Justyna Mielnikiewicz for over ten years has photographed Caucasus, trying to understand the complex situation in the region, mentality of its inhabitants and finally ways of the war and its longterm side effects on the day-to-day life. The result of this quest is “Woman with a Monkey”, a photobook which leads us in a way a good travelguide does, via Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their autonomous republics: Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Azerbaijan’s Upper Karabakh. These names are quite exotic to most of us. If we think about them at all, it’s mainly in the context of blood and thunder, ceaseless pursuits of independence and problematic post-soviet nostalgia.
A front-line perspective has never been a best vantage point. Mielnikiewicz presents here a front-page news story but avoids speaking about it in direct terms. She tracks down the ordinary – the most prosaic and simple stories of day-to-day existence. She talks to people, spies on them or simply observe. As a result, we are presented with a broad perspective on the situation, with no judgement and no favours given to either side of the story. These images not only demolish stereotypes, as a consequence, any sorts of conclusions are so much harder to reach. This kind of approach to the subject seems like the only right one if our goal is to understand what exactly has happened in the Caucasus region in the last decade.
“Woman with a Monkey” is a project that goes b
eyond the scope of documentary genre. It was created over the years in the artist’s natural habitat (she’s been living in Georgia for over ten years now). Mielnikiewicz makes no secret of her emotional relationship with Caucasus. Meticulously executed and designed photobook, which summarises perfectly this project, has won this year’s Book of the Year contest and was also a finalist in the Best Photography Book category at the prestigous 72nd Picture of the Year International Competition (POYi).
The exhibition at Leica Gallery Warszawa is a Polish premiere of the project. Here it steps away from the divisions introduced by the chapters in the book. Photographs are mixed and together they form a very different set, where nothing is dictated by its geographical location. For this exhibition we wish to invite the viewer to make their own combinations, look for and connect images accordingly. There’s no simple story to be told here. It’s all polarised, diverse and multi-layered – “Woman with a Monkey” asks questions instead of giving you a straight answer.
“Back in 2002 in Tbilisi, when fancy cafes still had generators outside because of constant power cuts, I was at an unusual fashion show put on by a cosmetic company in a nightclub. Models with dark-painted faces were showing off discordant, brash clothing and bare skin while doing an African-style dance to modern pop music. In the far corner of the club I saw a woman with a monkey. She was strikingly beautiful and stood motionless, deep in her thoughts, holding the monkey as if it were her child. Was she a performer from a long-closed circus, a desperate mother trying to feed her family or someone displaced by war? She may have been all of these, or none. But beautiful and alone, she stood out in the smoky din like a beam of light.
There is a renown Caucasus legend that when God had passed out land to the people of the world, one nation arrived late. God was angry and asked why they were late and they replied that they got carried away celebrating the beautiful world He had created and lost track of time. God became so pleased that He gave them the best piece of land he had set aside for Himself. It is favorite story cited by many journalists writing about Georgia, however, I have heard the same story told by Abkhaz, Chechens and Armenians and have seen it written in an Azeri restaurant menu.
The ethnic conflicts of the 1990s were a direct result of the Soviet Union’s divide and conquer policy. When it fell, its arbitrary borders clashed along political lines, not ethnic. Ethnic conflict was the result, not the cause of political struggles over who had the right to develop a nation-state at a chaotic time in history. Each party to the conflicts distorts the historical narrative to justify their claims to the land. History is not linear. I have seen major historic events completely vanish from the chronology when they don’t fit into the current national agenda of defining the good guys from the bad guys.
I have traveled the region and witnessed a momentous decade up close, from revolutions that have brought hope and change to some and misfortune to others, to the perversion of war, which arrived at my door. Life here for me is a voyage to extremes, where even a simple taxi ride can turn out to be trip down Alice’s rabbit hole. However, my desire has been to find the deeper nuances of how individuals have managed to withstand the last twenty turbulent years in this region. My quest is by no means complete, as the Caucasus is a life-long phenomenon. Woman With A Monkey is a tribute to a place that has not only become my second homeland, but also a place that I am devoted to understand.
My partner, Paul Rimple has shared much of this journey with me, so I have invited him to contribute a few stories.”