Robert Absandze is one of Georgia’s most respected ceramicists.
In his native Zugdidi, you can spot his distinctive red and black clay pottery in shops, guesthouses and restaurants across the city. He’s also a celebrated sculptor who has exhibited in Tbilisi and beyond.
I recently got a chance to meet Robert, his wife Manana and daughter Tsira at their family workshop-gallery in Zugdidi. Founded in 2019, ORKOL Studio is the culmination of Robert’s lifelong efforts to protect traditional Georgian and particularly Megrelian pottery techniques, including the curious art of ‘black-smoked ceramics’, which dates back to the 4th millennium BC.
After recently visiting a qvevri (clay amphora) master in Shrosha and ketsi (clay pan) workshops in Ubisa, it was interesting to compare the different methods used in Samegrelo. In contrast to raw earthenware used for food and wine preparation, these ceramics are highly decorative, featuring bold patterns and colours in a combination of glazed and matte finishes.
Ceramics in Georgia
ORKOL Studio’s work is quite contemporary, but it builds on Georgia’s long heritage of clay pottery.
The earliest evidence of earthenware dates back to the Neolithic period and is tied to the region’s legacy of viniculture. Georgia is widely known as the ‘cradle of wine’, and it was clay vessels that were used to both ferment the grapes and store the liquid.
Ceramic production thrived during Georgia’s Soviet period, but as with many industries, there was a downturn after pottery factories in Tbilisi, Mtskheta, Ikalto and Zugdidi were closed. In 1959, a ceramics and glass studio was established at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, allowing artisans to gain a formal education in pottery making for the first time.
Many of Georgia’s most important pottery traditions are threatened with extinction today, especially qvevri making. A recent study by the Georgian Arts and Culture Center revealed that of the master ceramicists still practicing, less than one-fifth of them use traditional methods and designs.
Georgia’s tourism boom has re-popularised traditional ceramics as souvenirs, while amping up exports of wine and chacha has created more demand for clay vessels. A preference to use locally made ceramic tiles when restoring cultural monuments has also created more work for Georgia’s clay masters.
About ORKOL Studio
Robert Absandze has been working with clay since 1987, the year he graduated from the State Academy program in Tbilisi. In 2011, he founded his studio in its current form and in 2019, the family re-branded as ORKOL. The name comes from the Megrelian word for a wine pitcher, as pictured above.
ORKOL produces a range of household ceramics for everyday use as well as fulfilling custom orders. During our visit, Robert was working on a personalised dinner set decorated with a family crest, and a set of ceiling roses for a nearby castle restoration.
Although most items are utilitarian, Robert’s mission is to inject art into these everyday objects. His imaginative designs include pitchers with elongated beaks and shapely handles. Using vibrant colours for the geometric motifs and delicate floral patterns is another ORKOL signature.
Located at the back of the family’s home in the centre of Zugdidi, ORKOL Studio is part contemporary gallery, part studio space. The workspace is a huge, sunlit warehouse lined with workbenches and open shelving.
Robert and Tsira welcome tour groups and drop-in guests to see the workshop and buy items direct from their small shop. At the end of the post, I’ll provide more details about visiting ORKOL.
On a tour of ORKOL, you get to see the ceramic-making process. Incredibly, everything is done here in the studio from scratch, starting with making their own clay. This is the first time I’ve seen the equipment needed to transform red earth into fine clay.
To make the clay, Robert gathers red soil from villages around Samegrelo. Back in the studio, he uses a specially designed drum to combine the earth with water, spinning and separating it several times.
He uses a blend of two clays for his pottery – the ratios are all done by sight and touch. Once mixed and spun, the clay is pressed through what looks like a giant sausage machine before it’s compacted into rectangular moulds and left to dry.
Along with clay, Robert also makes his own lead-free paints by grinding pigments and combining them with sand.
The process of creating a vessel starts with kneading the clay. The workshop is huge, yet Robert works in the back corner at a tiny bench below an open window.
He hand-forms each vessel using a mechanised potter’s wheel. It only takes a few minutes for an orkol to emerge. Tools are used to grade the surface and form the lip.
