Lia Ukleba, 42, Kutaisi

“I dreamed about studying in the Arts Academy since childhood, but my family members made me change my mind. The parents used to nag me: “Why would anyone want that?” or “Becoming an artist is useless, you should aim for being a teacher instead!”, and so on and so forth. Besides, the Academy was considered elite and it was a luxury to enroll there. I was just a village girl and did not stand a chance. So, I gave up. At the age of four, I was sure that I was an artist, but at the age of 24, I was not sure who I was because I got married at 16…

No woman has had it easy and, realistically speaking, we are not going to have it easy for some time in Georgia. My life too has had some painful moments, which need to be openly discussed.

Under a huge pressure, I was able to find myself, do my job and I fight teeth and nails for it. I had to fight against the family, the public and the existing system. I did not abide by the status quo I was living in. The girls of my generation were forced into marriage. I don’t mean that our families made us do it. About 60% of the girls of my generation have been kidnapped and forced into marriage because it was scandalous to return a kidnapped girl back home, whether the sexual act had taken place or not. Kidnapping is much rarer now but there are occasional cases. I was kidnapped too. My husband was 17 at the time and he still worries that our marriage happened the way it happened. I wished we had got married based on consent and willingness from both parties, but I am sure that he too was a victim of the views that were shared by most of the youth at the time.

I did not have a chance to enjoy my teen years. I had a family and a child at the age of 18. Finding oneself in a completely strange environment is difficult and I lost myself; yet, I was itching to do something other than raising children and taking care of my family. I tried many things such as teaching at school, working on TV and radio. Finally, at the age of 36, I realized what I was destined to do and started to draw. I’ve been drawing for 6 years and these years have been the happiest as I’ve finally found my calling and, with it, peace of mind. I found what I wanted and since then my life has brightened up. Isn’t it awesome?

I cannot even draw a leaf if it does not move me in any way. That’s why I have amassed only 50-55 paintings for the past 6 years. I cannot even fill one exhibition hall, but I can’t help it… I am not an Academy-graduate artist in the traditional sense of the word who can work routinely. It may be my weakness but I cannot do otherwise. So I do whatever is close to my heart and emotions. When I stood before a canvas at the age of 36, I did not have any strategy and I did not think who I wanted to reach out or if it would have any response or how people would see my work. I just started painting. I started working with oil in May and I was invited to exhibit in 6-7 months. It was beyond imaginable for me. As I told you, I had no idea why I was drawing all this and I did not even know if anyone went to see my works. But when the people from Kutaisi City Hall Culture Department saw my works on Facebook, they offered me to participate in the exhibition.

Evaluation, analysis and interpretation of my works as those of a feminist artist started with my painting “The Virgin with a Toy Pistol”. Many people saw this painting so I began to be recognized by a wider public. It took me by surprise when I realized that I am painting about women all the time. For some reason, my works deal with religious and gender problems. If you ask why I draw about these issues, I guess I find both of them the most painful. I came to realize it all later, I had not planned it ahead.

We, the women born in Georgia are similar in many ways, even our biographies are alike and whatever is mine can be of any woman too. Probably, there are only a few women who have not faced the problems I’ve had. Therefore, what comes from my heart, comes from the life I’ve lived, which I try to convey on the canvas with varying degrees of success. It strikes cords with people because it is a general problem, not unique to me. Sometimes it seems to me that I am too locked inside my own self and my problems but since these problems affect others too, it means they are not exclusively mine.

When I was working at the Virgin, I was not so naïve as not to expect that there would be some response, and I thought I was ready for it. Obviously, I could not have predicted the hostility of this scale. What happened was beyond expectations. For instance, after the response to painting at the Ilia University exhibition, I was so stressed out that I could not work and I am still recuperating. Not just mine, but my children’s physical safety was at stake. It is ridiculous that it all happened because of some painting; besides, their interpretation was very different from what I meant to express. The rumors surrounding the painting were jaw-dropping, one of them being that I painted it at the order of the Patriarchy so that the law on offending religious feelings could be passed sooner. Can you believe it?!

Thankfully, there was a huge support too. Every human being, group or organization who share my values stood beside me and showed their support. Their solidarity was to the person who was, it’s safe to say, almost killed, and to the viewpoint that I had expressed and that they had found right. For me it is very important that I have constant support from my husband and my children.
A while ago, I painted a rather harmless picture of a teenage girl in Tskaltubo. It was erased just a few days after. As I was later explained, the picture had a short life because it was a work of Lia Ukleba…”