The uncontrolled realms of drawing A story behind Mukao

Sophia Tabatadze (b. 1977) is a Georgian visual artist, currently working and living in Berlin. She began her artistic journey in Tbilisi. After, she moved to Amsterdam to study at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Her work was exhibited worldwide, among others, at the 52nd Venice Biennale and 10th International Istanbul Biennial. Her experimental documentary film “Pirimze” had its premiere at “Visions Du Réel” in Nyon, and tells a story of a Soviet building in Tbilisi and its capitalist afterlife. 

Back in 2021, Sophia co-founded Mukao – a company that makes innovative products from corrugated cardboard. The idea of the company is based on three simple principles: creativity, playfulness and awareness. Mukao is currently offering two colouring books and a multifunctional cardboard folder.

Patrycja Rozwora visited Sophia Tabatadze in her studio in Berlin to speak about the origins of Mukao and ask how an established visual artist regained joy in drawing and creating objects out of corrugated cardboard. 

Sophia Tabatadze
Sophia Tabatadze, Photographer: Nino Alavidze

Patrycja Rozwora: For the past years, you have been working with a variety of art mediums, yet only recently, you came back to drawing. What changed in your relation to this medium?

Sophia Tabatadze: Drawing is something, which is the least controlled in my practice. It is connected to a certain flow that you are not able to oversee or preplan. That’s why drawing is still probably the most enjoyable for me. However, because of the above, drawing was also the most difficult for me to talk about. When you study at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (like the two of us did) the emphasis is put on the meaning of your work. It imposes on you a very specific conceptual framework in which you need to operate. It’s not always a bad thing but in this kind of framework, you need to be able to conceptualise and talk about your work. Today, with all my experience, I can speak about my drawings but back then, I tried to adapt to the Rietveld system, learn new skills and find ways of verbalising my art, which is probably something I would never learn in a Georgian art academy.

It was particularly hard to speak about drawings because the best of them happen during the process itself. Later on, I started making works that I could control, where I would decide what I’m making beforehand and that’s why, it was easier to talk about them. I don’t think they were bad but I also don’t think they gave me this satisfaction that comes from the flow and unexpected results of drawing. Also, the more exhibitions I had and the more professional I became as an artist, the harder it became to let something uncontrolled into my practice. Now I know, this was a trap.

I cannot say that I missed drawing, because I was doing so many other things. Back then, I thought this part of my practice was done, and I felt good about it. When not long ago I started drawing again, it made me extremely happy but I also understood that I couldn’t have started drawing from the place where I left off. I had to make a detour. Some other things had to trigger me to start drawing again. 

Photographers: Zurab Alavidze, Nino Alavidze

Patrycja Rozwora: Now we are coming to the part where you created Mukao. All of it happened in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Sophia Tabatadze: Yes, exactly. I was doing other things, outside of creating art. I made a film but then, I was kind of stuck. Not because I lost touch with drawing but stuck artistically. Somehow, I lost the urge, the fire. But then in 2018, I got invited as a curator for the Tbilisi Architectural Biennial where I met Zurab Alavidze, who later became my business companion. Back then, he was sponsoring the Biennial, as he works at the corrugated cardboard factory that had some connections to the Biennial. As a curator, I was in charge of building up the exhibition and I decided to use Zurab’s cardboard. 

We started talking. He told me that he has three kids and always needs presents for their friends. We started brainstorming about toys made out of corrugated cardboard as an alternative to plastic. In Georgia, there is very little environmental awareness. Many cheap goods are being produced – if your kid gets a toy, it’s usually made out of cheap and unsustainable plastic. And in a way, it should be so clear to us, that if there is one group of people whom we shouldn’t give plastic, it’s our kids, because of their future. 

Photographers: Goga Demetrashvili, Nino Alavidze

Patrycja Rozwora: What exactly is the corrugated cardboard and why was working with this material so interesting for you?

