featured cultuarlist: lizzy vartanian collier
part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment"
Lizzy is a writer, curator, art historian and founder of London's well-known art blog Gallery Girl London. Although we initially met online, I know her work mostly through her recently curated exhibition Perpetual Movement which was part of AWAN (Arab Women's Art Now) a festival dedicated to supporting Arab women's art in London. Lizzy is a writer for Canvas, The Guardian, Harpers Bazaar Arabia, REORIENT magazine and other publications covering arts in the region.
I reached out to Lizzy as one of the women I wanted to interview for our 4-part interview series for issue #5 of follow the halo: "Reclaiming Empowerment". I felt that her experience and knowledge of the arts in the region would be a great point of discussion on empowerment, and what it means to support the arts in the Global South. Below we discuss Lizzy's work, arts in the region, and what empowerment means to her.
Hi Lizzy! Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Lizzy Vartanian Collier. I am a writer, curator and editor. I have been blogging about art at my blog Gallery Girl since I was 18 (nearly seven years now!), but only really had the confidence to tell people about my writing and pitch to other publications in the last year or so. My ‘main’ (9-to-5) job is in publishing, which has given me the opportunity to understand how books are commissioned, produced, marketed and sold. I have always been interested in art, which makes sense since my parents met at a gallery opening. My brother and I used to spend our childhood weekends drawing at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery in London, where our appreciation for all things visual was cemented.
Besides art I love to dance, especially ballet and ballroom, in fact, I love waltzing so much, that when I am sad I just listen to Strauss and I am instantly happy. I read and write four alphabets, and speak bits and pieces of five languages, but I’m not really fluent in any beside English (typical Brit!). I am also very creative myself and I love to draw and make clothes… maybe one day I will share them with the world too, but for now, I am concentrating on supporting and spreading the word about the arts I love that has been created by others.
As a curator, art historian and writer, how do your roots/heritage influence your work?
As I have gotten older I have felt my heritage in the Near and Middle East really pull on all of the work that I do. I am half English, but my mother is Armenian from Beirut, my grandmother was from Aleppo and my family has been in the Middle East for over a century. I didn’t visit Beirut until my 20’s for various reasons, mostly because I think that my mother was afraid to go back – after leaving at the age of 15 due to the civil war – and to see that her beloved home might be changed and unrecognisable from what she knew as a child. Having not been to Lebanon in person until adulthood and my natural pull towards the arts led me to discover the region through culture. I think our inherited identities impact on and influence everything we do, and my mother’s strong Beiruti mannerisms and identity has had a big impact on my work.
Can you share a specific work you feel was influenced by your identity?
Perpetual Movement, the exhibition that I recently curated during Arab Women Artists Now Festival 2018 in London, was almost a direct analysis of my own experience of growing up in diaspora, where memories of ‘home’ had been passed down from my mother. The artists I worked with all touched on similar themes of memory and migration. I don’t necessarily deliberately put myself into my work, but I am after all the person on this earth that I know best, so my own ideas and experiences unconsciously seem to make their way into many of my projects. Moreover, when you are geographically very far away from a place where your past is deeply rooted, the emotional pull is especially strong, as this location is less tangible, so you naturally find ways to explore it by other methods.
It is apparent in your writing that you focus on exhibitions that highlight the global South. Why is that?
It isn’t a conscious thing, but I am genuinely interested in parts of the world that I wasn’t necessarily very exposed to growing up in the UK. I always find it fascinating viewing visual culture from parts of the world I know nothing about. And, while in some ways it is a great shame that many exhibitions I go to have been produced by artists from parts of the world I know nothing about, in some ways I think it is extremely beautiful to gain your first impressions of a place through painting, photography, sculpture or installation.
When I was studying for my first degree in Art History, we learn about any art that didn’t originate in Western Europe or North America, which seemed ridiculous to me. I was interning for a blue-chip commercial gallery in London at the time that was exhibiting a lot of Chinese art and had galleries in Brazil and China as well as the UK. It was at that moment that I realised not only was art from outside the West important in terms of its visual qualities, but also in terms of real monetary value. I became the one girl on my History of Art course to always veer away from better-known Western artists and periods. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a Chinese artist. I then decided to tap into my routes and focus on the Greater Middle East for my masters degree and have kept my focus away from the West ever since.
In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?
Empowerment means taking control for yourself, but also highlighting, supporting and presenting the talents and individualities of others and ideas you admire and believe in.
What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?
I think that the growth of museums, galleries, art fairs and biennials in the region should be applauded. I am at somewhat of a distance from everything that is going on, but from what I read and see online, everything looks brilliant and really exciting. What I love so much are the collectives and young publications like Banat, Jaffat el-Aqlam, Khabar Keslan, Jdeed and Halo, that are really going out of their way to highlight the talents of young creatives, it feels like there is a real community. They are so supportive and I can’t really think of an equivalent network here in the UK and I am really envious!
In terms of challenges, perhaps the region needs to connect more with those outside of it. To me, as someone who is naturally very tapped into what’s going on in the Middle East, I am pretty much always up to speed with what is going on, but I often find people within the European art world are a little clueless about events in the region. It would be beyond wonderful if the creative community in the Middle East engaged more with those outside of it and vice versa – through conversation different cultures and traditions could learn so much about each other.
In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?
I think audiences can better empower artists by taking the time to visit exhibitions and telling others about the work of creatives they admire. We are so lucky that we can share our inspirations within seconds via social media; so if you see something you admire, share it! Artists benefit most when their work is seen, and the more people see it, the better.
What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?
To not be shy! Go and speak to people, reach out to those you admire, and ask lots and lots of questions. People often ask me how I got to write for so and so publication, and it is because I sent the editors emails, pitched ideas and generally annoyed them until they had no choice but to reply to my messages. Nobody came to me. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and even if nobody replies (it happens to all of us), at least you know you tried. It really doesn’t hurt to make the first move. I am naturally quite shy and quiet, but as soon as I got over the awkwardness of physically talking to people I didn’t know, I managed to make really great connections who support me and who I can ask for help if I need guidance. Confidence can get you so far. If you don’t tell people about what you’re doing or show them your work it could really hinder you. A conversation is free, so I would encourage everyone to connect with like-minded artists, creatives, writers, curators whenever they have the opportunity.
What are your plans for the future?
In the very immediate future I am taking a reduced version of my recent London show Perpetual Movement to be displayed during Armenia’s very first art fair (11-14th May). While this is very exciting, it is also very nerve-racking and I am hoping it will all run smoothly. After that, I want to take some time out to recuperate from doing three jobs at once for the past six months, I am moving into a new flat and I am about to turn 25 (!) so, for the summer, I plan to rest and equip myself with better curatorial skills. From this exhibition I realised that there is so much more to learn and I want to be more prepared for the next time. I also plan to continue connecting with artists on a more relaxed basis before heading to Lebanon and the UAE in the autumn. I have ideas for shows and things I want to research but nothing is set in stone as of yet, watch this space!