By Lizi Buguashvili, published on January 17,2021 via Georgian Journal
The curatorial component is still fresh to Georgian art, but recent projects related to contemporary art, as well as openings of new galleries and experimental spaces, have given this discipline a big push.
In this article, I want to present a Georgian art curator and author, Nina Chkareuli-Mdivani, who has been based in New York City for 15 years now. Her contribution to promoting Georgian contemporary art is substantial. Nina graduated from Tbilisi State University with an International Relations major and she also took the same major at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. After graduating, she worked at different governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the UN and Columbia University. Her love for art has followed her all along and brought her to what she is doing at the moment: curating. She is also an author and an art critic.
I contacted her in NYC to hear more of her thoughts about contemporary art including Georgian scene and her ideas about contributing to this field.
Having a background in international relations and gender studies, what made you focus specifically on Museum Studies and become a curator?
I have always been interested in art and always wanted to be an art historian, intermittently contributing freelance articles to magazines and galleries while living in New York. A few years ago, I received a proposal from Kornfeld Gallery in Berlin to write a book about Georgian female artists: Tamara Kvesitadze, Rusudan Khizanishvili, and Natela Grigalashvili. The book is called “The King is Female: Three Artists from Georgia,” published by Wienand Verlag, Berlin and was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018. That same year I curated a related exhibition of Georgian female artists in Iserlohn, Germany focusing on feminist aspects of the Georgian visual arts and lineage from Natela Iankoshvili to Rusudan Khizanishvili. Once I got back to NYC, I saw how I could continue doing this kind of work more fundamentally and I focused on the curatorial field and research. I saw International Relations and diplomacy from a different angle and adjusted them to build cultural connections. I was soon selected as Curator-in-Residence at Kunstraum, Brooklyn for 2019-2020. During that year I worked on four separate exhibitions with guest curators and then I staged two exhibitions of my own for this innovative and non-commercial curatorial platform. In recent years, I have curated exhibitions in Latvia, Germany, New York City, and Tbilisi.
In 2020 I started my graduate degree in Museum Studies as I believe this field is undergoing a profound intellectual and conceptual change accounting for shifts brought about by decolonization and globalization. And I see myself contributing to this specific field in the future. Although it is possible for everyone to have access to the theoretical components of Museum Studies, taking these courses helped me to better understand various concepts and currents in the museum world that are less transparent. Museums should be approached in more educational and experiential way, something more than just an institution for the elite and reflection of choices by its Board of Directors. The encyclopedic purpose of the museum should indeed remain, but it needs to reflect the ongoing global events.
With your projects, you always try to connect as many international artists as possible. How challenging is it to integrate Georgian contemporary art within the rest?
Although I have been in the US for 18 years now, I do remember the tough 90s I have gone through in Georgia, I mean the times after the Soviet Union collapsed. I have internalized our history and cultural heritage and I find it to be my mission to present my country of origin in the West and show its past and present. For different reasons, Georgia has been somewhat lost in the art dimension of the world. Yet, the more unknown is the country you are from, the more interesting you are as a curator as you bring fresh perspectives to the table. I always try to promote Georgian art as it has many unique traditions based on rich and intricate historical past.
As mentioned, in 2020, I curated two-part show New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness at Kunstraum, Brooklyn, as a part of my curatorial residency there. It was a tool to emphasize the uniqueness of contemporary Eastern-European art, which only a few curators focus on and which is not that familiar to New York and to the West in general. Easter European art is not easy to understand when you are not from the region as it is heavily tied to various geopolitical and cultural contexts.
Photo: New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness Part 2. Kunstraum LLC, Brooklyn
What does it mean to be a curator of contemporary art and does this status need some special work to be maintained? What are your ways?
This is the field, where you should not stop. Constant motion is its main characteristic and if you step into it, you should be curating exhibitions, writing reviews, researching, exploring, analyzing all the time so you do not just get stuck in one place mentally or physically. This is a compulsory requirement since contemporary art is in constant flux and you should always be up to date learning from your experiences and applying this new knowledge to the next project. You should be engaged with artists, academics, other curators, writers, critics, gallerists, collectors. All of this requires a lot of energy, receptivity, strategy, diplomacy, and imagination.
What do you value the most while assessing an artwork?
