Interview with Nino Tchogoshvili and Lali Pertenava on their research in Georgia

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

Soviet law and socialist canons proclaimed gender equity, the equal participation of women in society, and women’s rights, but such fictional Soviet propaganda had no impact on the deeply entrenched gender relationships in Georgia; in fact, a patriarchal social order still dominates life in the country even today. From the beginning of the twentieth century up to the 1930s, in what is known as the “modernist” period, Georgian visual art commonly explored themes and questions related to gender and sexual relationships as well as the woman outside the family, nudity, eroticism, prostitution, and homosexuality, etc. Modernist development was halted during the mid-1930s by the Soviet state campaign against such “social anomalies” as prostitutes and beggars. In addition, the state legislature declared homosexuality to be in violation of the law.

The Soviet period is associated with gender upheaval and sexual transgression in Georgian culture. Gender relationships were defined both by newly formed class structures and by the patriarchal-hierarchical family model. Traditional and religious ethics defined the sexes in terms of their reproductive functions. A Soviet “no sex” ideology also reinforced this tradition. Traditionally in Georgian national dances, the man leads a woman without ever getting close to her or touching her. This distance between the sexes was also legitimized in Soviet visual art. Intimacy was depicted without eroticism-without touching (Radish Tordia Love). The visualization of Soviet gender roles in Georgia merged traditional attitudes toward women with Soviet ideology, presenting stylized, esthetic female collective farmers carrying large baskets on their shoulders (Lado Gudiashvili Fruit Collectors) or athletic, androgynous women (Tamara Abakelia Happy Family). Soviet photography provided more realistic evidence of the working conditions of women in documenting the tired faces of tractor operators, factory workers, etc. with ready or forced smiles. Soviet women occupied the multiple roles of a Soviet citizen: as worker, civil servant, and public activist, but the most popular image of a woman was the mother. The popularity of the figure of the mother, which stems from Georgian pagan and religion traditions, was turned into the most powerful ideological tool that informed views of gender during Stalinism. The iconography of the mother underwent an evolution during the Soviet period. In wartime art the image of the mother lost its femininity and attributes of gender, and became instead a warrior, hero, or victim (Irakli Toidze Motherland is Calling). In the postwar period, the reproductive function of the mother was revived, along with her connection to femininity (Nana Mesxidze Mothers). In the 1960s monuments to the “Mother of the Nation” were erected in Georgia and many other Republics of the Soviet Union, underscoring the importance of the woman in Soviet culture and her generalized function as warrior, protector, and hostess of the state in the iconic figure of the Mother.

Post-Soviet gender discourse is connected first with Western liberal values that focus on feminism and women’s rights, and which allow a return of the forbidden themes of the “modernist” period to visual art. Second, it’s connected with the rise of Orthodox Christian traditions that bring women back to the family and emphasize masculine supremacy. Sexuality also occupies a special place in the new gender discourse. At the same time its models, images, and representations depend on historical, cultural, and social contexts (Levan Chogoshvili Venus and Mar(x)s, Guram Tsibakhashvili Chewing Girls). Post-Soviet Georgia is currently engaged in the difficult process of reestablishing gender identities.

Since the 1990s, artists in Georgia have explored contemporary representational systems that question the representation of gender hierarchy and women within the system. Woman artist Eteri Chkadua creates hybridized social identites of contemporary woman, transgressing social and cultural boundaries. In their performances and artworks the Bouillon Group addresses and conceptualizes the issue of the “Mother of the Nation” monuments in the Soviet Republics.Contemporary artists are interested in investigating socio-historical roles of gender relationships and their conceptual representations.

In your research you describe how sexuality and gender difference first became the theme in Georgian art in the 1970s when it opposed de-sexualized heroic imagery introduced by the official program of the socialist realist, particularly Stalinist canon. However it seems that the artists who participated in this change were mostly male. What was the position of women artists in Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s, and did any gender-aware practices by women artists exist then?

Women artists were very active since early Soviet times. Georgian women artists: Eka Gagdavadze, Elene Akhvlediani, Ketevan Magalashvili, and Natela Iankoshvili, all had solo exhibitions from the 1930s onwards. While their survival as artists depended on their ability to conform to masculine norms, women artists manifested a consciousness of their interests as women in portraying the real social functions of women rather than the pseudo images of happy workers. From the end of the 1960s, the number of women artists increased. Visualizations of femininity replaced the pseudo-ethnographic sexless depictions of female workers of the 1950s and 1960s. Sensitivity and decorativeness were qualities that were present in the works of some female Georgian artists, but women’s sexuality was still controlled by representational systems that didn’t allow any transgressions of the Soviet traditions of non-eroticism. Dominating an exhibition catalog on Georgian women artists published in the 1970s are themes like motherhood and family, as well as the portrayal of representatives from the intellectual class. Meanwhile, although women artists were very active in Soviet Georgia, the pioneers in deconstructing the Soviet gender system and stereotypes were male artists.


Lali Pertenava / Nino Tchogoshvili, Research Georgia

Lali Pertenava is an Art Historian and Critic. She teaches Photography History and Theory to undergraduate students. During the academic year of 2002-2003 Lali was a visiting research professor at the George Washington University, Washington D.C., affiliated with the research program in Social and Organizational Learning. Her postgraduate study in the Art History Department of Tbilisi State University focused on the research project “Body Representation in Contemporary Art of Post-Soviet Countries” (1999).

Art historian and freelance curator Nino Tchogoshvili was born in 1973. Since 2006 she has been heading the Department of International Relations at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, Georgia. She has co-founded the Caucasian Center for Cultural Development. Nino holds a PhD in History and Theory of Art from the G. Chubinashvili Institute of the History of Georgian Art (2006). Her curatorial projects include 1989/2009: Bewegte Welt – Erzählte Zeit (2009 at Akademie der Künste , Berlin ), Artisterium (Art Forum Tbilisi, 2008), the curatorship of the Georgian pavilion at the 52. Biennale die Venezia 2007, and Georgian Modernism 1910-1930 (2005 at Karvasla, Georgian National Museum, Historical Museum Tbilisi). Moreover, since 2007 she has been involved in rehabilitation projects of the State History Museum in Kutaisi and of the State Museum in Saguramo, Georgia. Nino Tchogoshvili lives and works in Tbilisi , Georgia.