Interview with Gvantsa Jishkariani by Anna McColley

One of my first weekends in Tbilisi, I visited an opening at CH64 Gallery – Dress of A Thousand Oceans by Gvantsa Jishkariani. Layers of clothing hung on chains covered the walls of the exhibition space, intermixed with sculptures, tapestries, and mosaics. Exploring Tbilisi more over the next weeks, I kept finding this same scene – racks of clothing hanging in windows, underground passages, and doorways. Recalling her exhibition, I reached out to Gvantsa by email hoping to gain more insight into her installation, and this landscape it seemed to mimic. 

This interview developed by email and Google Docs over several months from February to June 2024, where Gvantsa discussed her inspirations, techniques, and curatorial projects.

Anna McColley: Traditional forms of craft, such as mosaics and tapestry, seem to hold an important place in your practice. What drew you to these mediums? How did you learn to manufacture them yourself? How has your research into traditional crafts informed the art you make today?

Gvantsa Jishkariani: The only art I was exposed to growing up in a low income family was gigantic soviet propagandistic mosaics on the walls of buildings, or hammered metal images adorning the walls of public service buildings, or factory made tapestries everyone had in their homes. Unsurprisingly these images and techniques have left a huge imprint on my visual memory and shaped my interest for them and for their production, and how these techniques can be used for creating contemporary images. Mosaics, as an historical technique to depict and pay respect to important figures (almost always men) in the Soviet, era was used as a tool to promote different kinds of messages, always propagandistic, always colorful, and such eye candy for little Gvantsa that this fascination stayed with me for a long time. I first had the urge to make a work in that technique when I watched a video of a tree standing on a boat swimming in the sea. So surreal, so iconic, that I thought this is how myths were and are made – I felt the urge to transform this digital image, this digital memory, into something physical, and I created an icon from it, to protect this absurdity from being lost, forgotten, or simply deleted. I think this is actually how myths that we know today were made – they were real things that happened that are so unbelievable today that we call them made-up stories, fairy tales, fictions, or lies. So I wanted to preserve one of them in this form. I continued by making mosaic self portraits. Self portraits play a big role in my art practice as well, in different forms and techniques, it is a recurring theme which I won’t expand on now.

Tapestries are a little different story. My tapestries series is a commentary, a highlight of the anthropological elements and what rules contemporary dynamics behind the scenes, in a nutshell. Of things that have shaped/failed to shape me/us… to highlight the absurdity of the resistance, of what we as a community have achieved or overcome. The phrases I hand-embroider on them are always inspired by present happenings in the political, social, and cultural sectors of the world, or by past events that have shaped/traumatized/inspired the next generations, including mine. By ripping, destroying, and then rebuilding the machine-made, tranquil, conventionally beautiful, kitschy Soviet tapestries into an image that represents the best world for me, I meditate, I heal from the sentence that I embroider by hand on the image offered by the culture that has shaped me. I decorate it, adorn it, burn and tear it the same way as these  aesthetics, this culture and mentality has done to me.

My love/hate relationship with tapestries started in my early childhood, when we had a machinemade Virgin Mary tapestry at home. I hated it. It was so kitschy, so outdated.  I wanted to remove it, hide it when people were visiting. But at one point, after growing up, I suddenly had this unstoppable desire to create my own. And so it started, after I found one on the bazaar. I embroidered on it and then deconstructed it and adorned it with beautiful things, as if to celebrate my victory over the words (the reasons that pushed me to create the work in the first place), and over the aesthetics that I had to be surrounded by growing up. I sort of take control over them, becoming stronger than all of it. And the tapestry series never seems to end, which is not like any other method I work with. It never makes me bored, I always find new ways to destroy the material and new ways to build. And I never don’t have something to say, the last word is always mine.

Destruction is a big part of my practice. I love transforming items/materials by destroying them, as like a controlled fire for forests to grow even bigger, better. The goal is to give physical form to one’s fears by manipulating traditional images and old techniques, to gain control over them. To create a contemporary image that is understandable to my generation and speaks our language. I want to expand and bring to life the materials and techniques that are charged with traditions but are not imprisoned by them.

Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Mother of the Seas”, from “Dress of a Thousand Oceans”, exhibition view, October-November 2023, CH64 Gallery, Tbilisi, photo: Sera Dzneladze. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and  Gvantsa Jishkariani
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Roses in My Blood”, 2023, marble, travertine and onyx mosaic on wood with printed back, 110x40x1cm. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and Gvantsa Jishkariani

AM: In your recent solo exhibition at CH64 Gallery in Tbilisi, Dress of a Thousand Oceans, sculptures, tapestries, and mosaics are interspersed amongst racks of clothing. When I saw the exhibition, these elements were not immediately noticeable to me and blended in with the clothing, especially because each sculpture or mosaic seemed to compliment the colors and textures immediately surrounding it. Yet the works themselves are very intricate and clearly made with great care and attention. Why did you choose to embed these works into walls of fabric, where they are almost hidden?

GJ: The installation was a replica of an underground second-hand clothes market that I pass through every day. These are places of endless discoveries, as well as visually absolutely intense places. These are places where many ideas for my works were born and sometimes were even executed as well. These are the places where many of the vendors put icons or photos of their loved ones, or just fun, little, and sometimes beautiful, sometimes kitschy stuff they find, on top of the clothes they are selling, as a thing for them to look at and enjoy in this chaos. I replicated this in my exhibition. Mosaics of giant flowers, tapestries, paintings, felt works, hanging or sitting atop clothes, as if asking for attention but also blending in so much that they’re either lost to one’s eye or seen as a part of this madness. This is where it truly was born, and it belongs more there than on the sterile white walls of an exclusionary white cube gallery. But also it’s like bringing the garden and serenity into the chaos of survival…

AM: Where did you source the clothing in the exhibition? How did you select the pieces? Was it more random or was each piece carefully selected and placed?  

GJ: A big majority of the clothes are mine. Knitted and crocheted items were made by my mother and her sister for themselves in the 70s and I also wore them. Three friends of mine also contributed with their own off-season pieces or clothes they wanted to give away. The clothes were not curated except for one wall with my mothers mosaic portrait where she is wearing a crocheted piece as well. I organized, knitted, and crocheted the ones on that wall.

AM: Can you expand on the significance of this title, Dress of a Thousand Oceans?

GJ: The title comes from one felt work I created for the show – an image of a female whose dress is morphing into blue water, on top of which little humans are climbing to survive, with small witches on the tree branches next to this gigantic woman. In a sense it tied the whole installation, the works and clothes, together – these mass-produced clothes we have in massive quantities, clothes we don’t need but want – are these dresses worth a thousand oceans? Cause they will become one for sure. It might be beautiful mythical, but it is also sad, so scary.

Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Dress of a Thousand Oceans”, exhibition view, October-November 2023, CH64 Gallery, Tbilisi, photo: Sera Dzneladze. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and  Gvantsa Jishkariani
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Dress of a Thousand Oceans”, exhibition view, October-November 2023, CH64 Gallery, Tbilisi, photo: Sera Dzneladze. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and  Gvantsa Jishkariani
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Dress of a Thousand Oceans”, 2023, dry and wet felting,  130x180cm. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and Gvantsa Jishkariani 
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “The Beautifullest” from “Dress of a Thousand Oceans”, exhibition view, October-November 2023, CH64 Gallery, Tbilisi, photo: Sera Dzneladze. Courtesy of CH64 Gallery and  Gvantsa Jishkariani

AM: What is your relation to the underground bazaars and markets in Tbilisi that the installation mimicked? Do you feel that this landscape has changed, developed, or expanded throughout your time in Tbilisi? 

GJ: The market has always been there. In the soviet period, clothes and other consumer goods were not as accessible. For a pair of jeans, one would have to get them from the black market. But post-soviet Georgia had street vendors everywhere – these were/are people who try to survive by selling every tiny little thing they own, as well as people who started importing clothes from mostly Turkey and were/are selling them in the bazaars all around the country. This was where a majority of the population dressed themselves for many years until second-hand clothes, and later international brands entered the market, and until the internet made it easier to order something online for dirt cheap. 

The early 00s were a period of massive privatization, so public spaces – like underground passageways – had little shops in them where people sold all kinds of goods and services. Even today you can get a haircut next to a lady selling chicken and on the other side, another trading handmade socks. Photo booths next to knock-off sneaker stores and mini printing houses next to popcorn machines and so on. The city of Tbilisi had several attempts over the years to crack down on illegal street markets above the ground, but underground it has remained unbothered. These places have always fascinated me – so utilitarian, so busy, such a capitalistic wonderland of all sorts. 

One of the central underground passages was where I founded my first art gallery, PATARA gallery, and the following year another one, THE WHY NOT GALLERY, in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Little change has happened since; in 2019 the city renovated the main streets and it made crossing easier and safer above the ground, so not many people are using the underground passages anymore, many of which are being renovated right now. So some shops have stopped functioning in some of the underpasses, but many are remaining and thriving, especially ones in the outskirts of the city in the “sleeping [commuter] districts” where they are as busy as ever.