Sophia Tabatadze: It was intriguing and at the same time familiar since I used to work a lot with paper. Corrugated cardboard is usually made out of reused paper, which give you the possibility to recycle it up to twenty times. Therefore, it’s an extremely eco-friendly material, soft, light, and easy to fold and play with. 

There were three factors, which made me excited about this project. Number one was the fact, that I am a mother myself and know what kids play with and what types of objects they like. I was drawn to the idea of creating toys for a sustainable future of the next generations. Number two was the longing for working with my hands again: to fold, cut and experiment. Last but not least number three was the fact, that I felt completely disconnected from the art world and art within the gallery space. I read somewhere, that it’s like with religion. If you lose faith in it, you just cannot believe again. I needed a fresh look at what art can be.  

Then the pandemic hit, and like all of us, I was stuck at home and couldn’t go to my studio (this is where we are recording our interview right now). And then, I thought that instead of trying to keep my house clean, (since it was a mess because everything was happening there e.g., my son was making a museum in the living room) I should acknowledge these objects and take inspiration from them. I really needed the so-called Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) – to not look at my living room as a mess that had to be cleaned up, but instead, listen to those everyday objects and see what they are telling me.  Then, I started drawing on small scale papers and I enjoyed it very, very much.

Later, I showed the drawings to my business partner, thinking we could use them in the company. Unfortunately, I completely forgot that we needed to work with cardboard. It wasn’t a spontaneous creative process but eventually, I came up with an idea of a cardboard folder that can be used in three different ways: to carry drawings, as a drawing easel and as a wall pocket for various things. The funny thing is that after I created the folder, I realised that throughout my entire art career, I am folding, taping and creating folders. I could never find a good folder to carry and store my work. In the end, unconsciously I created something for myself, which I always needed. 

#soulkitcheninyourkitchen, Photographer: Salome Jashi

Patrycja Rozwora: Since you are only a two-person collective and do everything yourselves, I wonder what is your favourite part of making a new Mukao product?

Sophia Tabatadze: I am mostly responsible for the creative process. I create the prototype, Zurab takes care of the production, since he is in Georgia and that is where we produce the objects. Yet, what we figured out, along the way, is that we are missing a third element. As you know, it is one thing to create, another thing to produce but a complete other to promote the product and sell it. Even though I enjoy the selling part and at the moment I do it myself on a small scale, I do not have the skills and words to convince someone outside of my familiar artistic circle to buy Mukao products.  If we want to grow as a company and extend our products to different markets, we would need someone specialised in marketing and sales to join our team. So, if someone out there who is reading this article right now, is looking for a position in sales, please get in touch 🙂

Patrycja Rozwora: At the moment, you are offering three objects: the folder and two colouring books that are inside the folder. Can you tell me about your first colouring book “Soul Kitchen”?

Sophia Tabatadze: “Soul Kitchen” is a collection of drawings I created during the pandemic. The topic was my home. The Georgian title “Soul Kitchen” can be translated to ‘‘Inner Kitchen’ ’ – meaning something like your dirty laundry, something you don’t want to show to the outside. I started from drawing objects that surrounded me and by adding my imagination I let the everyday objects transform into something different.

#soulkitcheninyourkitchen, Photographer: Sophia Tabatadze

Patrycja Rozwora: What was your son’s part in creating “Soul Kitchen”? 

Sophia Tabatadze: He is not much into drawing. He prefers to experiment, explode stuff. Generally, he likes to explore. So, we didn’t create the drawings together per se but we found a common way to spend time in a small apartment during the pandemic. He was finding his joy in being at home, discovering and exploring and I was finding my joy in drawing. (This is why the small A4 paper size mattered so much). 

Patrycja Rozwora: How did the idea for Tiger Zebra Marble develop?

