The online art platform Project ArtBeat works towards better exposure for Georgia’s art scene and artists.
Art Radar converses with Project ArtBeat Co-founder Salome Vakhania regarding recent developments in the Georgian contemporary art scene and their platform’s ongoing efforts to turn Georgia into an art hub for the Caucasus region.
Many are the stories that speak of art enthusiasts using the Internet as a tool to promote art in their side of the world. Project ArtBeat from the country Georgia is one of such stories. However, more than committing to produce online content that tackles contemporary Georgian art and artists, this online platform has plunged into international art fair participation, exhibition programming, establishing its own art spaces, and most recently, catalogue publication.
Founded by Natia Bukia, Natia Chkhartishvili and Salome Vakhania in 2014, Project ArtBeat is ambitious for simultaneously working on two things: increasing the global exposure of Georgian art, and nurturing and adding variety to their country’s art scene, despite economic challenges and lack of government support for the arts.
Vakhania expounds on Project ArtBeat’s journey so far and shares with Art Radar names and practices that are important to the flourishing of Georgian contemporary art.
Let us begin with your start-up. What factors in the Georgian and Caucasian art scenes moved you to establish the online platform Project ArtBeat? And what made you decide to go beyond your online scope?
Project ArtBeat is the result of three friends’ mutual wish to nurture and promote Georgian contemporary art both locally and internationally. In addition, we are aiming to create an environment in Georgia that will act as an artistic hub for the region. We believe that artists from post-Soviet countries still haven’t had a chance to express their full artistic potential internationally.
Let’s take art fairs: the number of artists from post-Soviet countries you come across during fairs is very limited; it is time to expand the canon. In order to do so, artists need to be accessible internationally and the best way to do so we believe is via the Internet. At the moment, we are mainly working with Georgian artists; but soon we are planning to have some changes. From the beginning we never wanted to only work with a selected few collectors and art lovers; we were inspired to reach as many people as possible, a crowd that does not usually attend exhibitions. With our Moving Gallery, which is a shipping container that has a different location for each exhibition, we decided to go to people instead of them coming to us.
Recently, we decided to open a permanent space in Tbilisi as well, so that when our Moving Gallery is travelling, we can offer our visitors exhibitions in Tbilisi. Last but not least, art fairs are a major part of our programme, we have so far participated in around 15 art fairs such as Art Dubai, Contemporary Istanbul, Volta NY and Start at London’s Saatchi Gallery, among others.
What major developments have occurred in the Georgian and Caucasian art scenes since Project ArtBeat was established?
It would be too ambitious to say that in the last two years we have caused major art developments in the region. But I believe with active international representation of our artists through art fairs, press coverage from magazines and newspapers, such as Observer, Artnet, The Art Newspaper, Calvert Journal, Vogue, BlouinArtinfo, etc., and collaborations with foreign artists, such as Oscar Murillo, Brian Griffin, Jesse Darling and Takeshi Shiomitsu, we are definitely pushing the Georgian art scene into the right direction. I can even say that our active participation motivated other Georgian galleries, which had never take part in art fairs before, to participate.
I find it exciting because the more Georgian galleries are active internationally, the higher the exposure to the Georgian artists will be. When we started, we didn’t have anyone to ask for an advice; it was tough but by following our instincts and hard work we managed to find our way around. However, the most exciting part of my job is to observe how our artists have developed since working with us. To name a few: organising Irakli Bugiani‘s first solo show at the D. Shevardnadze National Gallery, followed by the publication of his first catalogue, was an amazing experience. Also, being able to witness how photographer Beso Uzndaze started painting in the last year or so is incredible. One moment he is a photographer and the next he becomes a very talented painter as well.
At the moment the majority of our artists are male, however our aim is to gradually start working with more female artists and soon have an equal number of both female and male artists.
Contemporary art is said to have begun in the 1990s, while others argue that contemporary art is from 10 years ago onwards. In terms of timeline, where does contemporary art begin in Georgia and the Caucasus region?
What is contemporary art and when it started has always been a major topic of discussion, for example the MOCA in Los Angeles refers to artworks that were made after 1940 as contemporary, whereas Tate Modern in London calls contemporary artworks that were created after 1965. However, I am sure ‘Contemporary’ one day will become a definition, a fixed and dated signifier, similarly to ‘Modern’.
In Georgia, in my opinion, new art movements that developed during 1970 to 1980 were the origin of contemporary art. Even though very limited information was passing through the Iron Curtain, Georgian artists such as Gia Edzgveradze, Iliko Zautashvili, Luka Lasareishvili, Gela ZautaShvili were organising exhibitions and were actively involved in the Georgian art scene.
A group of artists including Mamuka Tsetskhladze, Karlo Kacharava, Giorgi Loria, Oleg Timchenko, Mamuka Japharidze, Lia Shvelidze, Koka Ramishvili, Niko Tsetskhladze, Guram Tsibakhashvili, Keti Kapanadze and others founded the 10th Floor group who were inspired by Conceptual Art and influenced by German Expressionism and made video art, arranged performances, happenings and environmental art shows.
As one who has been working with the artists in your region, who would be the most important or influential artists to know? And, who are the emerging artists and curators to watch?
All artists that have been mentioned above played a crucial part in the development of Georgian contemporary art. Of course, you can’t talk about Georgian visual art and not mention Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918), the most important Georgian artist. He was a self-taught, primitivist painter. I think currently it is a very interesting moment in Georgian contemporary art because it gets lots of international attention and we have artists such as Thea Djordjadze, Andro Wekua and Vajiko Chachkhiani, who are well-known internationally, and are presented by big galleries such as Sprüth Magers , Gladstone Gallery and Daniel Marzona respectively.
