Supporting Immigrant Artists

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The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB), video still, 2019, Ariel Diaz

An Interview with Katya Grokhovsky, Founding Director of The Immigrant Artist Biennial By Anna Mikaela Ekstrand

Launching across New York City in March 2020, The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB): HERE, TOGETHER! will present multi-disciplinary exhibitions, panel discussions, and events highlighting the multiplicities of immigrant experiences and providing a platform for U.S.-based immigrant artists from around the world, across race and social class, to showcase their work.

The Immigrant Artist Biennial is a fiscally sponsored grassroots artist and volunteer-run biennial that will give voice to artists from countries that face border control, travel bans, those fighting for their status, 01 Visas, Green Cards, etc. In the midst of their Kickstarter campaign and her residency at the popular tech-platform for crowd funding, I sat down with TIAB’s founder, the artist and organizer Katya Grokhovsky to hear more about the visionary project.

AM: When did you first think about creating The Immigrant Artist Biennial and how was the idea planted? 

KG: The idea started formulating in my mind about a year ago, when I was curating Art in Odd Places 2018 exhibition and festival. I had a great and uplifting experience working on a large scale project and realized I was ready to develop and direct my own cultural platform. My thinking behind supporting and showcasing immigrant artists specifically, came from my own experience and struggles as an immigrant, as well as my work as a mentor for the past six years in NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program. I saw the need for support and exposure of these artistic voices and noticed gaps in the system.

AM: Except for Native Americans, people in the U.S.A, colonizers and colonized, enslaved and free, are immigrants or descendants of them and many of the great modernist American artists were immigrants. Why is it important to highlight immigrant artists now?

KG: It is true, a lot of the human population are essentially colonizing or forced immigrants. That said however, reality and outlook of the person who actually experiences migration, voluntary or imposed, within their lifetime today is quite different. It is not an easy feat by any means. I am specifically interested in artists, who left their home country and migrated to another and underwent a split in their identity, culture, language, status and behavior. Most of modern and contemporary U.S. culture as we know it today has been created by immigrants, but not many realize it, or think of those artists in that way. We are also living through one of the most anti-immigrant times and I want to celebrate those, who contribute greatly to this society. Immigrant artists have a unique perspective and it’s important to highlight them. In a way, the biennial does exactly that, reminding that so many of us are also descendants of immigrants and must not discriminate against anyone else.

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The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB), 2019, Ariel Diaz

AM: You have been a Creator in Residence at Kickstarter’s HQ for the last few months for this project and are currently running a campaign to help launch The Immigrant Artist Biennial in 2020. Could you talk about the residency and the campaign?

KG: The residency at Kickstarter is designed to establish understanding of crowdfunding as well as give space, mentorship and resources for the project. Since September, I worked on designing and developing the campaign to fund the first part of the biennial and launched it a few weeks ago, with a goal to raise $10K by December 13th. For now, TIAB is powered by volunteers, we are a grass roots and artist run organization (fiscally sponsored by NYFA) and require resources to build the project from the ground up. One of the main pillars of the biennial is our belief in paying artists. It is important to me to establish this from the beginning and to create a support system, in which artistic contributions are recognized financially, beyond exposure and opportunity, even on a smaller scale for now. Moving forward, I would like TIAB to become its’ own entity somehow, to have a designated space, to travel, to become a significant cultural contributor.

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TIAB at Radiator Gallery, performance by Pei Ling Ho, 2019, photo Alex Sullivan

AM: What stereotypes are you looking to dispel with the biennial?

KG: The word immigrant is loaded with many stereotypes, prejudice and assumptions and I’d like to dispel those. The multiplicities of migrant experiences are endless and complex. A lot of people underestimate us and presume we are incapable, less intelligent, loud, untamed, emotional, the list goes on. Many unfair judgements are made because of accents, appearances, customs, gestures, body language. I am interested in how artists explore all of the above within their own context, their journeys, stories, family histories, cultures, communities, memories. It is a positive message. I want TIAB to be able to support all cultures, classes, religions, bodies. We need to learn from each other in order to be a better world, and TIAB aims to provide an opportunity to do just that.

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TIAB at Radiator Gallery, 2019, photo Alex Sullivan

AM: Your list of venues and partners are mostly non-profit institutions and entities – EFA Project Space, NARS Foundation, Greenwood Cemetery, to name some. Was this intentional and why?

