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Shalva Nikvashvili
Mask by Shalva Nikvashvili courtesy of Instagram/@shalvanikvashvili

Instagram artist Shalva Nikvashvili creates masks out of bread and meat

‘Wearing a mask does not transform me. Quite the opposite really, it allows me to convey my truest self’

It wasn’t easy for Shalva Nikvashvili growing up. Born into a newly independent Georgia, from a young age Nikvashvili would rebel against the heteronormative masculinity forced upon him by his parents by finding escapism in art. With not much money to go around, Nikvashvili found artistic materials in his surroundings, making sculptures out of leftover bread and drawing whenever he could. 

Dodging the path of business school that his parents had set out for him, Nikvashvili secretly enrolled in art school and it was there he learnt of the cathartic power his work could have. Experimenting with the different mediums of canvas, tattoos and fashion, he was nonetheless left dissatisfied, questioning how best to display his artistic vision. It was then that he realised the ability masks have to convey the realities of his impoverished and stifled childhood. Using everything from cigarettes to old plastic water bottles and even destroyed sunglasses, Nikvashvili's masks convey his message that the stories which lie behind a face are much more important than the face itself. The painful experiences that inspire his art inherently bring discomfort to many of his followers. But this, he argues, is what makes his work so necessary. In looking at his art, viewers are forced to confront their own complacencies when shown an ugly truth of the world.

Having spent his childhood in a country hostile to the LGBTQ+ community, Nikvashvili is now based in Belgium where he feels much more accepted for his sexuality. With a sizeable Instagram following, he uses his platform to speak out on issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. Here, we speak to Nikvashvili about art and beauty, what this means to him, and how this manifests into his work.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: I was born in Georgia, 1990. During the period I grew up in, Georgia was not fun but I couldn’t complain about it as I had nothing else to compare it to. My parents tried to instil in me and my brother a very limiting idea of what a man should be; according to them, men should be strong, be interested in cars, and be happy when they have a wife and children. But none of these things ever really resonated with me, something my family soon realised. They knew that I was different, so they tried to “correct” me by limiting the amount of time I spent with my sister. I wanted to spend my time drawing and embroidering much like she was, but I wasn’t allowed. Instead, I had to play with my brother outside, hunting animals and playing in the dirt.

Then everything became much more difficult, for my family as well as myself, when we moved to the capital, Tbilisi. We were living in a very small apartment, I was sleeping with my brother, we couldn’t afford that much food (we lived pretty much off of bread and onions). My family didn’t have the capacity to control my daily activities in the same way as they had done before, so I began drawing. A lot. I used to make sculptures out of bread leftovers. It was a tough upbringing, but the experiences have made me who I am and I learnt a lot. I know how to survive, and appreciate the small things in life. It might be a strange thing to say, but I’m actually really glad that I had the childhood I had.

How did you get into art? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: Like I said, my family tried to control me and forbade me from drawing. Of course, I did it anyway as I have always needed to be creating something. My favourite childhood memories are of my grandmother - she knew I was special, and encouraged me to stay creative. But she also knew I had to draw in secret and bide my time. I had to wait until I was not under the ever-watching eyes of my parents. When I was 16, I wanted to go to art school, but again, they forbade it, forcing me to go to Business school instead. I knew I couldn’t do what they wanted me to, so I lied. I became a fantastic liar. I worked my ass off to prepare for the art exams, and my parents only found I wasn’t at business school out when I won ‘Best Newcomer’ at Tbilisi Fashion Week.

How did your upbringing inspire you to start making masks? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: I was always trying to express myself through my art, whether that was through drawings, tattoos, sculptures, or fashion, but it always felt as though something was missing. It took me a while for me to conceptualise that masks had the ability to erase the human face and instead replace it with a memory, or an experience, or an opinion. Once realised, I decided to give my memories, emotions and observations identities that could be expressed in videos, pictures, or performances.

How does wearing a mask transform you? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: Wearing a mask does not transform me. Quite the opposite really, it allows me to convey my truest self. My literal face is behind the mask, yes, but the one I wear is the real me.

Your masks are incredible, but can sometimes be uncomfortable to look at. What are you trying to convey through your more grotesque pieces? Do you even find them grotesque? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: I strive for my pieces to evoke discomfort because, in doing so, I am making you think. Why are you uncomfortable? Usually, it is because it reminds you of something that you are trying not to think about. My past has not been a pretty one but by wearing these masks, I am letting you get to know me.

Do they make you feel beautiful? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: No… Most of the time I too am uncomfortable because they are inextricably related to memories that I don’t want to think about either, but are important to raise awareness of.

What do you think your masks say about beauty or rather our perception of beauty?
Shalva Nikvashvili: It’s hard to say because everyone sees beauty differently. For me, beauty is an influential emotion, or an energy - something that inspires me. 

Do you try to incorporate beauty in your work, or do you react against it?
Shalva Nikvashvili: Beauty has always had a huge impact on me. But I don’t play with beauty. It is an experience that interacts with me; it inspires me. It is not the other way around. 

What is your creative process in building the idea behind your masks? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: I wake up around 9am, I think of a memory and start to shape it and I won’t stop until I have finished. I can’t stop my work and then revisit my emotions for that particular memory. I have to be in the moment. 

Was there a turning point in your creativity when you started using repurposed, unusual materials? What is the significance of this?
Shalva Nikvashvili: I have always been interested in transforming unconventional material into my work. I want to give them a different life. I find it more inspiring than anything I could ever find in an art shop.

What role has art played in helping you come to terms with your identity and sexuality?
Shalva Nikvashvili: From ever since I can remember, art has allowed me to escape my reality, and create another place where I could be free. But it wasn’t until I was inspired by other people living their truths that I realised that I didn’t have to escape to be me. I could just be me.

What do you admire about yourself? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: Patience.

What features about yourself do you find attractive and like to exaggerate when moulding self-reflective pieces? 
Shalva Nikvashvili: My brain.

What’s the future of beauty?
Shalva Nikvashvili: That everyone’s idea of beauty will be respected, appreciated, and valued.