However, what Project ArtBeat is aiming for is to represent and support Georgian artists that not necessarily work with big name foreign galleries. Our aim is to work with art institutions, art residencies and museums globally.
To name a few artists that are the must-to-follow, there are Sopho Chkhikvadze who was selected both in 2016 and 2017 for the BP Portrait Award at National Portrait Gallery in London, Maka Batiashvili, Irakli Bugiani, David Meskhi, Maia Naveriani, Tamara K.E., Thea Gvetadze, Lado Pochkhua and Beso Uznadze.
Georgian curators that I love working with are independent curator Elene Abashidze, a Goldsmiths graduate and founder of independent publication Danarti, Elene Kapanadze, Mariam Tsikaridze, Mariam Loria, Nino Macharashvili and Levan Mindiashvili, who is another amazing Georgian New York City-based artist to follow.
What trends (art forms, practices, infrastructures and opportunities) are currently dominating Georgian and Caucasian contemporary art?
The beauty of Georgian artists is that they are not that influenced by trends, for example during Brexit and Trump election artists all over the world were very politically charged, unlike Georgian artists. However, the other day my partner Natia Bukia was telling me how she feels that there is a lack of current Georgian political, social, economical, ecological issues being explored by Georgian artists in their work. I completely agree with her view as we believe that art has a big power today to influence, inspire and move people. Georgian artists still follow their instincts more than trends, which I love about them the most, this independence that they feel is transcendent in their works. Painting is still the most common medium used by Georgian artists.
Project ArtBeat has its own exhibition space, Moving Gallery, a shipping container that jumps from one location to another. Could you talk a bit about your space’s exhibition programming, considering that you also bring in foreign artists?
Moving Gallery by Project ArtBeat offers a somewhat unorthodox way to represent exhibitions. As I mentioned earlier, our main goal is to have exhibitions in locations where people expect them the least. For example, to see Beso Uznadze‘s paintings when jogging at Lisi Lake on a Saturday morning or Gio Sumbadze’s video installation in the centre of Kutaisi when going to work or to see Maia Naveriani‘s drawings when out for a family outing at the Funicular in Tbilisi.
We try to have a minimum of four to five (either group or solo) exhibitions of our artists per year at the container. The schedule is decided usually at the start of the year and we often collaborate with independent curators. This year, the Municipality of Tbilisi was extremely supportive; and with their help so far, we managed to have Maka Batiashvili, Lado Pochkhua and Beso Uznadze’s solo shows, and are planning three more exhibitions. In addition, we try to collaborate with one international artist per year.
Considering that Moving Gallery does not have a permanent location, what kind of visitors does your exhibition space usually attract? How do determine the next destination for Moving Gallery?
Our visitors vary depending on the container’s location, which is the beauty of our Moving Gallery: it reaches to a very diverse group of people. Usually choosing locations is teamwork; we, together with artists and curators, decide what the best place would be for a specific exhibition.
How about art collectors? Has there been an increase in the number of collectors since Project ArtBeat was established?
I think this is the biggest challenge in Georgia for us. Since Georgia is not a wealthy country, there is little culture of becoming a collector; people just buy artworks here and there, without any structure or consistency. However, since our gallery’s establishment, people have started to get to know our gallery, artists and most importantly have started to place their trust in us. We are very proud that not only we have started working with young collectors who had already been buying art, but also our efforts have triggered interest and even passion in people who weren’t interested in art before.
Hopefully, our relationship will grow together with their collections; we really enjoy working with them. In my opinion, to be a collector, one has to support artists that they believe in throughout their career. We hope to be the bridge between people who care about art and our artists.
Back in December 2016, Project ArtBeat published a catalogue about Irakli Bugiani’s exhibition at the GNM National Gallery. Could you tell us a bit about ArtBeat’s role in publication? And, what is the status of art book publishing in your region? Are books on Georgian and Caucasian contemporary art easy to access?
Yes, Irakli’s catalogue was published after his first solo exhibition. It was our first publication and we enjoyed and learned a lot from that experience. We believe that publication plays a major role in the development of contemporary art.
At the moment, we are adding a publication section to our online platform because currently books about Georgian art are very difficult to find, so we want to change that and gather all valuable art books about Georgian and maybe Caucasian art together on our online platform. We believe that this feature is very important for Georgian contemporary art to find its place in the international scene.
Unfortunately, there is still a very limited number of books about Georgian art; and hopefully, with our initiative we will encourage others to invest in publications as well.
Project ArtBeat has also been responsible for the global exposure of Georgian contemporary art. Could you speak of the audience’s reaction towards the works you displayed in the recently concluded ArtVilnius’17? How do you determine an artist’s readiness for the international art scene?
Project ArtBeat presented works by Maka Batiashvili, George Gagoshidze and Levan Mindiashvili at ArtVilnius’17. Georgian contemporary artists attracted remarkable interest and received approval from visitors and art professionals. ArtVilnius is well-organised fair; however, the art market is still less developed in Lithuania.
I think determining the readiness of an artist is a rather subjective process, we trust our instincts; and, of course, we learn from our past experiences.
It is your long-term goal to “help Georgia become a regional centre of contemporary art”. What would you say are the major hindrances to this?
Lack of governmental support… unfortunately visual art is the last area the government is investing in; but hopefully, we will manage to change that.
Where does the Georgian – and Caucasian – contemporary art scene stand in the international art scene?
We are just starting to become well-known internationally; and I’m very glad that Project ArtBeat is one of the initiators of this interesting journey. Even in the last couple of years, things have changed and the contemporary art scene of the region has become more visible internationally. I believe that with hard work, great ideas and bit of luck, there’s a great future ahead of us.
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