In connection with Galleri Image presenting the solo exhibition Music of Being by Giorgi Khaburzania, I had the privilege of meeting Lali Pertenava. For the exhibition she had written the catalogue text and she also talked at a seminar at Institut for X, Godsbanen together with Wato Tserstali where the theme of the seminar was: Tendencies at the art scene in the Caucasus region.
Lali Pertenava is an art historian specialized in modern Soviet and Post-Soviet art in Georgia. She is also teaching at Tbilisi State Academy of Fine Art, Georgia.
What interests me most about her work is that she is researching the body representation in Contemporary Art of Post-Soviet countries.
I could not wait to hear more about it, and ask more into Georgian art.
Interview by Heidi-Anett Haugen, intern at Galleri Image.
1. How was the art scene in Georgia around 1918-1921 before the communist revolution?
Lali Pertenava: Before the communist revolution it was very varied and interesting, because in 1918 Georgia became independent from the Russian Empire. During the Russian Empire we did not have high education like Fine Art Academy or University. Fine Art Academy appeared in 1922, it was already sovietization period. The Soviet Revolution happened in 1921. But till late 1930’s when laws on socialist realism were implemented, the art scene was very vivid with different artistic trends.
Georgia has no school of easel painting; it was on fresco until the beginning of 19th century. The most popular way of mural paint was religious paintings. The only artistic heritage we have from medieval century is mural paintings and frescos in churches. There are some artists also, but they are not so familiar.
Another side of old Georgian painting is that artists did not sign their names, so they are not historic reserved. We do not know the names of fresco authors, maybe only 2-3 of them. Also there have been a lot of wars that destroyed many things, so not much is preserved from medieval centuries.
We don’t have much tradition of easel painting, but suddenly in 19th century it happens that several Georgian artist painters like three or four very popular got education in Russia.
In 1918 after we were free from Russian Empire, it happens that a lot of artistic directions became popular in Georgia. It was dada, constructivism, futurism, abstractionism, it appeared just suddenly, like a boom of art.
There were two, three of them, very famous painters and artists who made good basic ground for artistic school in Georgia, supported by the Georgian government. The independent Georgian government gave scholarships and grants for them to go to France, Russia and other European countries, to get education.
One of them was David Kakabadze. He was a very important figure because he had studied natural science, and was also a photographer and a painter. Kakabadze was not admitted at Fine Art school for paint classes in the Russian Academy, but he joined Art Studio in Petersburg and created Art Collective with modernist Russian artists. When he got grants to go to Paris he was not admitted in Paris Academy of Fine Art, because he was already overqualified.
He had quite good experiences in the constructivism, and Dadaism movements. David Kakabadze was a very influential person in terms of making different artistic initiatives, working in different artistic fields like photography, collage, abstractionism, and constructivism. He went to Paris before the revolution and got back in 1927, when Georgia was controlled by Soviet Union. After his return he was not allowed to continue innovative experiments in art. So his artistic and professional life was repressed and he died from a heart attack in 1952.
There were also Polish origin artists in Georgia that made Dadaistic Group and were quite popular in Russia and Georgia, and the eastern European scene: Ilia and Kiril Zdanevich, and Zigmund Valishevski. They worked in cooperation with Georgian modernist artists. Zdanevich with David Kakabadze discovered famous Georgian self-educated artist: Niko Pirosmani.
So, I will say the period between 1918 and 1921 is the boom of new artistic tendencies, and new artistic initiatives. At this period Georgia joins the Global Cultural Revolution bringing forward new talents. Performing and improvising poets and artists often awake the streets in Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia. The artistic scene evolves in close cooperation with historians, researchers, and scientists.
There is one difference between Georgian modernism and western modernism: western modernists deny historical narrative and try to cut ties with the past. Georgian modernists try to research the past and combine it with the present.
In 1920’s, it was already Soviet Union but it was a kind of transition period. There was a very active life in artistic terms, but 1930’s when Stalin appeared, and when new laws about social realism were implemented, everything stopped. Major artists were killed or went in exile.
There is only one tendency left of this social realism: Artists that are obliged to paint, to make artistic objects that are realistic, that represent the life of workers and the working class.
2. How was the human body presented in contemporary art under Soviet in Georgia?
Lali Pertenava: In soviet Georgia, if we look at the period between 1918 and 1930 the body is very important. Artists tend to make experimentations with their bodies using voice and sound to represent different genders. You can see homosexual relationships in paintings, and women representations like a woman as a victim, a woman as a prostitute, and artists emphasizing gender problems. But in Soviet time Soviet cultural system made a jump to renaissance period. They wanted to create a new ideal body that would fit the new ideal person in Soviet times: a strong beautifully structured body. So it was only possible to make bodies that were mythical, based on antic rules of representing bodies; strong workers and strong spirituality and physicality’s. Like in Germany during Nazi time, it was highly appreciated in Soviet Union to make bodies that were idealistic.