After being left to dry for a couple of days, they then use wooden and metal tools to press designs into the still-supple clay. Some designs feature elaborate cut-outs.
Majority of ORKOL ceramics are decorated with geometric patterns, some of them drawn from traditional Megrelian symbols. Many sets also contemporary motifs such as pomegranates and small flowers.
The latter design was Tsira’s idea. She has been helping her father in the studio since she was a young girl and is a master ceramicist in her own right. Manana also pitches in, helping transfer the finished pots onto wooden boards for drying.
When it’s time to paint, Tsira uses a special tool to apply the home-made pigments. It takes her around 25 minutes to finish a jug of this size.
She emphasises several times that all the materials and colours are completely natural and non-toxic – a contrast to most of the mass-produced ceramics you find in Georgia today.
Some surfaces are left unpainted and instead are polished using a small stone wand. This gives the clay a smooth, shimmering finish.
When it’s ready for firing, the pottery undergoes a first burn at 900 degrees. The heat from the kiln is almost unbearable on a hot Zugdidi summer day, so they try to fire the bulk of the ceramics in cooler weather.
In Robert’s typical DIY style, he fires everything in a kiln he constructed himself out of bricks. It’s a rather ramshackle number but it does the job.
Recently the family used a grant from USAID to buy a second, modern kiln, which they use whenever they host public workshops. For their everyday firings, they still prefer the original.
A portion of the ceramics undergo an additional firing in a second kiln – a modified Georgian tone oven with a heavy lid. It’s used for black-smoking the ceramics, a traditional Georgian technique that involves burning pieces of pine wood inside the kiln.
The ceramics are lowered inside and the heat is turned up. Small pieces of pine wood are then inserted through a hole in the lid and left to smoulder alongside the pottery.
The red clay absorbs the smoke and charcoal dust, which stains it a deep black or matte grey colour.
When the ceramics emerge from the kiln, the black residue is rubbed off the design elements but sticks to the raw clay permanently.
As Tsira explained, black-smoking clay is a common technique in Georgia that comes from the use of open wood fires for cooking. The method has been used since the Early Bronze Age and was especially popular in Colchis, modern-day Western Georgia.
Shapely handles and bands of geometric motifs have defined Western Georgian ceramics since the Late Bronze Age. By contrast, clayware from Kakheti in eastern Georgia is usually raw and unadorned. Historians point to the influence of Greek traditions on Western Georgia to explain the appearance of motifs, bright colours, and the use of glazing.
When finished, the black-smoked ceramics have a metallic-like sheen and are incredibly lightweight. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were a type of plastic if you hadn’t seen the process in full. As beautiful as they are, they’re also very practical – Tsira explains that the clay is very difficult to break and is even microwave-safe.
Household pottery is ORKOL’s bread and butter, but Robert is an artist by training. Many of his contemporary clay sculptures are displayed in an art gallery at the front of the studio alongside watercolours and other creations.
Robert takes inspiration from current events and happenings when designing his sculptures. An eye-catching set of tiny busts on a plinth – some with mohawks, tattoos and piercings – were modelled off festival goers at GEM Fest, a music festival in Anaklia that Robert attended for research.
Older pieces inspired by the events of 1992 and 2008 capture the mood during Georgia’s most recent political and social struggles. A newer piece Robert held up for us is a reflection on women’s rights.
I particularly like the sculptures inspired by archaeological finds. Robert often attends digs in Nokalakhevi and elsewhere and borrows symbols and shapes from the Colchic treasures that are unearthed.
How to visit to ORKOL Studio in Zugdidi
ORKOL Studio is located on Ninoshvili Lane, behind the petrol station on Zugdidi’s main street.
Robert and his family welcome both tour groups and walk-in visitors. You’ll find the studio and shop open daily from 10am until the late afternoon.
Although advance bookings aren’t essential, I recommend sending Tsira a quick message on Facebook to let her know you’re coming.
For more information, visit ORKOL Studio on Facebook.