*This article was originally published on Heinrich Boell Foundation website in February 2019
Over the last thirty years woman’s identity in Georgia has undergone significant change and this transformative process has not yet been completed. Significantly this shift was predetermined by a corresponding radical revision in the global economic and social paradigms. As it happened in many other countries, women in Georgia had to leave their traditional social roles and alongside men take active part in the capitalist labor marketplace.
On the backdrop of these socio-economic changes that affected modes of being as well as common attitudes, Georgian women are more able to pursue their self-interests and successfully take steps in the expansion of their identities. As art intuitively anticipates and visually expresses deep societal changes, Georgian women artists have reflected in their work these shifts and their corresponding empowerment.
On the backdrop of feminist art resurgence in the global context Georgian women artists also actively explore and express their feminist identities. By feminist art I imply works of art created by women on such important themes as are woman’s body, its perceived ‘weakness’ as seen by the society, violence against women, negation of gender stereotypes, our perceived intellectual inferiority, based on our so called ‘emotional’ approach to life. Fortunately, there are plenty of extraordinary women artists who tirelessly work on dismantling of such traditional and anachronistic notions be it in New York, London, Berlin, or Tbilisi, showing how much truth, honesty, and drive is present in women as well as in art they create. In this particular case I am not advancing the essentialist argument according to which women’s nature is inherently better then men’s, but merely underscoring how different is socialization for the two genders and how subsequently this affects their life goals and ambitions. The trend toward stronger feminist identity has started with Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Sarah Lucas, Kiki Smith, Sophie Calle and has continued through Dana Schutz, Barbara Kruger, Mona Chalabi including more and more talented artists today and strengthening the momentum. Obviously, dissolution of gender stereotypes does not happen overnight and is a long and painful process, but it has started in Georgia. In this short overview I will discuss four Georgian women artists who are at the helm of this trend and who daily continue their task. I have selected two artworks from each artist so that the readers could themselves reach their own conclusions. To me these works most effectively portray the artist’s style, approach, and creative context.
Vera Pagava (1907-1987) emigrated with her family first to Germany and then to France when she was 13 years old. In Paris, she received an adequate art education, profoundly familiarizing herself with the art of the day. During the World War II Pagava worked as a nurse in various hospitals helping the wounded and simultaneously creating textile designs, and her exquisite paintings. In 1943 she was discovered by the gallerist Jeanne Bucher, who showed Pagava in 1944 alongside Dora Maar, thus facilitating Pagava’s exposure to the art scene.
Pagava’s 1940s works were partially figurative, becoming braver and more abstract over time. They are geometric with subtle and soft palette. She mostly experimented with abstract motives, still lives, portrayals of nature imbibing them with characteristic mystery and laconic representation. Ethereal, airy hues present distinct, but familiar world. Simultaneously, Pagava is absolutely free in her compositional approach; from the first glance her forms are moving on their own, in the process of gaining their finite shape. This liberal approach was widespread in the contemporary avant-garde art, but Pagava still stands out with her compactness and distinct abstract motives. Pagava is the first Georgian woman painter who became successful in the West through the originality of her vision, although from our standpoint her paintings could still be characterized as pre-feminist art and have a lot in common with so called classic ‘women’ approach to representation.
Importantly, Pagava represented France in 1966 33rd Venice Biennale, where she had a separate pavilion devoted to her works. After Venice Biennale she was widely exhibited in Paris, Berlin, New York, Rome, Turin, Brussels, and Vienna. Pagava passed away when she was eighty in Paris, but her life could be considered the beginning of feminist chapter in Georgian art also due to her personal story. Pagava was never officially married, but she had long relationship with a Georgian emigrant Vano Enukidze, with whom she lived for more than twenty years.
Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is the rebel of Georgian art, who in her own lifetime was able to break gender stereotype and create absolutely distinct and authentic world on her canvasses. Iankoshvili’s works are characterized by wide emotional palette, harmony, and warmth. Her creative process always involved the whole of her personality and inner depth and this explosive energy affects her viewers. This master of the modern Georgian art lived a distinguished life and her recognition continues after her passing. As a German writer and philosopher Marlen Stossel so aptly observed “Iankoshvili’s cosmic nights” still shine us, even years after they were created.
She never underscored woman’s role or limitations that this role supposedly imposes, she simply tirelessly and diligently worked on her talent and technique, which back in the Soviet time was a quiet brave approach to a woman’s role. Iankoshvili’s father was an economist, her mother a teacher who also tutored privately. To be able to fully attend to needs of her family and also to continue her career Iankoshvili’s mother adopted an orphan from a neighboring village who lived with them and helped with the chores. Thus, early on Iankoshvili saw that it is not at all obligatory for a woman to be only a housewife and she could be self-actualized outside her family walls.
Iankoshvili had a happy and long-lasting marriage with writer Lado Avaliani. Almost from the start Iankoshvili announced that she never wanted to have children because they would hinder the family’s creative processes. Painting was Iankoshvili’s most prominent goal. In her lifetime she never sold even one of her pieces to interested collectors, although she had to live through dire social and economic conditions, including the civil unrest of 1990s. For Iankoshvili, her pieces had the same value as her own children and although she has gifted some of them away the artist was never able to settle numeral equivalent to her canvasses.
In 1960 when Natela Iankoshvili was only 42, she had already completed more then 250 works. This substantial number of landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes has influenced Iankoshvili’s decision to organize a first public exhibition which she did in the National Gallery through assistance of prominent painters of the day. She was the first Georgian woman artist who was exhibited there.
Today Tamara Kvesitadze (1968) is the most well-known and accomplished Georgian woman artist, who works in and outside of Georgia. She achieved her standing through singularity of her vision, ambition and immense hard work. Although in terms of her priorities family comes first for the artist. And this fact might be explained as determined by traditional Georgian cultural values. Balancing these two roles comes extremely hard for most of women artists everywhere.