Considering the gender, people like homosexuals are considered criminal. They cannot be represented legally.
In Soviet, in the Stalin period, there were a lot of paintings, sculptures, and monuments about representing people in an antic fashion, based on renaissance aesthetics. After the Stalin period when we had the Khrushov’s thaw period artists had more freedom, because they were not in so much pressure or paid so much attention to. Their function as ideological workers was not reduced, but art got less important. Accordingly artists got more freedom. The artists had a double life, they made portraits of Soviet leaders like this antic beautiful body, but when they went to workshops and hidden places they experimented and made underground art. Underground art scene appeared. Artists were making apartment exhibitions. Many artists who did not confirm socialist realism were not exhibited in public but in private spaces. Artists: Avto Varazi and Otar Chkhartishvil are officially considered as anti soviet artists. However they are rejected by official art scene, but they are quite popular in artistic circles. The Soviet idealist body gradually gets degraded in art, and getting signs of tiredness and age.
– Are the works that are done underground archived?
Lali Pertenavna: Yes, there is underground art from Soviet period, and they are identified, and researched, but they were not exposed in Soviet time. Now there are artist exhibitions where the artists are dead. Of course, that were never exposed at their time, showing different variations of trends, starting from abstraction, collages, and installations.
3. How is the human body presented in contemporary art in post-Soviet Georgia?
Lali Pertenava: In Post Soviet Georgia, in late end of Soviet times (end of 1980’s start of 1990’s), artists started to use their own bodies very intensively. They represented artistic activity and artistic feelings by using their own bodies.
Early 1990’s was a very difficult period with civil wars and a very hard social and economic life. Artists were making performances in devastated shops, and opposing this hard economic life by improvising, using and exposing their bodies in artistic and non-artistic places. Besides the artists started to research gender roles, relationships and related problems.
Gender awareness is initiated from western international organizations that are giving their own laws and own understandings of how the gender roles should be developed and adapted in the country. There is a high patriarchal system, religious- and post-totalitarian country, with high-low patriarchy.
In the beginning of 1990’s, there was a high level of nationalism. The nationalism was also based on the patriarchal system of the society, so masculinity was very much underlined. I think that was one of the problems that resulted in wars in Georgia.
Artistic forms, periods and developments were adopted and taken from the west, like performance, installation, and video art. The artists adopted these artistic forms to expressing and focusing on mainly a non-patriarchal world order. And there were artistic works that outlines how important bodies are to understand gender roles in the society. Temur Javakhishvili is one example. He is one of six Georgian artists that exhibited a series of video works at Institute of X, Godsbanen in the framework of the Image Festival, 2013, Aarhus. Temur Javakhishvilis is photographing himself and his wife naked, he is fragmenting his body, and alters the names of sexual organs.
4. What are the differences, and are there any similarities, in the presentation of the human body now and then?
Lali Pertenava: There is a big difference, even from 1990’s un till now there is a big difference. In 1990’s it was based on appropriation on western standards of how artists were representing the body. Now it is based on research. Now there is the Bologna group Performance Collective, that is making research of historical parts in the Soviet past, and making artistic events, exhibitions and performances, based on research. They make projects about Mother of Georgia monuments.
When Stalin died, Khrushovs government decided to replace Stalin monuments with monuments of Mother of Republic, Mother of Georgia, and Mother of Armenia and so on. They wanted to make and stress on a feministic culture of Soviet Union, to open gender awareness, and to replace patriarchal with mum: the feministic mothers that were living the Soviet life who were working.
These mothers are very heterogeneous; they are not like woman, and not like men. They have strong muscles, and rigid expression with swords and so on, and turned into huge monuments in many republics.
This Bologna Group makes research of the monuments and why they were erected in the public where Stalin monuments had been. They make installation and performance with drinking and meals. Their work is difficult to explain in words, but it’s artwork based on research on Soviet femininity and expressing new tendencies of representing gender in Post-Soviet Georgia.
There are also different initiatives of the feminist groups that are researching how the situation is in Georgia, not only making artistic research but also sociological research. Their works are based on research using statistic sources about gender-based violence in Georgia.
I would say in Post-Soviet there is a replacement of more research-based art.
5. In an interview you did on Erstestiftung, Gender check, in 2010, the interview ends with: Meanwhile, although women artists were very active in Soviet Georgia, the pioneers in deconstructing the Soviet gender system and stereotypes were male artists.
Is that true? And if so why is that?
Lali Pertenava: Of course there are a lot of women artists in Georgia, and has always been, but the most active are male artists.
