interview

Under the skin: what stirs Meggy Rustamova’s artistic spirit?

© Ivan Put

Meggy Rustamova could have become a journalist or a famous actress but the need to be vulnerable in the world and to turn that experience into warm-hearted and critical art was too great. “I don't want to feel like I wasted my life away.”

MEGGY RUSTAMOVA?

Born in 1985 in Tbilisi, Georgia to an Assyrian mother and a Georgian father

Flees the country in 1994 with her mother, first to the Netherlands, then to Brussels

Aged 14, she enrolls in the Brussels Kunsthumaniora (art college). After that, she studies journalism at the Erasmus Brussels University of Applied Sciences and Arts as well as acting at Studio Herman Teirlinck, but gives both up after a year

Finds her voice in the master of visual arts at the KASK in Ghent, and continues her education at the Universität der Künste in Berlin and at the HISK in Ghent

Exhibits her work - which includes video, photography, sound and performance - at, among others, S.M.A.K., M in Leuven, argos, KANAL - Centre Pompidou, Iselp, Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, M HKA, Croxhapox, Beursschouwburg...

Starts the Brussels art collective Messidor along with Pieter Geenen, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat, “my family, my support, my sounding board”

“I found it very difficult to announce my exhibition at a time when the house is burning down three numbers away,” says Meggy Rustamova in Beige, the art space where “Shot by Shot” has just opened, her exhibition that captures the construction of stories and our destructive relationship with nature in an unruly harmony through storyboards, a poster, prints on textile and a film. “I immediately volunteered to interpret for Ukrainian refugees, as I could not concentrate on my work anyway. The war has brought all back to the surface.”

“I was eight years old when my mother and I left everything behind. I still remember the sound of that half-empty suitcase,” explains the artist who was born in Tbilisi in 1985. “After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia was plagued by violent conflicts and grew hostile towards minorities. My father, who died when I was two, was Georgian, but my mother is of Assyrian origin. Suddenly, people questioned why her job wasn't done by someone with Georgian roots, or why she spoke Russian to her child. I discovered my otherness very early on. In 1994, we fled to the Netherlands, but we were not allowed to stay there. In 1996 I ended up in Brussels.”

“You may be able to free yourself from your identity as a refugee, but it is more difficult to get rid of the label 'immigrant',” says Meggy Rustamova. “How often have I not wished that my name was Meggy Peeters, that I could just be inconspicuous. I still do, every time I am told how well I speak the language or how well I behave. It is not always badly intended, but it hurts, because you're always pushed into being the other.”

THE OTHER, ELSEWHERE
“Art has proved to be a way for me not to dance to the rules and fixed laws of society,” Meggy Rustamova adds, “but to create my own reality and boundaries, a way to express myself. It is a struggle, a clash, but there is no other way.”

It is this personal path that led Meggy Rustamova to decide at the age of 14 to abandon her studies of modern languages and sciences at the Athenaeum in Etterbeek and instead to enroll in the Kunsthumaniora (art college) in Brussels. “I just didn't fit into that pattern. It felt like a straitjacket, because of the person I was back then. At art college, I discovered word art, photography and film, but also a group of people who had very specific dreams and plans for the future, while I had no clue. The only reason I was there was because I felt I needed to do something different.”

“After secondary school I did journalism at the Erasmus Brussels University of Applied Sciences and Arts – because as a refugee child there was no future for me in art, I was the one meant to build a life with a decent degree, security. Journalism interested me a lot, but I lacked the motivation to study, so after a year I knocked on the doors at Studio Herman Teirlinck, where I miraculously passed the entrance exams. But I got very disappointed in the training, in the mentality. I heard things there that will haunt me all my life: how I was 'not from here' and should perhaps try to build my life somewhere else, maybe Moscow – somewhere I had never been and did not belong.”

NO FILTER
After two lost years, Meggy Rustamova decided to have one last go and went to the KASK in Ghent to study visual arts. “It was tailor-made for me! That freedom to do what I wanted and never had thought possible, to try all media... That is what still attracts me to art: experimentation. For me, an artist is someone who stretches boundaries, does things that others cannot or dare not do. As a consequence, art stays far away from marketability and rehashed gimmicks. You are constantly evolving, together with the person you are, and with society.”

1795 Meggy Rustamova
© Ivan Put

“I just don't want to feel like my life has been a waste. I want to make things that I can still be proud of 40 years from now, because they were made with the right intentions, because they are relevant. Maybe that means that I will produce one or two works a year, but over 40 years that will turn into 80. Eighty works which are allowed to exist and in which I hope people will continue to recognise themselves. So that what I say now about the world and people today, about myself, about language, about vulnerability, will have become something timeless.”

Art as living matter. Two wonderful episodes from Meggy Rustamova's oeuvre – the video works M.A.M. (My Assyrian Mother) (2010) and Babel (2019) – show the relationship of loving bickering between daughter and mother and how the dying language Assyrian, once her own, makes the mother remember things again, an identity, a life... “There is no filter. Not between me and my mother, not between the work and the viewer. My work is personal, but not private. I have to be personal, to show my own vulnerability in order to touch you. It is only by connecting – in intimacy, in performance, in language – that my works exist. There is no point in pretending. Art is life.”

MEGGY RUSTAMOVA: SHOT BY SHOT
> 28/5, Beige, www.beige.brussels, Facebook: @beige.brussels

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