YKRA FACES: KATA OLTAI
In this month’s YKRA Faces, we had the pleasure of talking with the renowned Hungarian curator and art historian, Kata Oltai. She’s been a long-time fixture on the local art scene and approaches life and art with the kind of sensitivity, openness, and understanding that is rare in the current social climate. Kata gives us a peek inside not just her YKRA gear, but also into her everyday life — read on for more!
Hi Kata, tell us about your background, how did you get involved in the arts?
Since the age of 16, I knew the world of contemporary art was something I wanted to be a part of. I was intrigued by my surroundings, contemporary society, art, and what exactly defines culture — I wanted to learn as much as possible. I’m a big believer in formal education and always have been. I completed my degree in Art History and French, as well as studying Anthropology, and joining intellectual workshops through this kind of intergenerational transmission is something I strongly believe in.
It’s also important to keep in mind that art and culture are not the same. A professor of mine at university influenced me to move towards the intellectual discourse focusing on social art history, which attempts to understand art and the role it plays while taking into consideration relevant cultural, social, and political factors without separating these issues. Social art history approaches feminist questioning firmly. I consider myself a feminist, and as a woman, a thinker, and a curator, I constantly practice the feminist and female points of view. I’d like to add that this is a very significant feat, as it's not always clear that women have a place in cultural assumptions or in the institutional system.
Where did your studies lead you, how would you define your career path?
If I had to, then I’d label myself as a curator and art historian, as it’s what I believe in most, however, my career path has been an eventful one. I've worked in many places: a small gallery, an art magazine, an agency, and up until 2012, I worked as a curator at Ludwig Museum - Museum of Contemporary Art. As a cultural thinker, with my own thoughts and discourse, I decided to leave the institutional system, one that is largely state-run in Hungary, as funding, discourse, and the discourse of a curator were even back then, far more intertwined and acute than I was comfortable with. After leaving Ludwig Museum, I founded my own feminist, non-profit gallery FERi, which I headed for six years, and in 2014, I opened a boutique named Konfekció in the 8th district, selling vintage items.
Why the name Confection?
It's such a saturated word, and in Hungarian, it means a specific set of sizes, which is a very apt message in present times: an old-fashioned category, something the trends want to surpass. Of course, in Hungary, the concept of a boutique is a very complex question as during Socialism, while some members of society were offered the privilege of opening their own boutiques, for others opposing the regime, it was the only way to make a living. It’s a complex, very exciting cultural question, in terms of how intellectuals or those persecuted due to their sexual identity ended up opening boutiques.
Do you have any new projects you’re working on currently?
Yes. It’s always been a goal of mine to open a space that’s not necessarily a gallery, more so a cultural space that reflects on the location and neighborhood it operates in.
I’ve been working in the 8th district for many years now and noticed that certain social aspects and factors are slowly disappearing from artistic representation, either there’s no space for it, or those who would approach such topics have emigrated. Of course, let’s not forget the strict institutional and self-censorship that lingers over raising certain issues in the arts, which hinders inclusion. This realization, made me reflect on what’s missing from public collections or why there’s no attention paid to certain groups in society, what it means to live and work on the outskirts of the city, how poverty and stereotyping were and are related to certain commercial activities, and what this meant in the era of gentrification under socialism and in post-socialist cities like Budapest. These factors shaped the ethnic and religious composition of a city, so the questions remain, why has this tangible heritage been left out of cultural history and still left out of the discourse in present times and why are these topics swept under the rug?
The above thoughts and realizations were my starting point, when I founded TANGÓ projekt, a physical cultural space, taking on a multidisciplinary approach to the neighborhood of Teleki Square, in the 8th district. Teleki Square and its surroundings are on the outskirts of the 8th district, so it’s just beyond the area that has become a trend to move to, as many socially sensitive citizens are looking for a place to live in the area, or have already come here with their studios, families, etc. There’s a very strong gentrification process taking place and I wanted to examine the part of the district that this trend hasn’t yet reached — while it’s still possible.
In the future, hopefully, TANGÓ projekt’s space will double in size and I’ll have the opportunity — which I've wanted for a long time — to do screenings, lectures, and talks. This type of human connection, where people can just sit together and talk about art, culture and social issues, with nothing off limits, is really lacking in this country in terms of approach. This is something that I feel very strongly about, bringing together people from multigenerational groups and completely different social classes. The questions surrounding what the responsibility of an institution is, what the responsibility of a curator or an artist is with their privilege, and how they utilize it in the spaces they work in, is internationally a very hot topic. It’s nice to feel validated, as TANGÓ Project has been included in a mentoring program by the European Commission this year, which I’m thrilled about!
Moving on to everyday life, what does your daily routine look like?
