In Dialogue with Nina Mdivani on her curatorial project at Kunstraum LLC (Brooklyn) and The Assembly Room (LES)
Nina Mdivani is an independent curator, art writer, and current Curator-in-Residence at Kunstraum located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard neighborhood. Her rigorous curatorial process and research have recently culminated in a two-part exhibition, New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness. This dynamic group show pairs the works of Georgian and American artists to create multilayered dialogues across cultural identities. Nina Mdivani shares with Art Spiel some of her background, and elaborates on the premise for the upcoming group show she has curated.
AS: Let’s start with what brought you to Kunstraum, and some info on this venue.
NM: Originally, I am from Tbilisi, Georgia, but I have been living and working in New York for the last sixteen years. After college I have worked in various academic and nonprofit settings as a writer, researcher, and coordinator. Since 2015 I have been concentrating on visual arts, curating several exhibitions in Georgia and Europe. In 2018 my book about three Georgian women artists King is Female has been published by Wienand Verlag in Berlin, Germany. This is first such monograph that focuses on contemporary Georgian women artists and examines ongoing transformation of women’s identity in that part of the world. Georgia is in the process of being changed by small and big shifts that vary in character from psychological and socioeconomic to mental and intrinsic. As an independent curator, I am always looking for ways to investigate these shifts and also to present them to the Western audience. I think that this interplay between old traditions and new identities creates an interesting mental and aesthetic experience. This was my main thought when I sent my exhibition proposal for curatorial selection at the Kunstraum in the beginning of last year. Afterwards I was selected as a Curator-in-Residence 2019-2020 and have started working with this artistic hub and curatorial platform since March.
Kunstraum is located at the edge of Clinton Hill and Navy Yard in Brooklyn and has been established by the artist Nadja Verena Marcin and her husband, architect Fernando Schrupp, five years ago. What distinguishes Kunstraum from many artist-run spaces in New York is that because of its structure – incorporating affordable artist studios as well as a gallery space – guest curators do not feel as much commercial pressure and are able to explore in more depth their areas of interest and research. This results in high quality experimental exhibitions with a deep support of the Kunstraum team. As part of my curatorial residency I had a privilege of producing four outstanding exhibitions in coordination with guest curators in Kunstraum and now am able to present two of my own exhibitions. Overall this curatorial residency has brought me an excellent hands-on experience in the curatorial field within the New York art environment as well as exposure to already well-established arts organizations in the city such as NYFA that has selected this exhibition project for fiscal sponsorship. I am excited to be presenting the first of the exhibition at Assembly Room, a dynamic gallery that is highly and consistently supportive of independent women curators.
AS: Tell me about the premise for the upcoming group shows you are curating at The Assembly Room and Kunstraum.
NM: The exhibition New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness is divided into two because although they both investigate the same phenomenon, presenting too many artistic narratives together would have been overwhelming. First part is focusing on paintings by Rusudan Khizanishvili and sculptures by Juliana Cerqueira Leite. Second part is a group show of twelve artists. Both these exhibitions suggest that Otherness is central to our understanding of ourselves and even when this concept sometimes produces internal or external dissonance, it is nevertheless necessary for our functioning as individuals. We cannot simply accept all the Others in our lives. It is beyond our nature as it goes against whatever we have experienced since we were very young. Prejudices are ingrained in us as are our fears and infatuations, but we need to rise above them if we want to see the whole picture. At least we can use art as a mirror, in an attempt to piece together the broken screen. As art supports immediate experience of an issue or an argument, introducing Georgian artists that are inherently Others for New Yorkers was also very interesting to me because the dynamics of our lives in contemporary society creates isolation, sometimes making us alien not only to each other, but also to ourselves. Probing into stereotypical reactions we harbor towards people, things, beliefs, orientations, ethnicities, skin colors different from our own, is particularly timely.
AS: Please tell me a bit about some of the paired artists in this show.
NM: Rusudan Khizanishvili’s strong female figures, half-mythological and half-real, lack any ethnic characteristics and appeal to universal symbols. Otherness for them is an obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to become part of the contemporary reality and they are producing new bodies for it.
Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s monochromatic heads speak directly to Khizanishvili’s metaphors, as they reference the transition from the Other to the Undesirable, they too need to go through a transformation in order to become acceptable, more understandable, more conforming.
Both Anuk Beluga from Georgia and Tim Foley from New York question the idea of gravity, tradition, established institution that carries the weight of dogma. Yet, they use different frames of mind to argue their points. If Foley uses queerness as the main backdrop of his technical experiments, Beluga uses age-old Georgian tradition of venerating the dead by providing them with sustenance.
Shiri Mordechay from the US and Tamara Kvesitadze from Georgia both explore the interior of human psyche in a way that reminds us of innocence and openness. By using viewpoint of a voyeur in their artistic processes both artists bring immediacy, fluency and nuanced perception of an individual be it in a concrete or imagined space.
AS: Tell me about your curatorial process for the show.
NM: It was very important for me to bring together established as well as emerging and underrepresented artists from Georgia in a dialogue with artist here, that also are at different levels of their career. I think it added to the scope of the exhibition. Another caveat of this exhibition is how the Eastern European art is presented in the West. In general, Eastern European artists are expected to present themselves within already defined visual forms and themes, such as the post-Soviet legacy or ethnically heavy works. This already imposes a certain expectation upon artists that they are almost feeling obliged to follow. Secondly and paradoxically, many Eastern European artists as well as Georgian artists tend to cater to the Western market to fulfil what they think is in the demand in the West, sadly often using already existing and ready-made visual language rather than trying to reinvent it and produce their own vision. For these exhibitions it was very important for me to find a middle ground.
AS: Can you share what curatorial projects you are working on these days?
NM: I am currently working on an exhibition concept for a group show that will focus on the theme of belonging, home, and habitat. It was presented in July at NARS Foundation, Brooklyn.
All photo courtesy of Kunstraum LLC
New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness Part I The Assembly Room, January 17-February 23 Opening: Fri, Jan 17th, 6-8pm
New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness Part II Kunstraum LLC, March 1- April 5
Group exhibitions curated by Nina Mdivani and presented by Kunstraum LLC