KG: I gravitate towards non-profits, simply because I believe in the work they do and I personally wouldn’t have a career as an artist, if they didn’t exist. They support work that is challenging, experimental and boundary pushing, without market restraints. However, I am pretty open to any collaboration that aligns with our mission, and we did just add our first commercial gallery venue partner, C24 in Chelsea, a space that often collaborates with nonprofits and exhibits lots of immigrant and female identified artists and is led by former NYFA Director and Curator of Grants and Exhibitions, David Terry.

AM: Why did you pick the biennial format? 

KG: Apart from my ambition to start my own biennial in some capacity, I decided that this format would serve the idea well. For logistical reasons, the annual festival did not appeal to me, but I believe a biennial can sustain and propose new models in every iteration, so it appealed the most. I am excited about the opportunity of changing it up every two years, offering new definitions of “immigrant artist” and collaborating with various institutions and spaces, new curatorial teams and facilitating new dialogues and reaching new audiences. Opportunities for innovation are endless and I think that’s what will keep this project sustainable and fresh in the future, as well as exciting for me.

AM:  Although the biennial doesn’t open until March 2020, TIAB has programmed events across the city for the past 8 months – Assembly Room, Radiator Gallery, Art & Social Activism Festival, among others. It takes a village! What will it take to realize The Immigrant Artist Biennial? 

KG: It definitely takes a large physical and metaphorical village to build up a biennial, but I think that’s what New York is, or at least should be, in the best possible way. Realizing TIAB takes belief! The spaces and people who are partnering with us believe in my vision and see the need to support immigrant artists today as a crucial and necessary gesture and that allows us to keep going and launch this ship! Of course, it also takes funding and in-kind support and a crowd of backers and sponsors, who want to help us realize it.

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TIAB at Kickstarter HQ, 2019, photo Alex Sullivan

AM: You are a double immigrant, after leaving Ukraine you moved to Australia thereafter you moved to U.S. How have your personal experiences affected your curatorial work? 

KG: Immigration changed my life, twice. I don’t take it lightly. My outlook, my artistic output and my curatorial decisions are affected by the facts of my migrations directly. I still have outsider eyes. I am attracted to art that is affecting, experimental, hard to categorize, challenging, perhaps doesn’t belong, absurd, humorous and ignites my imagination. I think it has a lot to do with my early migrant experiences of learning a new language, trying to imitate behavior codes and existing in a strangely suspended liminal space. I often inhabit and understand margins very well.

AM: You have an open call coming up. Who should apply? 

KG: Yes, coming up very soon. It will be a nationwide call, for immigrant artists, born overseas, based anywhere in the U.S., working in many different mediums and genres, exploring issues of displacement, identity construction, home, belonging and separation. We will be looking for installations and performance proposals, 2D and 3D works, mixed media, video, films, and more.

AM: If you could have dinner with 3 immigrant artists who would they be and why?

KG: I would say that certain artists have affected my work and practice and they come to me in my dreams, they are all deceased, but I would have loved to break bread with them: Anna Mendieta, Archille Gorky and Louise Bourgeois. Maybe, we will meet on the other side.

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Katya Grokhovsky, photo by Lauren Renner for Kickstarter, PBC
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese independent curator based in New York City. Anna Mikaela served as co-/curator for the performance art events ‘Tales Of Tales’ (106 Rivington, 2019), ’Grebnellaw: Sperming The Planet’ (House of Yes and The Oculus, 2018), and ‘Your Decolonizing Toolkit’ (MAW, 2016). She has held curatorial positions at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Bard Graduate Center, and Museum of Arts and Design. Anna Mikaela is the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Currently, Anna Mikaela serves as an advising curator for inaugural ‘The Immigrant Artist Biennial’ to be held in New York 2020, she has contributed with an essay on performance art(ists) forthcoming in “Institution is Verb: PPL Lab Site 2012-2018,” and she was a curatorial resident at Curator’s Agenda: Vienna in 2019. Anna Mikaela holds dual MA degrees, in Design History, Material Culture, and Decorative Arts from Bard Graduate Center and in Art History from Stockholm University. She also studied at London School of Economics, Sorbonne-Paris IV, and Columbia University.