceramist. After the outbreak of a full-scale war in Ukraine, Sasha left Belarus and now continues her business in Georgia: “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to her about the Belarusian ceramic school and the peculiarities of working in Tbilisi.
I have been doing ceramics for over 10 years. In Belarus, I made dishes for restaurants, I had my own studio at the “Horizont” factory. For the last year, I have been doing what I have always wanted to do: making a lot of cool and beautiful ceramics for restaurants.
The studio was originally conceived as a children’s studio in Belarus. That was about 7-8 years ago. Lessons are the easiest way to earn money, and I had to pay off the rent and repay my debt for buying a oven and a potter’s wheel. I did it in a year! The studio wasn’t very big, about five people could take lessons at a time. It turned from a children’s studio into a ceramics school for everyone. Lessons, especially for children, lead to burnout quite quickly if you are not a teacher by vocation. So I started looking for areas of working with clay that I would be more interested in. The most interesting one turned out to be making crockery in a mini-factory format. Where you design with restaurant chefs and then hone your skill and build up your hand in endless repetition of the shapes you’ve come up with yourself. The classes remained an elective, one to two classes a week, and for adults only.
I left for emigration with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, when it became quite scary. Most of my friends had already fled fearing imprisonment, which made it impossible to avoid fear of being imprisoned too, but then the invasion of Ukraine gave me that overwhelming rush of adrenaline, a real moment of fight-or-flight, that chemical propellant of instinct mixed with good reasons to flee dislodged me from my home. I emigrated, sure that I would not get a chance to return. And the most important thing is that all the clay I worked on, the white semi-pottery, was clay from Donbass. As soon as the war started, the factory that produced clay (Donbass), developed the quarry, stopped completely and is still standing. And there was simply nothing to work with. There was nothing to make the classic white crockery that I used to make for restaurants.
Now I have just moved to Tbilisi, before that I lived in Batumi for a year. I worked in a ceramic studio, where I also had lessons. There I taught pottery classes. And I tried to do the same thing as in Minsk – crockery in cafes. But in Batumi it is not so much in demand, because there is high-quality and inexpensive crockery from Turkey. There are a couple of establishments that are interested in it, usually people from Moscow. And so, if you imagine, a Turkish plate, which has undergone high-temperature firing, of good quality, costs 9 GEL. And a handmade plate of the same diameter for less than 40 GEL is unprofitable. The difference in price is huge. It is impossible to buy good porcelain crockery for such money in GUM. There the price for Soviet-designed plates of grey dull faience is 25 rubles per unit. And 35 rubles for a handmade plate with an individual design. It made sense to order an exclusive. But here is a different situation. Also, restaurateurs have a different attitude, they are all afraid of losing out on business abroad, so they invest less.
As for ceramics in Georgia. Traditional craft is developed here: uncovered, unglazed simple red ceramics. Baking moulds, pots. But studio high-temperature ceramics, which I do, and folk craft are very different things. Dishes for restaurants should be “for ages”, resistant to thermal shock, chipping, and dishwashing. Glazes should not leach into food, should be stable and not scratch with cutlery. And handicraft ceramics from low clay, it is, roughly speaking, disposable, without glazes and costs pennies. So I cannot say whether ceramics is developed in Georgia. The handicraft part is developed. The industrial and studio part – not so much. I am not talking now about how it was in the Soviet Union. I didn’t recognize it, to be honest. Usually in Soviet times, large-scale ceramic production was quite developed in the republics: architectural forms, reliefs, panels, decorative tiles, giant sculptures, fountains, etc. Remember, what incredible tiles are decorated in the Yakub Kolas subway station in Minsk! This is a titanic artistic labour! Whether there was such a thing in Georgia in Soviet times – I do not know. In any case, with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was nothing left of it.
In recent years in Belarus, the ceramic school began to develop actively, to rise from the ashes, so to speak. There was a time when many high-quality ceramic workshops opened. People started to learn more about how it was going on in the world, they started to go to Europe or even to Russia and see what ceramists were doing there. And open up. For the last five years there have been a lot of us (ceramists). And the level was good right away. There was no such thing as someone who took one master class, say, in Moscow, learnt how to knead grandmother’s napkins and leaves on clay, and opened a workshop. All at once they were making quality work. Before this wave, it was the same as in Georgia – only Belarusian traditional craft – pots, jugs. And all sorts of ugly decorative statuettes and grey dishes from dying post-Soviet factories.