Emin Aliev, “Circling and Returning”, exhibition view, April 2024, Patara Gallery 3rd location, Tbilisi. Courtesy of Patara gallery and Emin Aliev
Andro Eradze, “Ocean”, exhibition view, July – August 2018, Patara Gallery 1st  location,Tbilisi. Courtesy of Patara gallery and Andre Eradze
Camille Lévêque and Lucie Khahoutian, “Summit Meeting”, exhibition view, 2020, Patara Gallery 3rd location, Tbilisi. Courtesy of the Artists and The Why Not Gallery and Patara Gallery
Camille Lévêque and Lucie Khahoutian, “Summit Meeting”, exhibition view, 2020, Patara Gallery 3rd location, Tbilisi.Courtesy of the Artists and The Why Not Gallery and Patara Gallery

AM: How do you see clothing and fashion function as an instrument of globalization and consumerism, especially in Georgia? I don’t know how much concrete information you have about this, but I am curious about the relation Georgia has with fast fashion and consumerism. For example, I spent a month in Bangkok, Thailand last year, where fast fashion is not only a huge corporate undertaking, but also a legitimate means of survival and livelihood for Thai people. Your installation at CH64 reminded me of the markets and bazaars in Thailand, where there are endless rows and stalls of cheap t-shirts, fake designer bags, and trendy garments. Much of this clothing is not produced in a factory but handmade by Thai people who work round the clock to produce garments. Walking around the streets it was very common to hear sewing machines whirring away at all hours of the night and to see people through the windows of their apartments sewing the same garments I would then see at the markets and bazaars. I am curious if there is such an industry in Georgia? Are most of the clothes in the exhibition manufactured in Georgia? Or are they imported from elsewhere? 

GJ: Absolutely a big portion of clothes are not manufactured in Georgia, only very few are. Second-hand clothes are imported from Europe and some also from America. Some people do sell handknit socks and toys though. 

AM: In the installation, I was struck by how generic and unappealing the garments looked all layered on top of each other. I thought about how each individual garment would seem much more desirable if displayed on a mannequin in a window display, or draped off a model in a product shot. Yet the excessive accumulation strips the garments of any commercial appeal and they seem to exist as their base essence, fabric. Was this your intention? Are the sculptures and tapestries included in the installation related to this circularity?

GJ: Exactly – that was planned. Desire these days is all about packaging. The individual items of desire become a backdrop, a wallpaper, one messy, useless college when put together. It also shows the absurd size and uselessness of the amount of things that we do not necessarily need, but definitely desire, to own. Wanting to own everything you can afford and beyond is especially true in post-socialist countries – this sudden power to own things that you could never have before has pushed both younger and older generations deep into wild consumerism. Shit that’s well packaged is sold a million times more than that same shit without packaging. The value of an item decreases 10 times after just opening the box it’s in. The same goes for art – it depends where you put it, who shows it, how much more expensive it is than others – not WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS. Well, mostly. Sometimes though, going on a treasure hunt and discovering things on your own can be a solid source for getting that “thing,” that rush of “the find” is just as important as the buying/purchasing in itself.

AM: PATARA Gallery is an exhibition space in an underground passageway in Tbilisi. How did you get the idea to utilize such a space for a gallery? 

GJ: I passed that specific underpass everyday on my way to work in a posh concept store I was managing in the notorious Stamba Hotel, a super hyped (for a reason) place where in the store I  would see people dropping what for many would be months of wages for a single t-shirt every fucking day. This contrast between my life and a life that I was shown a glimpse of was so big, but also so interesting. Tiny shops with floor-to-ceiling windows were installed in an underpass, few of which were occupied. Many remained empty, and triggered new ideas every day, of having my own exhibitions there. I just thought maybe I could make a gallery there for passersby to see, and so I dared to ask the price for renting one (2sq meters). It was super affordable (around USD 90), and so I asked my best friend to do it with me, together. We had two intentions –  to create a space for experiments, or failures, new young artists (excluding ourselves and friends who already had a chance to show in different spaces), and to have a space where every exhibition is visible from the outside, anytime, no matter if you enter the space or not. And for everyone – as part of their routine, free of contemporary art gallery awkward silence and judgment. Reactions were fantastic! 