It is interesting that initially Kvesitadze considered and planned to follow through with the traditional behavioral model of Georgian women and deeply believed that she could be happy and satisfied solely with it. Firstly, this was dictated by auspicious example of her own parents who had a long-lasting and merry union. But as time went on Kvesitadze started to feel the urgency to express herself in visual arts, influencing her decision to work on herself and her craft. As a student she studied architecture and later this influenced her approach to artistic practice in choosing compositional structure and mediums. In late 1990s Kvesitadze started with creating auteur dolls that were very popular in New York galleries. Later these dolls metamorphized into static and kinetic sculptures. If we compare Kvesitadze’s early dolls with her recent pieces we could clearly see the overall developmental direction of her art. For me personally, Kvesitadze’s works physically embody ways of being in the world, as poetic metaphors they incarnate emotions. They talk about such abstract notions as love, nostalgia, desire, freedom, fallaciousness, truth, longing. Material shape in which Kvesitadze has early on expressed these ideas might have had origins in dolls and her childhood, but today her art can be minimally analyzed as easily defined or naive. Her latest static works are minimalistic and monochromatic conceptual pieces that require viewer’s active intellectual engagement. Her two pieces selected for this overview are laconic and symbolic and both are associated with female body. 2013 Red is painful, subtly reminiscent of Pieta by the Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca as the woman we see has almost a masochistic, self-destructive look. When Kvesitadze pieces start to move they give her viewers even more food for thought. I can sit and watch for an indefinite amount of time her renown mechanical couple, so succinctly illustrating our cyclical ephemeral existence.
As a Georgian woman artist Kvesitadze broke through Georgian cultural isolation in the contemporary art and is honorably continuing her progress, inspiring younger Georgian artists.
Rusudan Khizanishvili (1979) stands out on the contemporary Georgian artscene with her multifaceted vision, symbolic richness of themes, depth, strong and powerful colors. She has participated in various international fairs and exhibitions. As Kvesitadze Khizanishvili is a mother. For her it was considerably easier to combine the traditional feminine role with her artistic journey because from early on she has been systematically supported emotionally as well as physically by her husband. For Khizanishvili drawing and then painting became ‘painful obsession’ after at 13 she was taken to an art school. Later she was able to complete her studies with honors at Tbilisi Academy of Arts and continue with advancing her artistic ambition while simultaneously having young kids at home.
Khizanishvili stands out with open and hidden symbolism and a different, more liberal, approach to composition. This approach is a little bit different for Georgian eye trained to visual standards systematically created and imposed by the Christian culture. Genetically Georgian art has always been closer to Byzantine rather than the West European aesthetic priorities and approaches. Although personally for Rusudan liberealization from such a legacy comes not as much from opposing the external taboos, but from inner conflict with “an internal sense of shame.” As in any traditional culture taboos are very powerful in Georgia and naturally affect its art. Goal of such taboos consists in brushing under the rug ‘base’ human desires, be it on a spiritual and a physical plane. Owning to such ‘base’ desires is difficult for many traditional cultures and even more so in Georgia, where through centuries religion has served as a unifying mechanism and continues to function in the same vain, although in a completely different reality.
Two works selected for this overview are the most feminist in Khizanishvili’s oeuvre. In the series by the name “Every Day I Am Writing a Letter” Khizanishvili ruminated on many changes that come to a woman through childbearing. This transformative nine-month process is explored in mixed media collages where animals, people, and hybrid creatures comingle. These works are purposefully aggressive, sometimes erotic, disturbing, and decided in prime colors.
During the time when Khizanishvili worked on these collages (2013-2017) she was considering the nostalgia she felt when her old identity was lost and her new, mother’s identity, was not yet found. At that time Khizanishvili underwent strengthening of her characteristic features. According to anarchist philosopher Alan Yves Bois, such transformation is a logical response to deformation. In this particular case Bois referred to deformation that drives an artist when her fundamental structures undergo deviations.
Discussed four people are not only interesting, accomplished, and extraordinary Georgian women, but they are artists who stand out in the global feminist forum with their steadfastness and authenticity. Besides these four women there obviously are other Georgian women artists who could be considered for analysis and overview, in time becoming basis for another article.
In any society woman has to struggle against three concentric circles to become truly successful:
- First, she has to actively acknowledge to herself that her talent is big enough for sacrifices to be made, for example negating traditional social models and punishments that come with such willful behavior;
- Next, she has to fight gender stereotypes as well as to acquire her own personal space (be it inside a family or workgroup);
- Lastly and probably the hardest barrier comes when a woman artist becomes participant of a global art space, where besides her talent significant attention is paid to other factors, be it the latest art trends, selected working techniques, or an appropriate business strategy.
Georgian women artists are brave fighting these three barriers akin to a three-headed hydra monster, making one hopeful about the future of the Georgian visual arts.
Bois, Yves, Alan Matisse and Picasso, exh. cat. Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Paris 1998
Fershtman, Chaim, Gneezy, Uri, Hoffman, Moshe, Taboo and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable, American Economic Journal, May, 2011
Mdivani, Nina, King is Female: Three Georgian Women Artists, Wienand Velrag, Berlin 2018
Ed. Linda Nochlin, Maura Reilly, Women Artists, The Linda Nochlin Reader, Thames & Hudson, 2015
 Nochlin, Linda, 2015
 Mdivani, Nina, The King is Female,2018
 Mdivani, Nina, 2018
 Fershtman, et al., 2011
 Yves Alan Bois, 1998
Georgian language version- http://feminism-boell.org/ka/2019/02/25/mxatvroba-da-kalis-identoba-pagava-iankoshvili-kvesitaze-xizanishvili