Of modern ceramics in Batumi, unfortunately, among the buyers demanded more “handmade” in the bad sense of the word. You made it at home on your knees, took it for firing in a coworking centre and sold it, and that’s fine. There is almost no demand for stylish and modern things, unfortunately. Ceramics lessons as a hobby are also very much in demand.
In Tbilisi I have not studied the market thoroughly, but judging by what is on the markets, the level is not Moscow, St. Petersburg or even Minsk, it is lower. This is understandable, people buy ceramics when they have a house. It doesn’t matter if it’s something decorative or crockery, it’s still home decor. 90% of people now don’t know if they are going to stay in Georgia or not, I mean emigrants. Nobody decorates their homes and invests significant amounts of money in it. A person would rather invest in something that he will be able to move later than in ceramics, which he will obviously not take anywhere. For obvious reasons.
If we talk about emigration, it is difficult for ceramists to nomadise. I moved my stove and potter’s wheel with me, it’s an investment. It’s more difficult than, for example, a tattoo artist – put the machines in a suitcase and go. Or a painter who can buy brushes and canvases in any city in any country. And we have to invest significant amounts of money if we decide to move. The oven is the size of a washing machine on legs and weighs about 100 kg. The wheel is like a small bicycle. The oven can not stand in the living room, because of the fumes from it during work, you need at least a separate room or balcony, or better yet, a separate workshop. So it is especially not possible to be nomadic, being a ceramist. Many of my acquaintances who now came to Poland, tightly settled at once and began to work hard. They have opened Russian-language workshops, and do master classes. For a ceramist it is still important to be settled.
Having a workshop is also a question. I’m moulding at home now. The oven is on the balcony. If you rent a room in the centre for a showroom, for example, it turns out to be expensive, you need to invest thoroughly and do just business development. I have a separate room dedicated to my workshop. It was easier for me to rent a bigger apartment and make a workshop in a free room than to rent a separate room. I don’t plan to stay in Georgia forever, so investments don’t seem reasonable to me right now.
Regarding materials. There is no clay quarry in Georgia, which would be industrially developed. And there is only one kind of Georgian clay, from under the village of Shrosha. The locals dig it themselves, filter it themselves, dry it themselves for their own needs. Nobody’s gonna sell you tonnes of this clay for production. Besides, it’s low-temperature, not suitable for my purposes.
All the clay used by the masters and studios here comes from Turkey. There are developments there. The quality of Turkish clay… I have many questions about it.
Before the war in Ukraine, Belarus imported a good selection of clay – French, German, Donbass clay, very high quality and at an affordable price. Now, as I understand, almost nothing is sold there… But it was great, a huge choice and very good quality, stable, I got used to it. When you do not change from batch to batch neither composition, nor colour, nor shrinkage. When working with Turkish clay everything is not so rosy.
About Donbass clay… To erase all misunderstandings. The factory has been working there for centuries. The whole post-Soviet space worked on Donbass clay. All the Russian clay that was available was from Donbass. It was originally like that, even before the annexation of Donbass. Almost the entire Soviet Union worked on this clay. It’s a very old deposit, it’s a big, giant factory and quarry that stopped because of the war. The same people worked there: what ten, what twenty years ago, what eight years ago (when, where were we all?…), what forty years ago. We ceramists even have a conspiracy theory that Russia started the war to take away the Donbass clay deposits. 🙂
The creative process in emigration is not so easy.Maybe it is easier for those who start a business at once, who aim at developing this business and its growth (for example, ceramics schools)… There are a lot of emigrants, everyone wants to sell their children to all kinds of activities. People from IT want to go moulding, to make dishes for themselves at home with a reminder of this period of life…. That’s different. I want to make my own work, sell it, it’s not easy for me to start. Will they buy it? Won’t they? You don’t know. The name’s not popular yet, people don’t know who you are. In Minsk, restaurateurs knew me, mostly through word of mouth. I went to one restaurant, and they have their own hangout there: this one told this one, that one told that one, and you get a name. It’s cool when you don’t plan to go anywhere else and “put down roots”. I didn’t plan to leave Belarus.