Since then we moved three times – the first time because the space was sold and the shops were demolished (we were offered to stay there in a single glass cube that they wanted to build for us, as for them, too, PATARA was a special place, but we declined as PATARA without neighboring shows was not PATARA but just a white cube in a specific location). Then we moved to an underpass leading to Tbilisi’s central park, in the poshest area of Tbilisi. The space was four times bigger and rent stabilized, so we paid almost the same as the first location. Because of some complications in 2020, PATARA moved again to the first and last (for now) above-the-ground place in the handyman district of Tbilisi where literally every artwork, and everything else, is produced. By this time I was running it completely alone. And again, because of the stinky-ass landlord we had to close the gallery for a year. It was too much for me –  emotionally and financially – as since the beginning, all my income was going towards the galleries and my art production. I have not worked for any company since 2021 which is a luxury I know, but it requires even more dedication and sleepless nights than just having a regular salary from someone else. I think the biggest was the emotional toll of managing two galleries, a gift shop, making my own art, being a curator, electrician, handywoman, camerawoman, editor, cleaner, graphic designer, installer, courier, art-handler, producer, financial advisor, web designer, social media manager, spokesperson, sales agent, director, therapist, content creator, scapegoat – I needed rest. 

At the end of 2023 I invested my art sales into reopening PATARA in its Central Park location,  which is my favorite for its size, form, and the massive skylight and a literal fountain above it! I just recently finished an open call for it where I’ll select new exhibitions, bringing super strong young art from abroad for local audiences to see new ways of making art and delving into new foreign concepts, which is a big part of what PATARA offers. 

AM: Do you think your installation at CH64, which mimicked the underground clothing vendors, relates to the PATARA Gallery exhibition space?

GJ: Sure, PATARA is part of the underground economy; it is woven into the literal underground life-cloth of Tbilisi. It is as real as it gets. Real as everyday life of the majority of the population. We are in these places everyday, either just passing through or participating in them in more intense ways. 

Wato Tsereteli and Giorgi Geladze, “I know exactly what you know”, Courtesy of the Artist and The Why Not Gallery
Sophia Tabatadze, Salome Dumbadze, “Renewed as Phoenix”, exhibition view, December 2018–February 2019, The Why Not Gallery, Tbilisi. Courtesy of the Artists and The Why Not Gallery
Spring Break Art Show,, Shalva Nikvashvili and tamara Lortkipanidze, exhibition view, October 2023, NYC,  Courtesy of the Artists and The Why Not Gallery
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “I Hate Poetry”, exhibition view, September-November 2023, The Why Not Gallery, Tbilisi. Courtesy of The Why Not Gallery and Gvantsa Jishkariani
Mariam Aqubardia, “Painted Walls Create an Illusion of Reality”, exhibition view,  September-October 2022, The Why Not Gallery, Tbilisi. Courtesy of The Why Not Gallery and Mariam Aqubardia

AM: When and why did you start The Why Not Gallery?

GJ: The Why Not Gallery was started in 2018. I was desperately trying to find a new location for PATARA (horrible landlords, I was done with emotional manipulation from them), so I was searching places in underground passages and found this vitrine that would not work for PATARA, but immediately had idea to start a new gallery and on spot called my now friend and gallery partner, Elene Kapanadze, who was an assistant curator in a residency I did a year before. I had a good experience working with her so I was like why not offer her this. And she agreed. Rent was like 30 USD a month, we bought a tv and started curating duo exhibitions, again with the vitrine on 24/7, showing video works from international artists like Hannah Black, Lara Smithson, Polina Kanis, and combining their work with Georgian artists works, mostly photos printed on large scale. After a year we were kicked out from that location and we became a nomadic gallery for another year. In 2020 we opened a large exhibition space with two galleries and a big gift shop – that was a big deal for us – this way we collaborate with even more artists and create limited edition fun stuff with them. The gift shop helps us fund some unconventional and non-commercial exhibitions, and support crazy exhibition designs that we so love to do. We still keep our fresh attitude and artist-run, project-space vibes in our new location, and are mostly working with female and queer artists, together with conducting research on Soviet period art and artists. We also started doing international art fairs that I find is an interesting way to meet people to work with, or to just enjoy seeing their art. 

AM: Besides your exhibition at CH64, I also recently had the chance to see both your artistic and curatorial work (with The Why Not Gallery) at the Spring Break Art Show in New York in September 2023. How was your experience showing work in the US? What was the reaction from viewers there to your works with CH64, and your own gallery’s booth?

