The smoke lingers up and diffuses into a hefty midday air that hangs over the balcony of 7 Stuivengerplein, the abandoned school in Antwerp, towering over a desolate car park. Shalva Nikvashvili, the Georgian-born, Ghent-based artist sculpting headpieces from mundane materials that aim to challenge the archaic, preconceived stereotypes in our society, is sat leaning against the dusted glass door. Without some sort of eerie headpiece, he is only semi-recognisable, but his endless charcoal eyes and the tattoos that creep from under his tailored blazer give away the man behind the mask.
A patch of his hair is shaved across his forehead, and the word ‘Lover’ transpires, scrawled into his skin in clumsy letters. His skin is injected with ink of emancipation. “I have a bit of like, borderline-ish personality, so when I feel bad, I just hurt myself,” Nikvashvili declares with a casual, matter-of-fact tone as he pulls the jacket off his shoulder and drags on a Marlboro Red. The drawings on his skin animate. My Darling Monster. ‘დედა’ (‘mum’ in Georgian) tangles into the name of his ex-husband crossed off with harsh black lines. If his body is a canvas for episodic outbursts of anger, the deeply engrained – and, in some cases, repressed – memories of growing up in Georgia find catharsis in masks, Nikvashvili’s main medium as an artist.
Signagi, situated in east Georgia, is walled with the remnants of 18th-century fortifications, inside nestles a history of thousands of years cemented into beautiful streets. It was here, in this miniature town, that Nikvashvili was born in 1990, at the time of untruth and upheaval, suspended on the brink of a disaster and poverty; not a lack of money but a lack of produce. After he left Georgia six years ago, Nikvashvili has not been back. “There is not much left for me there”, he says. “Just memories”, which materialise into his creations – beautifully grotesque headpieces.
His childhood memory of suffocating in the cluster of the bread line with his grandmother emerges in the headpiece sculpted from freshly-baked pastries; Dead Bananas tells the story of his yearning for the fruit his father was selling in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The mask that is supposed to shield the wearer reveals them instead, and revels in rendering Nikvashvili’s elusive memories, immortalising them for outside study; giving the snapshot of landscapes of the country riddled with economic insecurity and political chaos that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. “That’s the Georgia I remember”, Nikvashvili says and picks up the black leather headpiece. “This one is about my life in Georgia – closing your eyes and closing your ears just to survive”, he says while he indicates at the imprint of his own fingers cast in clay.
“I don't hate Georgia. I love it, but I am so disgusted by the mentality of the people.” Nikvashvili’s creations provide social commentary that cracks a whip at the extreme right-wing mentality that still persists in the country. However, it also celebrates the country’s culture that stretches back for millennia. Like the Widow From Georgia, shedding ‘tears for nobody’, the leather headpiece adorned with the discarded photo of ‘some guy’ found in a passport machine, alluding to the Georgian tradition of wearing a portrait of deceased ones on the chest as a sign of grieving. “You come from the Caucasus. You can’t become French and I can’t become Belgian. People try to push back their identity and history. But we can take so much out of it”, he affirms.
If you had to label Nikvashvili’s creations – bathing in the dust of light on the carpeted floor of this ex-classroom –, it would fall into the grey area, the fantastic verge of art and fashion. “I don’t create fashion. I’m not a fashion designer. I’m not an accessory designer either. I’m more keeping the bridge in-between art and fashion, keeping a balance. Fashion just by its own is really dumb, and art, on the other side, is really zombie.”
Nikvashvili’s headpieces are a strangely relatable exploration of identity – safely rebellious; the authentically manufactured subversion of his role-play. Each piece is a fractional exploration and manifestation of his thoughts, ideas and memories, brilliant in their mundanity or in their grandeur. He is like a descendant of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The mad brilliance of his creations evokes the vegetal visages of the Renaissance artist. But the statements Nikvashvili’s pieces are charged with replace Arcimboldo’s whimsical playfulness with a flair for the grotesque.
Like the Portrait of Old Soviet Union, a headpiece sculpted from raw meat, the cloud of stink that it diffuses broken by the single pearl situated where the mouth would be. “The communists and the fascists, they were both butchers”, he declares. You can read a lot into hand-stitched seams of Nikvashvili’s pieces. But for him, it is spontaneously natural. “I just take something and throw it on your face, you know. I want to interrupt you, I want to interrupt you to get your attention.”
Reduced to a distant memory and solidified in leather, tights, raw meat, rubber gloves or ingredients of Nikvashvili’s dinner, the ephemerality of the materials contrasts with the effective – and sometimes rather unsettling – image it deeply engrains on the viewer. The whole thing is a potent and maybe unconscious play with the idea of identity and its plethora of seemingly trivial aspects, heightened and overexposed. “My work is completely inspired by my life; manipulating emotions and observations, the way I see the world.”
The slanting sun sneaks its way into the deserted hallway and tilts the hot air with fading yellows. Nikvashvili makes his way to the lower floors of the building to get his portrait shot. The labyrinth from a horror story leads to the stretched out room where the sun scatters its rays on the cold tiles. “I’ll wear this one, it’s closest to my identity”, he says, caging his face into the leather headpiece. The headpiece is called Independent Georgia; fashioned from the tricolour of the first flag of pseudo-independent Georgia, the flag that brought ‘blood, hunger, fire and crime’ moulded onto the shape of the gun.
Nikvashvili poses for a bit, then takes the mask off. A single tear rolls down his cheek and meets the swift movement of his inked hand. “Something always happens to my eyes when I wear this one”, he says, and laughs, “the emotion hidden away behind the mask”. It is not nostalgia but the sentiment clustered inside the mask, stapled into the leather, bites back with the diluted truth. He is still from Georgia.