Kinstler Conversation with Rusudan Khizanishvili and Nina Mdivani

The following is a conversation with the Georgian painter Rusudan 

 and the Georgian-born, New York-based curator, writer, and researcher Nina Mdivani, with whom Khizanishvili has collaborated. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nina Wolpow: I want to start with you, Rusudan. I know you studied film. When did you decide you wanted to be a painter, or when did you know?

Rusudan Khizanishvili: I studied film at Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, but it was a very hard time here in Georgia. Cinematography was almost dead. I was already married. I had two kids when I was a student, so it was very difficult to work with filmmakers, because you have to be there all day, from the morning until the next morning. Painting is my very big obsession, if I can say that. I can control everything on my canvas. I can make the story, which I couldn’t make in film. If you look at my paintings, you can see that I’m more a storyteller than just a painter. I love to make serieses because it seems that one piece of canvas is not enough for me to tell some big story.

NW: I love how narrative your work is. You said it was a difficult time in Georgia, can you say more about that?

RK: It was the nineties—the Soviet Union was crushed in the end of the eighties, and Georgia became an independent country. We had a very big economic collapse in Georgia, so we didn’t have heating, gas, electricity, even water—we had just six hours a day of water. We used candles for reading and for living. It was about ten years, until 2002, when the president Mikheil Saakashvili came to Georgia, and then we became a normal civil country. Until the end of days, I hope. I hope we will never be back to those dark times.

NW: That was a difficult time for a lot of countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union. Nina, did you grow up in Tbilisi, too?

Nina Mdivani: Yes. I came [to New York] to study in 2003. And then I kind of moved. But I grew up in Georgia. I’ve been here 17 years. After living 17 years in New York you feel like a hybrid, because you have your own culture but—you know how New York is. There’s a place for everyone. And also you know, since you’re familiar with the arts sphere—it’s kind of globalized, so you always have your tribe that’s outside these kind of cultural national boundaries. 

NW: The more global it becomes the better, I think.

NM: I agree. And also I think it counteracts this kind of right wing tendencies around the world. In Europe, also. 

NW: Do you remember what first struck you about Rusudan’s work?

NM: Of course it was her colors. They’re incredible. Very unusual compositions. Since I first saw her work in 2016, she’s changed a lot. What she does now, it’s different—it’s the same artist, just based on her structure, but her colors became a little bit more nuanced. I think Rusudan was working a lot with this idea of disharmony and dissonance. Now her paintings have become a little more settled. They have more structure and there is still a lot of narrative, but it’s more streamlined—it’s more about bringing it together in a composition. Before, she kind of consciously went against this. She wanted to show chaos and lack of structure, and now she’s changed those narratives.

NW: Yes, Rusudan, I wanted to talk about your use of color. It’s such a striking aspect of your work, and it’s clearly so foundational. 

RK: I gave up oil colors in 2013, which I had used since I was a student in the college of art. Until the pandemic, my conception was about what’s artificial in this world, and it was quite aggressive. I changed my palette of colors [to match this aggression], because I couldn’t get it from oil colors. Oil colors are more traditional maybe, or more deep [than acrylics are]. Since I was a child, it’s seemed like I’ve been in a hurry all the time. I wanted to say a lot and very fast and acrylic colors helped me to explain myself immediately—to say what I want to say. When I got a lot of time [due to Covid-19], I began missing the oil colors very much, and so I decided this was a good time to [go back]. 

NW: How do you decide which colors to use? Is it purely aesthetic or do the colors have representational value?

RK: When I start to paint, to use colors, I do it very intuitively. It’s like I’m releasing some music—for me the colors are like a symphony, so it’s very interesting for me to see the results of what I did.

NW: Do the colors you use ever take you completely by surprise?

RK: Sometimes, yes. It’s a very live process.

NW: Let’s talk about the painting that we’re including in the puzzle here: “A New Star Rising.” It features three human figures. I’m wondering who they are and whether you’ll tell us about them.

RK: You can see the mother and child—it’s not exactly religious, but it can feel religious, because it was based exactly on the masterpieces of the Renaissance. You remember Raphael and Leonardo, even Michaelangelo’s painting. This is quite a [sacred] painting for me, because I have two kids, and this connection between mother and child is very precious for me. The other figures, maybe they are like angels—they are participants. 

NW: In your work you draw inspiration from a lot of different traditions—from the paintings of the Renaissance to the paintings of the Dutch golden age, from Christian iconography to Sumerian. Does it feel like a lot to balance all these different traditions and inspirations? 

RK: Yes exactly. It seems like I make my own mythology, but I use the language of what was before because we have a very big and deep history of art. I even use archetypes from cave paintings. If you know the history of art, you can recognize a lot of symbols from different periods, different centuries. This is very interesting for me—sometimes even I do not understand why I use some kind of symbol, but then when I start to read my paintings after finishing, I can understand what I did and what I wanted to say.

NW: You mentioned gender. I know that gender and female subjectivity are important to both of you. Can you talk more about gender as it relates to Georgian culture, today and in the past?

NM: Rusudan mentioned that with the Soviet collapse, things became modernized. Georgia is catching up to this idea of a woman who is independent, who gets her education, who works. There’s a change in social consciousness that’s taking place right now. Rusudan always works with this idea of the woman’s body and how a woman can handle agency and how she is an actor as well as narrator, so she has both the power to tell that story and at the same time to create that story. 

RK: I lost my father when I was very little, very small. I was one year old. My mother got the role of father and mother at the same time. So I think that is why it was very important for me, and it’s still important for me, that everything is based on the woman—on one woman, and her power. 

NM: In Georgia, women tend to be strong and sometimes—not sometimes, most often—they are the supporter and the main force inside of the family, but traditionally they’re still holding back, not assuming that authority. 