Nowadays, art has evolved to the point, where a visual aspect of any given work is not enough. It is necessary to be saying something beyond that, something urgent and timely. Some of the artists that I am working with are less established, some of them are more established, that’s not the main point. Artwork needs to have some substance and make you think. The aesthetics alone are not sufficient to provoke interest, incite a response, although an etude by Matisse could be as touching as McCracken’s monoliths. But they affect you differently, once again emphasizing how much more contemporary art is idea-driven. This is not to say that pure aesthetically driven work could not be stimulating, it’s just today’s world requires more from its true artists. The art field in general is very segmented, pushing everyone into this or that category for an easier digestion, so an artist should always be thinking out loud, doing his/her research, be able to present herself, and show her intellectual value to curators, galleries, etc.
How would you estimate the current curatorial situation in Georgia?
There are several distinguished curators in Georgia but for some reason, their curatorial activities in Georgia mostly remain local, not reaching the outside realm. I am personally always open to working with Georgian artists as long as they present genuine, authentic work that is contemporary in its spirit. Georgian artists should be taking their unique talents more seriously, I think. I am not saying that they do not work, but consistency and willingness to push one’s limits, being open to fair criticism, which all are keys to success, are often missing.
It is very good news that the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts has opened as did Museum of Modern Art Tbilisi, but it’s crucial that both would adjust to the Western standards in terms of the scale of the shows and engage with more contemporary ideas including identity, gender, colonization. I am actually considering to address the topic of Georgian museums and their history in my graduate thesis. If you try to look up the info about contemporary Georgian art, you are not going to find much and even that can hardly be analyzed within Western frameworks. Yes, we all agree that Georgia is a unique country, but if it wants to be part of the Western dialogue and art system it needs to be better integrated through standard mechanisms such as academic research as well as its practical applications.
Photo: New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness Part 2. Kunstraum LLC, Brooklyn
How great is the role of the curator for the artist?
The roles of artist and curator are obviously distinct. Thoughtful artists who consistently follow their own path, who know what they do, what for, where they want to be exhibited, etc. tackle these issues pragmatically unless they want to keep their works for themselves. There are some artists that work for themselves only and some are indeed great, but they are barely known based on their individual decisions. The role of the curators, on the other hand, is more active and they have far more responsibility, too, since it’s all up to them how they will introduce an artist to the public and what concept they create for the audience, what context they would include to facilitate a discourse. An artist and a curator should always have an ongoing dialogue exchanging ideas. There are different types of curators, though. Some are more commercial, focused on connecting with collectors and creating market-driven shows, while some prioritize the recognition by the wider audience, some work with institutions. Everyone is responsible for one’s own path.
A bit about your book “King is Female: Three Artists from Georgia”, which is about three Georgian female artists…
The book is about Tamara Kvesitadze, Rusudan Khizanishvili, and Natela Grigalashvili. It is based on the conversations with these artists and it was published in German and English. In 2017-2018 I was talking to them about their lives in general: what obstacles these immensely talented women had to face on their way to realizing their abilities and succeeding; how they developed as women and art professionals in Georgia and how difficult it was to find a place in this society when you are not only a wife and a mother, but also a master of your abilities. There are different types of difficulties: overcoming one’s own doubts and accepting the value of sacrifices they as artists will have to make. It is forever challenging for an artist to find time for personal and family lives, a fact especially difficult in a country where housewifery is still considered a badge of honor. However, with their hard work, these three ladies managed to be wonderful parents regardless of everything. The next barriers are your parents, partner, patriarchal, male-dominated society that is not taking women seriously, etc. Sexism is still a very active issue in Georgia unfortunately. However, a Georgian woman has always been known for her strength and the perfect example of that is King Tamar, who inspired the title of this book.
The topic we cannot avoid: How did the pandemic affect exhibitions and how have you been coping with the effect?
The pandemic had a big impact on art in general. Online exhibitions have become prevalent due to their flexible format, but I personally preferred to wait for the physical exhibitions and I did so. In November I curated a physical exhibition of Rusudan Khizanishvili at 68 Projects, Berlin, Germany. This past year I utilized my time for researching and writing. I released several articles and essays. I am also working on the exhibition about immigration and environmentalism that will open in March 2021 in Brooklyn.
Photo: Rooms & Beings: Rusudan Khizanishvili. 68 Projects, Berlin.
Lastly, tell us a bit about your upcoming project.
Recently, I was offered to curate for Public Digital Art Platform in Moscow. There will be a video project broadcasting for several consistent hours on one of the billboards in Moscow City with plans to expand over time. In the following months, we are thinking of adding more video projects. A video art project is a great initiative to support video artists from different countries, including Georgia. Art can bridge divisions, that is the main mission of this project.