I’m an early riser and always have been. I usually get up around 6-6:30 am at the latest, I don’t have a problem with getting out of bed. I love the mornings, it’s an intensive part of my day where I read a lot, listen to podcasts, and watch TV. I watch a lot of public broadcasting channels, as staying informed politically and knowing what’s going on in the world around me is important. What I give my brain access to in the mornings, both in terms of images and text, is paramount. Obviously, since I've had kids, I have to cram in as much as I can, before I start my day with them.
I made a conscious decision to be with my children for as long as possible, so I haven’t yet sent them to any formal institution, instead, they’re with me throughout the day. My aim is for us to adapt to each other and for them to participate in as many activities and adult — or I’d rather say, human — activities as possible. I don’t think I should be limiting my children's socialization to playgrounds and recreation, but to show them places. My youngest is two, so I take him with me to galleries, performances, my boutique, and my creative meetings. Wherever it’s possible to take my kids, they’ll be there. Other times you’ll find me reading, researching, and writing at home.
Normally, I keep my places open between 2-7 pm, right now that’s the case with Konfekció. I like having fixed hours which I can plan around and I work very well in formal work settings, in the sense that I like going to places on time and keeping a schedule. I don't think that's the image that lives in people’s minds when they think of me, but I work well as long as I'm motivated. I have a lot of projects going on at once, so I’m good at juggling and setting my own deadlines when I’m asked to host a talk or hold a presentation, it requires a completely different schedule and preparation process. I also like the change of entering my store, where I have to open the blinds, switch on the cash register, sort the clothes, talk to people, and finish the day by cleaning and that’s it, everything's sorted. It’s a great sense of achievement.
The evenings stretch out long for us. On the one hand, I live with an actor, so in our home, it was never the case that any of us, including the kids, went to bed early, instead it was always a matter of being awake for when their dad came home. It’s the same when my husband’s sons are around as well. We never end a day before 10 pm.
What’s in your bag?
YKRA BEACH BAG - There are very few brands that use such bold prints in their products or go back to an era that I consider to be paradise both visually and socially — the ‘70s. That psychedelic, very bold, patterns all over period is one of my favorites, and once I spotted this YKRA bag on Instagram, it was a done deal.
Rug - The aesthetic that this carpet represents is something that I try to bring into every space I exist in. I’ve always had one at home and in all my stores, I love the bold use of color. It’s an African fair trade piece. For me, it's a symbol of European elitism, how the filth of overconsumption and plastic rubbish ends up in Africa, but out of that something beautiful is created.
Photos - I have an extensive photo collection of women wearing hats. Hats have an interesting background, they convey a message about when, or what it meant historically and culturally for a woman to be free to let her hair down, for it to be visible, or on the other hand, the meaning behind covered hair. A woman and her hair, how she wears it, or how she’s allowed to wear it, has a very strong visual representation of the times she lives in.
Purses & Bags - I have a large selection of bags, ranging from small to big and I use them interchangeably. This “tarisznya” — a typical Hungarian haversack — has a beautiful Hungarian folk art design on it, and I’m also very fond of its material. I use it as a bag for my necessities and I simply place it into a bigger bag when I need extra space.
Books - I keep a book on me wherever I go, and these small books easily fit in any of my bags. I'm an absolute fan of paperback books as I take a lot of notes and I often fold in the pages, as there’s always something important I want to look back on.
Shawl - As with books, I make sure I have a shawl on me too. Moreover, more than one, as they’re so practical. On the one hand, it's the perfect bag filler, it fills out that leftover space so my bags don’t collapse, while other times it’s simply nice to wear, as I get cold easily.
Diapers - When it comes to diapers, I try — and let me emphasize the word try — to be the type of woman who you can borrow one from for your kids, along with tissues and a drop of hand sanitizer too!
Plastic Figures - I keep a few of them in my bag, it comes with having kids and I’m cool with that. Nowadays, I make jewelry pieces out of them, and I know they’re shabby, but I find a lot of value and beauty in their shabbiness. In my view, it’s what makes them attractive.
Artificial Flowers - I like to include them in my outfits, wearing them pinned as a brooch, or as hair clips, although in Hungary artificial flowers are mostly associated with funerals or commemoration rites, and less so with fashion and dressing.
Ribbons - I spend a lot of time at various markets in Budapest and abroad, and simply put, it’s a sensory experience. Goods being sold have a history, a scent, a touch, and a visual story that remains long after being separated from its original owner. It’s the same with these ribbons, and it’s comforting knowing they were once important to someone, while there are fantastic techniques in the fashion industry, the mark of time can’t be reproduced in its entirety, so you won’t find another faded pink ribbon like this again.
Religious Object - I found this at a store in an Orthodox shop in Palermo. I wear it as a pin.
Clip - Beyond being a beautiful object, tongs are super useful! It’s great for pinching practically anything together, I use it for my loose papers, to tweak my dresses, or just to clip a scarf to a bag.
Mug - I bought this mug from a favorite store of mine next to Gutenberg Square. This piece caught my eye as it’s perfect for turning into a Sex Pistols themed object.
Photos by Botond Wertan