Sophia Tabatadze: Despite the fact that I didn’t simplify my drawings, the first colouring book seemed to attract kids more than adults. We even organised some group colouring events to encourage adults to draw and show them how enjoyable and therapeutic colouring can be. Our first colouring event was in a gallery space in Tbilisi where we hang drawings in A2 size for people to colour. It was a great experience, as it was just after the worst part of the pandemic, where things were loosening up a little. People were still kind of estranged from each other – instead of chatting and hanging around as it usually happens at a gallery opening, people just concentrated and drew together in silence. One person started a part of the drawing, the other continued. It was a magical moment, a real group activity. 

Later I was thinking, how to rapture the pre-defined idea – that colouring is only for kids. I asked friends to share with me photos of how they use the first colouring book in their kitchen – I called the series #Soulkitcheninyourkitchen. I observed the photos and noticed calendars hanging on some of the kitchen walls. Eventually, I came up with the idea of making a colouring birthday calendar that can be used without an assigned calendar year. It’s called “Tiger Zebra Marble” which is an inspiration from a type of cake. In German, we would call it Marmorkuchen, in English Tiger Cake, and in Georgian, Zebra. I was fascinated with the graphical beauty of the cake. Generally, the theme of the second book is birthday parties but again, more abstract and surreal.

Photographers: Sophia Tabatadze, Nino Alavidze

Patrycja Rozwora: I think it’s a nice step away from the digital era, where all the birthdays are written on Facebook. I remember my grandma had this small notebook where she wrote down all birthday dates of family and friends and she never forgot to call or make a cake 🙂 

Sophia Tabatadze: Some people told me there is no need in such a calendar as Facebook reminds us about all the birthdays, but personally, I don’t have my birthday published on Facebook because I hate when people write you 100 similar birthday wishes just because they got a notification. There are certain birthdays, of some old classmates or childhood friends that you never forget but there are also new people in your live, that you care for very much but can never remember their celebrations.That’s why, I think it’s a nice gift for someone, or even an object to have for yourself. And if it hangs in your kitchen, it might inspire you to draw on it from time to time, depending on the mood and the day. Also one friend said, that she uses this calendar to write down birthdays of the children of her friends. I made it in such a format that you can also cut the calendar away and keep the drawing, if you are particularly happy and proud of one of them. 

Patrycja Rozwora: As an artist who makes objects to be used by others, how do you image people using the colouring books?

Sophia Tabatadze: I enjoy it when people follow their imagination and forget about the given lines.  You don’t need to follow the lines or the drawings I did. I also kept quite some white sheets in-between so you can make your own drawings if you’d like. Just go crazy and don’t follow the rules. That’s always the best! 

Photographer: Lucia Margarita Bauer

Patrycja Rozwora: Last but not least, what comes next for Mukao? 

Sophia Tabatadze: Currently, together with my partner, we are thinking of moving away from the idea of toys and focusing more on stationery materials – everything that is connected to creativity, writing, drawing and so on. For example, we are thinking of a nice cardboard box for keeping your pencils in, or an easy to assemble cardboard frame to present your drawings in it. The idea is to connect art and packaging. We will always have an object which is made out of cardboard, and we will sell it together with art because these are our strong points. 

We have a website where you can see and buy our products, that we can deliver worldwide. We produce in Georgia but our main market is Europe. Physically, you can find our objects in Georgia, Germany and The Netherlands in different books stores, gift shops and museum shops.

Considering the Polish-Georgian connection we would love to enter the Polish market as well. Our products have Georgian letters in the title, which might be a nice connector for someone who has been to Georgia, likes Georgian food and so on. Generally, I wish for Mukao to spread outside of the hermetic art bubble and get activated and used by non-artists as well. 

Patrycja Rozwora: Thank you for your time and generosity Sophia.

Sophia Tabatadze: Thank you so much! My pleasure!

About The Author


Artist and writer. Studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Critical Studies Department at the Sandberg Institute. Her ongoing research relates the post-Soviet countries. In 2020, she launched a podcast series called ‘Kitchen Conversations.’

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