In general, the handmade crockery market is not yet developed in Georgia, at least not yet. Maybe later, due to the growing competition in the restaurant business, exclusive crockery will become more in demand among the founders of establishments and chefs. But for now Georgians, and even visitors, do not need this crockery. They need to make a noticeable place with minimal investments. Handmade crockery is clearly not a necessity, it is easier to rely on something else. Handmade ceramics is about luxury, in my opinion, about nuances and details. In what direction the restaurant business in Georgia will develop now, I do not know, and probably I will not find out, as I am moving on, to a place where my craft is valued and will obviously be in demand. That’s probably why I don’t work hard and don’t hurry. I sell my products through Instagram. In Georgia, we can’t do Etsy (an American platform for selling handmade products from all over the world). So, of course, it would be ideal for sales. Etsy has very much tightened the rules for CIS countries. The country from which the work will be sent must be in the Etsy Payments database. And Georgia doesn’t have one. And Armenia doesn’t have it, not to mention Russia and Belarus. The rules were tightened two to three years ago. Those who registered a brand before that can continue to work. New users – no.
When I was still living in Minsk, I had a special approach to ceramics. I liked non-perfectionism. Such Japanese “imperfections”. I liked that aesthetic. And then this thing happened, when I came to Georgia, I saw that everything here is unfinished, “imperfect”, on a whim. And I was drawn in the other direction. Now I want to do everything perfectly, serviceably, and smoothly. Japanese “imperfections” liked the fact that you can not worry about eliminating imperfections and play them to your advantage. This was relevant then, when around everything exalted and propagandised perfection as in the Soviet “servis”, and curvature was rare and surprising. Now, when there are a lot of non-professionals around ceramics, and they leave everything as it is not because it is designed that way, but because they don’t know how to do it otherwise, you want more “ideality”. Because not everyone can achieve it.
And when you watch Japanese and European/Americans pretending to be Japanese for a long time, you get a little disappointed, because they all turn out the same. Sometimes different authors have really identical works… And the uniqueness of “imperfect” works is lost.
If we talk about Japanese raku (emphasis on the last syllable) as an example of “imperfect” ceramics. Traditional raku is different from what we see on the internet. The raku that we make here – throwing hot wares into a barrel of sawdust – was invented by an American in the 60s of the last century. Traditional raku is not made that way. The raku that was invented by an American, it’s cool: you look at one album, another album, one picture in insta, another picture in insta and it’s all cool, new and amazing. But then you look at the 20th, 35th photo and it’s the same thing. Then they do the same thing in the former Soviet Union, exactly the same works. Okay, when there were 100 works in one technique, it’s interesting, but when there are 25,000 works in one technique, you get tired of it. Especially in modern raku technique there is not much depending on you, it will not be a complex figure from porcelain, most likely it will be a cup crookedly moulded, painted with smoke in black, where a splash will be applied glaze. In my opinion this is no longer serious… It is possible as an experiment, as one of the options, but not as an independent style of ceramics. I repeat, I’m talking now about modern raku, which amateurs do on a field trip, not about traditional Japanese techniques.
I would like to add. Young Georgians are interested, they are developing, they are observant and very creative. But this generation is younger than me. Thanks to this generation something will happen in the development of modern Georgian culture, ceramics in particular. They look around and want to live beautifully. They dress beautifully, listen to cool music, open interesting places. They see, they want to develop, and this development I am witnessing right now. There is a very big difference between the level of culture that was here, say, eight years ago, when I first came to Georgia, and what it is now. The older generation is steadfast, although the wave of emigration has spurred them into action.
The most profitable countries for ceramists now are America, Czech Republic, and Germany. There it is really possible to earn a decent standard of living. This is due, of course, to a different level of life and culture. People can afford to think about beauty, not just where to buy herrings and tights.People have an extra amount of money to spend on arranging beauty around them. Be it pottery, be it painting, be it indoor plants. Everything in general is connected, a person builds aesthetics around them, then the aesthetics continue to keep them filled up internally. Everything flows one from the other.