GJ: I have love-hate relationships with art fairs; they offer different kinds of relationships and conversations about art that the artist in me hates as it hurts LOL. It is also a lovely place to meet like-minded people. Spring Break was slightly different: the crowd was super friendly and it felt like one large exhibition – not necessarily the art fair vibes that I’m more used to. I would say it was more like the Supermarket Art Fair in Stockholm, where you go to network and have fun, not necessarily to sell.

As I was alone in my room/booth, I stayed in it most of the time. I was surprised to meet so many visitors who knew one of the artists we were showing –  Shalva Nikvashvili – apparently he has a strong fanbase there too! What was unexpected for me was how sensitive –  or if I may say “sensitive” – the New York crowd were towards some of the artworks (prints and a painting) we were showing. I would never have expected to have someone be so shocked by seeing a fork and feet or a tongue and scissors printed on fabric.This sensitivity even felt fake, like Americana fake.

I think the CH64 room was probably objectively the best looking! Seeing my works hang on graffitied metal fences brought such a new aesthetic to it. As if I was seeing it on the streets, post-apocalyptic a bit. I had a few chances to witness reactions in CH64’s booth and loved how positive they were. Especially towards my tapestry. Interesting how words can mean so much to so many different people across the earth and how much we share in common.

Screenshot from youtube video posted Mar 29, 2016.
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “And Waters Part”, 2019, marble, travertine, onyx, granite, basalt,  tuff mosaic on wood 80x90cm. Courtesy of Gvantsa Jishkariani

AM: Do you think that elements of your artistic or curatorial vision are lost or changed when brought to a new country with a vastly different history and socio-economic reality? 

GJ: I don’t think so. I think Georgia and the whole South Caucasus region is such a small but unique place, hosting this huge mix of ancient eastern and western cultures and having experienced the changes during and in the post-Soviet period has shaped it into a very special form. Art coming from that past and this present brings a unique perspective to any international scene. The way we approach production is interesting as well, having had limited or no access to contemporary production services or tools has pushed folks to invent new ways of production that are always so fascinating to see.

I think concepts are the same – it is intensely interesting to any country you bring it to; they might not necessarily be trendy at the moment in that specific location, but art should not be trendy at all. So there’s that. 

Gvantsa Jishkariani, “I chew my solid blood”, 2022, natural stones (marble, granite, onyx) mosaic on wood, beer bottle glass with topaz, agate and prehnite beads. 43x29x1cm (without beads). Courtesy of The Why Not Gallery and Gvantsa Jishkariani
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “ECONOMICS OF BETRAYAL”, 2022, embroidery on factory-made, re-worked, torn, tapestry, 3 large metal nails, 85×65 cm. Courtesy of The Why Not  Gallery and Gvantsa Jishkariani
Gvantsa Jishkariani, “Brutal Honesty”, 2022, embroidery on Soviet period re-worked,  torn, burnt tapestries, glass beads, 60x260cm. Courtesy of The Why Not Gallery and  Gvantsa Jishkariani

Gvantsa Jishkariani (b.1991, Rustavi) is a Tbilisi-based multimedia artist and curator. She graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of the Tbilisi State Academy of the Fine Arts (2013), then completed master’s program in Creative Mediation at the Centre of Contemporary Art-Tbilisi (2015). Dedicated to experimentation, the artist likes to explore traditional craft – investigate her own associations, research into the traditions and then employ this knowledge to create her art. Her works often deal with her own personal emotions and experiences as well as reflect socio-political conditions of the present day world. The artist often employs humour to address these deeply personal and highly relevant topics.

Jishkariani is widely exhibited in Georgia as well as abroad, including New York, Munich, Brussels, Vienna, Prague, Zurich, Dusseldorf, and Naples, among others. In 2021 she received a Prince Claus Foundation Seed Award. In 2020 she was selected for the Forbes 30 under 30 list, in 2019 she won a NARS Foundation Studio Grant, New York, and in 2017, the artist received the Tsinandali Award in Visual Arts. 

​Apart from her artistic practice, Jishkariani has an equally vibrant curatorial career. She is a founder of Tbilisi-based galleries Patara Gallery (2017) and The Why Not Gallery (2018), dedicated to supporting young Georgian artists. She was also the curator of Tbilisi Photo Festival’s Night of Photography (2017, 2018, 2019). Jishkariani is also the founder of the first online Georgian magazine, Gargar, on art and fashion (2013-18).

Anna McColley is a visual artist and writer based in Tbilisi, Georgia and New York, NY. She received her B.A. in art history and visual arts from Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, NY. She has exhibited her work in New York, NY and Tbilisi, Georgia.