NW: So there’s a difference between what’s being shown to the world and what’s actually going on in the home. 

NM: Sometimes. At least in older generations, it used to be that way. I feel like younger generations, like our generation, and then the generation that comes after, like Rusudan’s daughters, who are students now—I think they are different. I think they are trying to make up their own minds, and make their own lives without thinking about all this traditional cultural baggage.

NW: Do you feel that way—that your daughters are very free, Rusudan?

RK: Yes exactly. And I’m very proud of this. 

NW: Another theme that I noticed in your work, Rusudan, is that you have a lot of animals. But you’ve said that humans are the most central to your work. Why is that? 

RK: In the beginning, it was about ecological catastrophe. It seems that I was trying to find the harmony between humans and animals. That’s why I’m always trying to put them into this world with humans, so that we remember our small friends. We must care about, take care of them. And of course I love to use archetypes. Tribal art and cave art, they have extra power—in different nations, different animals have different powers, and this is about that, too. It’s like we are inventing. I’m inventing something to survive, maybe. To make human beings stronger, because they’re quite fragile.

NW: What is something about Georgia or Georgian culture that you want Americans to know?

NM: It’s very interesting for me to present Eastern European art in dialogue with contemporary American art. Usually there are sets of values, or sets of interests that are addressed, and with Georgia it’s very much dynamic inside—it’s developing at the moment, so you see it in action, these structural changes taking place. For example, Rusudan’s art: you see these women becoming empowered and assuming their identities. It’s not really just Georgian—I think she’s in dialogue with Western art, with outsider art, with neo-expressionism, with—which other artists are of influence to you, Rusudan?

RK: A lot of artists. For me, I met America when I started to read books. For me, America is always Faulker, and Steinbeck—two of my favorite writers— and then later, Salinger. For me, what’s happened in the United States in art is the best. When I come there, I have to go to the museums and the galleries. I love it. Maybe a little in Europe, but mostly in the United States. Many times in interviews I’ve said, I do not want to see myself like a Georgian artist. I want to be a universal artist, without any languages and any nationalities. I just want to make the perfection of art. This is my aim in my life. I started to think that even I do not want to use my name one day. I just want to be a creator. 

NW: So just to take your personal identity completely out of the art?

RK: Yes, exactly. To become anonymous. 

NM: They will recognize you, Rusudan, I’m sure. 

NW: I appreciate your taste in literature. I have a tattoo from a Faulker novel.

RK: Oh my god! Which one?

NW: From As I Lay Dying.

RK: Oh my god! I tried to read it in English but it was not possible. Even translated, his books are quite difficult. 

NW: Faulkner is very difficult, even for an English speaker.

RK: I also love his idea—because he lived all his life in Mississippi—he said to Hemingway when he left the United States for some time, and it seemed that he was looking for the best country to live in, and Faulkner said, “If you want to make some genuine things, you should live in your country.” I remember that, and I always think about it. I also do not want to leave my country. 

NW: If I or anyone were to come to Tbilisi, what is one thing or some things you would tell them to make sure to see?

RK: I think the museum of art, where we have a wonderful collection of ancient artifacts. 

NM: I think that, of course, and the theatre of marionettes. The theatre has a very long tradition in Georgian art. Throughout centuries Georgia was connected to Greece, ancient Greece, so this kind of old theatre and old plays, it stayed there, and it continued to develop and it's still part of the culture. I personally love Georgian theatre. When I go there I always go to performances, and I’ve been to quite a few with Rusudan. There is a marionette theatre which is also created by a very talented person named Reno Gabriadze, and his stories are very human. They’re beautiful, created with these very gorgeous small dolls, and I think it’s beautiful to see. I think it has English subtitles, too. 

NW: That sounds incredible. Puppetry gets degraded when it’s just presented as something for children, because it’s such a sophisticated means of expression.

NM: It’s really sophisticated. I’ve been to that theatre a couple of times—they have plays for adults. They’re quite heavy stories, just presented through this medium. 

RK: Exactly. This was for adults. I was crying.

NW: One thing that you mentioned, Rusudan, is that you feel a deep kinship with the artistic community overall. I know that you are very active on Instagram—does that serve as a tool of connectivity, without actually leaving Georgia?

RK: Yes, exactly. Instagram is very helpful. If I can say that I became popular, I became popular just because of social media. Georgia is a very small country, and we are very far from the world. Living here is very comfortable for me. I have my own studio. I can produce here, and then I make shows abroad. If you move there, you have to have various different rules for living, and it’s not easy. Maybe it would be easier for me if I were younger, but now I’m not at the age to start something new in a new country. So I feel myself in a shelter here. When I’m visiting the galleries in New York or in Paris, I can see differences, and maybe it might treat me better for my art. I can stay unique, and not trendy.

NW: We have a lot of trendy art in New York that isn’t so good.

NM: Too much. There are so many amazing shows going on, though. That’s something I know Rusudan misses.

RK: Exactly. My favorite museums. 

NW: I just have one more, kind of silly question. Since this is a puzzle company, I was wondering what, if anything is puzzling you, Rusudan, and then you, Nina, about the world today?

RK: There’s the Covid puzzle—no one has any idea what’s next. It’s strange and very interesting to live in these times. It’s hard but interesting. For us, for artists. Sometimes, we do not have time to think this much. So it’s a very good time for that. Maybe it was given to us for understanding the meaning of life. Maybe we have to find the real values of life. 

NM: It’s very of the moment, but the whole state of the world is puzzling, unfortunately. Because we don’t know. We hope that we’re at the end of the tunnel, but are we really? Where are we going with this? How are these changes going to affect us in the long term? There are so many puzzling questions honestly—it’s a puzzling time.