Sharing Skills to Bring About Change: Interview with Irena Popiashvili

After the Portfolio Building workshop led by curator Anna Gargarian at the beginning of the curriculum, the “How to survive as an emerging artist?” program gave its participants a second opportunity to refine their portfolios with a special guest from Georgia: Irena Popiashvili. Previously a founder and co-owner of Newman Popiashvili Gallery in New York (2005-2012), Irena is now implementing several initiatives in Tbilisi as an independent curator. In the interview below, she shares with us some insights about the Portfolio Review workshop she directed at ICA Yerevan and her thoughts on the Georgian contemporary art scene.

What impressed you most about the portfolios you reviewed with the participants?

Irena Popiashvili – One thing that consistently came up in all the portfolios is that participants are not professionally photographing their work. They basically have very bad documentation of their work. This is just a skill they have to learn so they can better present their paintings, their exhibitions or their installations. On the other hand, the strongest works I’ve seen in the portfolios were mostly video pieces. Although they were in Armenian, I still felt the sarcasm and the humour they tried to convey.

What differences or similarities did you notice between the participants’ portfolios and the ones of Georgian artists?

I. P. – One thing I noticed is that the participants’ works tend to be more responding to the political situation in the country, something I basically do not see at all in Georgia. Young Georgian artists are not really interested in addressing political issues. Although we do have an art collective called the Bouillon Group, which regularly stages performances in response to political and social events.

What we have in common I think is the “materials issue”. Armenian and Georgian artists are not really paying attention to the quality of the materials they’re using or to the finish. If we talk about contemporary painting, I think of someone like Avery Singer, an American painter who is using the binary language of computer programs and industrial materials while removing the trace of the artist’s hand. This is what I often tell my students in Tbilisi: you do not have access to the materials your Western colleagues use. Artists from the region tend to paint or draw on materials that are not meant to be painted. Let alone when it comes to photography!

If you could give three advices to emerging artists, what would they be?

I. P. – First of all, they have to work hard on their portfolio and have it always up to date. It is essential to know how to present yourself. This is a skill that they have to learn and to master. Second, you have to be aware of what’s going on in the art world and to think of yourself in this global context. Why? Because neither in Armenia nor in Georgia, we do not have a market we can define ourselves within, so we have to know the market and the discourses defined in the West. You have to look at what defines success in the Western terms and find how to position yourself accordingly. When you come from a small country, you have to know a lot. This is our advantage: we know more about them than they know about us. It’s up to you to define how you fit there. Do not let anyone else define you. That’s very important. And third, you have to be smart in terms of career building. You have to make a list of the galleries where your works could fit and a list of curators that might be interested in your approach. You have to find a way to reach out to those people, to have them look at your work and see if they can exhibit it in group shows, for instance. Curators and galleries always listen to artists’ recommendations. So if you know a successful artist, show him/her your work, because artists tend to recommend each other.

You moved back to Georgia from New York City in 2012. Since then, how have you been involved in the local art scene?

I. R. – After I moved back, I worked nine months as the rector of the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, after which I started working at the Free University of Tbilisi. There I created an undergraduate program: the Visual Art, Architecture and Design School (VA[A]DS). I believe that education is the most important thing to bring about change. It is the anchor that keeps me in this country. I have organized many exhibitions at the National Gallery, but I realized that no exhibition can make as big a change as education does.

In the beginning, I noticed that exhibitions in Georgia were poorly installed, since there was no practice of curation. We sure have very good art historians but in order to curate an exhibition, you have to think spatially and contextually. The specificity of our program is that we organize two exhibitions per semester, so by the time students graduate, they have participated in sixteen group exhibitions. And I have to say my plan paid off: Tbilisi is now hosting more and more good exhibitions.

In 2013, I also founded the “Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project” together with Tamuna Gvaberidze. Since very few people were visiting galleries, we decided to exhibit artworks in unused commercial shop windows on Rustaveli Avenue. That was a great opportunity to exhibit young artists that no one showed elsewhere. And my latest project, Kunsthalle Tbilisi, is a nomadic space that I co-founded in 2017 when I realised that the best thing was to exhibit Georgian artists together with international artists, so I could contextualise their works. That project has been very successful for promoting the careers of Georgian artists. Overall, my goal is to show that you don’t need to move to Berlin or New York to have an international career. You can now do this from Tbilisi or Yerevan.

You recently co-curated the “Borderline Ornaments” exhibition at the Folk Art Museum in Yerevan with Armenian artist Araks Sahakyan. To this day, there still isn't much collaboration between Armenia and Georgia in terms of artistic initiatives. What could be done to bring this two art spheres closer?

I. P. – I personally have a keen interest in Armenia and Armenian art and I think it’s very important for my students and the new generation of Georgian artists to also get interested in it. I would really like to bring my students here, especially to Gyumri, because I love that city. The Merkurov Museum is a very interesting one. One way to foster the relationship would be to organize group exhibitions. I am planning to curate a group show with some Armenian artists of the “How to survive as an emerging artist?” program at the next Tbilisi Art Fair (from April 11th to 14th). This will be a great opportunity for them to present their work to a wider audience, since many international curators usually come to the Art Fair in Tbilisi. And I also think we need to implement some kind of residency program in Tbilisi so that we can invite Armenian artists and put them in touch with local artists. We could also set an open studio so that gallery managers and curators could come and see their work.

Interview by Achod Papasian