European = Better

Sofia, a city that is a conglomeration of architecture, styles, religions and people, has a small contemporary art scene. It is fighting for survival, and succeeding. By Antje Mayer

»In Communist times the only demand made on art was that it should be entertaining and beautiful«, says Bulgarian curator Iara Boubnova. »These days, I’m afraid, the people and government in Bulgaria haven’t had a change of heart.« We are sitting in one of the many new smart dining and drinking places in Sofia, the Opera, which is designed in a typically Mediterranean »Beautiful Homes« style. On the menu: crossover cuisine, but certainly not Bulgarian. »The word ›European‹ is a synonym for ›better‹ in Bulgarian«, Iara Boubnova explains, pointing outside to where new apartment blocks are going up in a faceless, international style on every empty building site in the margins of a city that is a conglomeration of styles, peoples and religions. Accommodation for globalised IKEA people. They look modern at first glance, but when you look again the first bits of plaster are falling off, even though the buildings are not yet finished. Quite commonly, the inhabitants have no heating in these new buildings because the owner has given no thought to conduits for distance heating, or even to asphalt streets or a local infrastructure. Nouveau-riche citizens, as well as foreigners who have realised their dream of a one-family home, especially retired Japanese and Brits, live in virtually »prohibited areas« in the beautiful foothills of the Vitosa Mountains at the gates of Sofia, not in the chaotically proliferating city centre and its unwelcoming margins.

Russian by birth, Iara Boubnova, who moved from Moscow to Sofia in the ’80s, is a sharp-tongued critic of social conditions in Bulgaria, and acts as a sort of spokeswoman for Bulgaria in the West. This art historian is one of the advertising pillars for contemporary art and is part of a generation of Bulgarian art publicists and cultural producers who rose up against the ancient art doctrine of entertainment and beauty with alternative projects, performances and actions. This was just before Communism collapsed, rather late compared to other Communist countries.

Left over from that time of resistance are a few stubborn people with whom she founded the Instityt za savremenno izkystvo – Sofia (Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia) in 1993, including artists like Mariela Gemisheva, Alla Georgieva, Pravdoliub Ivanov, Nedko Solakov and the curator Maria Vassileva. Only a few younger members have joined the group since it was founded, mostly because they preferred to go looking for a break-through somewhere in the rest of Europe.

Those who stayed behind organise readings, debates and performances on contemporary art in constantly changing venues, especially in illegal private clubs and cafés, which are born and buried again at irregular intervals in Sofia. The events are announced on the Internet or by word of mouth. At present, con temporary art has a fixed venue, at best, in the Sofia Art Gallery. Curator Iara Boubnova is especially proud that in the past, especially in 1996, when all of Bulgaria sank into economic anarchy and the inflation rate reached 1,000 per cent, she accepted no »unclean money« for her Institute of Contemporary Art project. »In those days we were in the midst of a trauma of change from Communism to capitalism, which we simply couldn’t digest, because we were right in the middle of it.« This »trauma«, which many of the artists we met in Sofia talked about, manifested itself – just ten years ago – quite simply as hunger. »Our grandparents had to go begging, and sometimes we had no idea where to buy our bread.« Iara remembers it well. 

It irritates her that it has not been possible up to this point to bring a qualitatively valuable international art exhibition – one that deserves the name – to Sofia. »Nobody would lend us a big Picasso exhibition, just to name one example. We are third class citizens, the poorest country in the EU, and we are neither interesting as a political, nor as an economic, partner. We can’t offer an interesting counter offer, and we can’t find anybody here, certainly not in the government, who is willing to insure such an exhibition« says Boubnova angrily. 

The artists in Sofia are drawing some hope from the Scottish- Bulgarian team of Chris Byrne and Iliyana Nedkova, who opened »the first commercial gallery of an international kind« in Bulgaria in autumn 2007. »We think it was a very optimistic time to be opening a gallery in Sofia« says Chris Byrne. »We had practically no competition because other galleries in Sofia have been acting like shops until now, selling old masters, icons or academic art. Since the accession to the EU in 2007 we’ve had fewer problems with customs, and the economic situation of the country is also becoming more stable, bit by bit. We see the fact that there has been no art market until now as a challenge to create one.«

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