Not many people understand immigration like Katya Grokhovsky. Inspired by her globetrotting and a desire to celebrate immigrant artists in America, Grokhovsky founded The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB), an event series that showcases artwork by over 40 interdisciplinary artists who were born outside the U.S. but currently live in the country.
“It’s been a year in the making, minimum,” said Grokhovksy. Since last April, TIAB has already had eight soft-launch fundraising events around New York City, mostly at independent art spaces and nonprofit galleries. Fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, TIAB aims to serve as a platform for open dialogue about cultural diversity and representation in the arts, as well as challenges faced by immigrant artists in a time of political and social discord. Participants in this year’s biennial include Mexican photographer and ethnohistorian Cinthya Santos-Briones, Vietnamese visual artist Anh Thuy Nguyen and Nigerian textile artist Victoria-Idongesit Udondian.
Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, Grokhovsky’s Jewish-Russian family moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 1992, after the Soviet Union fell. Falling in love with the arts at a young age, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in fashion with the hope of becoming a designer. “I was in my 20s and it quickly fell apart for me personally because I hated the fashion industry,” Grokhovsky said. “And I’m a big feminist—I think those two things don’t go together.”
In the early 2000s, Grokhovsky moved to Europe to work as a fashion assistant, but soon she started questioning her career path as she witnessed the brutality of the industry. “Seeing models faint and starving, I was starving myself,” Grokhovsky said. She confessed to having had anorexia at some point because she was fainting frequently. “I caught myself kind of thinking, Is this my life?”
Grokhovsky was contemplating going back to Australia until she realized she didn’t want to return to what she felt was a conservative and narrow-minded place. Instead, she went to the U.S. and earned an MFA in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Grokhovksy feels much better about her decision because compared to Australia, the choice to move to America was hers. “So often I face a lot of expenses and immigration difficulties, [but] it’s still my own doing.”
Ever since becoming a full-time artist, Grokhovsky has channeled her rebellious nature and feminist ideology into her multimedia and often interactive art. “I want to be funny, which is another feminist thing when [according to the patriarchy] women are supposed to be not funny or not grotesque,” she said. In unpacking her fashion past, she filmed herself hula-hooping while wearing a costume mocking the Playmate Bunny, her face hidden under a moldy green deformed mask with a pale pink tongue sticking out. “I [made] these grotesque costumes that were very anti-fashion where you don’t see the body at all—and I still do [make them],” she said.
In another project, Immigrant Ball, Grokhovsky put on an interactive installation where she along with her audience destroyed a cityscape through costumes, movements and improvisations. The idea was to manifest a chaos that resembles the struggles and frustration of immigrants in the U.S. while celebrating their creativity and resistance.
Having lived in various parts of the world, Grokhovsky believes that any immigrant artist has a double problem. In any country, they have to first survive, fit in, speak the language and deal with bureaucracy at many levels. On top of that, they need to find a legal job that allows them to express themselves in their art language.
This doesn’t get easier the longer one stays in the country because immigration laws keep changing. Certain grants aren’t open to artists without green cards. For people who like to teach, different organizations might accept one kind of visa but not others. Sometimes artists are discriminated against right away solely based on their legal status, Grokhovsky continued. This puts a lot of artists in precarious situations that force them to leave. “They try and then [are] just like, ‘This is too hard.’ Or they don’t reach a point where they get known. They get kind of shocked,” she said. “There’s a lot of depression.”
In the first edition of TIAB this year, Here Together, Grokhovsky set out to explore three major themes: cultural identity, belonging and mother tongue. As much as she likes to talk about politics, she’s not inviting artists whose works are explicitly political. “Since 2016 I think I’m tired of seeing that kind of, you know, anti-Trump art,” she said. “I want to celebrate, because we’re all going through a very dark period […] and we like to think of the future and the good things. We like to not be down so much again, because otherwise we won’t survive this.”
The premiere edition of TIAB 2020 Here Together will kick off on Mar. 7 at the Brooklyn Museum.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original headline of this story mischaracterized a quote. That headline has been changed.