In exhibitions women artists are representing their bodies, maybe they are painting, but often close to orthodoxy and religion.
Very important still, is the virgin question. Women in art were always powering themselves. Of course now it is getting more and more open, but in the beginning it was mainly active male artists representing sexual orgasm. Women are not so much involved in this activity. They may be working hard, but in order too power themselves, it needs time and another mentality, another gender awareness as well as awareness of women as an independent part, not attached to family. There is a very big family culture, that’s why male artists are much more active than women are. At least that’s my theory, not based on research, but I think that is why women artists are still quit passive in terms of showing their body.
– How is it on the school you are teaching, are there both male and female students?
Lali Pertenava: Usually in the schools where I am teaching, there are more female students then males. In higher education the representation of female students are much higher then the male representation, but in active, political, and economic life men are more active. There is a bigger stack of men in politics and economics than women.
6. Are there any characteristics of, or tendencies in Georgian contemporary art?
Lali Pertenava: There are different tendencies in Georgian contemporary art.
Another thing: What do you think as contemporary art?
In Georgia contemporary art is considered to be something that is brought from the west. Following Georgian traditions, painting is very important, and very popular, but now it is getting less important, because it is getting more salon art, because the explanation is that the market in the west is quit different. I don’t agree on that. It is local directions, people are not jumping in the western art marked, but it is very organic, accept the new trends and forms, because it is not only about art, its about science achievements, and technological achievements that are happening around the world, so you can not miss it. Still there are some traditional forms, such as are arts and crafts, but not many artists are involved in these forms. There are different tendencies, like religious art. Religious appeal is quit popular, and some artists are making religious icons. A kitschy reinterpreting of medieval culture, but still there is some artists involved in making religious things, but mainly what I could say about contemporary Georgian art scene is still post-modern and conceptual.
Artists and artistic group are also emerging on international networks, travelling around, and getting out of this post-modern conceptual thing, in new artistic tendencies, through networking and travelling. Compared with Soviet time, it is a new time. Georgian artists who are living outside of Georgia: there is one artist who is living in Switzerland: Lado Vekua. He is quit popular now, exhibiting in very famous galleries in New York, London and other European countries, they have based their works on Georgian culture, somehow combining western artistic education with Georgian cultural legacy.
7. What are your hopes for the Georgian art scene in the future?
Lali Pertenava: I think it will be more developed in direction of performance, because performative culture was very popular. If you compare with an anthropological performance it is very much based on national cultural expression, like this street performances, and so on was very popular in medieval century, and also in Soviet times. Street public performances are not so usual now but performative artistic actions are increased, and social engaged art is getting very popular.
8. Are there any Georgian art projects or initiatives driven by artists you would like the world to know about?
Lali Pertenava: There are different art project initiatives going on in Georgia but what I am more attracted to now is my friend Nadia Tsulukidze, she is Georgian performance artist living in Holland, and she is making “Me and Stalin”. She is trying to express this whole gender and power issues with her body; this is staged in Brussels this year in October. I will say this is the most interesting art project I see right now, and I know, there are of course a lot of different art projects going on. I find this specific project interesting because it is based on history, research, and gender issues. It is combining everything, and you know with Stalin also, it is a very important Georgian decision right now. There are people that appreciated Stalin as a god leader, they are old, but anyways there is still this dependency of this central powerful figure that show you how to live. Nadia’s work is realising this facts, based on two years research, and expressed by her body movements, she not only uses her body, but animation and video. It is a kind of combination of different artistic forms that make one whole work, and I find it very interesting.
Pictures chronological from the top:
1. Mother of Georgia, photo by Soff Ksovreli (soffk7.wordpress.com)
2. Lali Pertenava at Galleri Image, exhibition Music of Being by Giorgi Khaburzania
3. Self-portrait in the mirror. 1913. David Kakabadze (Wikipedia)
4. Imeretia – My mother. 1918. David Kakabaze (Wikimedia)
5. A Georgian Woman with Tamboreen. 1906. Niko Pirosmani (media.mutualart.com)
6. Public Prayer in a Village. Before 1918. Niko Pirosmani (Wikimedia)
7. Lamb and Easter Table with Flying Angels. Niko Pirosmani (pictify.com)
8. Two musicians. Otar Chkartishvili (flickriver.com)
9. Collage, assemblage by Otar Chkartishvili (flickr)
10. Bronze statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in his hometown Gori, Georgia (nydailyneus.com)
11. Mother Armenia in Victory Park, overlooking the capital city of Yerevan (www.atb.am)
12. Mother of Armania in a Guymri. Photo by: Aram Hajiyan (world66.com)
13. Mother Armenia – Ijevan. Photo by David Pin (flickr)
14. Nadia Tsulukidze (geoplatforma.blogspot.com)