Interview with Maria Vassileva on her research in Bulgaria
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism?
After the communists came to power in 1944 all artistic life began to revolve around the Union of Bulgarian Artists, an organisation that served as a mini-replica of the communist state. Under the gender equality policy that was pursued, all schools of higher education were required to meet female admission quotas and women were granted equal access to all spheres of life. The cult of social equality was a concept that was put to practice in social and cultural life under totalitarianism. This inevitably resulted in the unification of working methods in art. What’s more, direct competition tended to favor the stronger, more athletic, i.e. more “monumental” sex-the monumental character of society and art as a reflection of its dimensions established the male figure and spirit as the model to emulate. Women needed to be able to cast metal, pilot airplanes, and paint in a way consistent with men. The biggest compliment for both male and female artists during this period was that their work be recognized as “male-style painting.” Women painted paintings, executed enormous frescoes, made mosaics, applied sgraffito techniques, carved sculptures out of stone or modeled them out of clay, and, what’s more, they did it like men. In looking at art works from this period it is hard to determine whether the artist’s gender is male or female, but this was considered a compliment to the latter. It was even inappropriate to speak about male and female styles in art, since this might suggest that notions of gender equality had been violated, and that in doing so some very personal, almost sacred territory, had been transgressed-an action considered shameful in a socialist society that held claim to lofty morals.
The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
The changes that took place in 1989 triggered the need to do away with communist-era taboos. Domestic violence issues, for instance, were not discussed prior to this date because they did not fit into the perfect image of society. This period coincides with the introduction and firm establishment of contemporary genres of art in a system that only recognized the classical genres of painting, drawing, and sculpture.
Women artists are interested in giving voice to female perspectives in art. They don’t try to pick fights or represent men in an ironic way, they only want to carve out a space for themselves. Needless to say, they don’t reduce feminism to a particular style, since for them feminism is not just a matter of style. On the other hand, however, they do not want to make a distinction between their stance and their style. So they try to change discourse, namely the way female art is addressed in art theory and practice.
Could you address the activities of the “8th of March Group” (1) in terms of how women are viewed in Bulgarian art from the 1960s-1990s?
It’s no accident that the grouphas had its own identity ever since the opening of the Caprice exhibition (ATA – Centre for Contemporary Art, Sofia,1998) that highlighted the group’s femininity, i.e. its otherness. As Adelina Popnedeleva puts it: “And since being whimsical is declared a woman’s ‘privilege,’ this is a whim of an exhibition, an unrestrained artistic caprice of female artists unified by their work with modern means of expression, as well as by an adequate artistic response to the time in which they live.”
People who are not familiar with Bulgarian reality will find it very difficult to understand that such an attempt at aesthetic self-identification is, to a great extent, a form of social protest. In other words, the fight against “equality” is the essential first step to becoming truly equal. Highlighting otherness in purely stylistic terms frees female artists from the burden of the prescriptive advice on painting they have been carrying for decades. The rejection of this burden can be traced in numerous works by female artists belonging to the 8th of March Group. It took them several years to change the public’s expectations of them and firmly establish a style of their own, which is playful, ironic, and far from the awkward seriousness of the bygone communist era.
Elaborate on the different attitudes towards feminist theories within the 8th of March Group. To what extent do these attitudes exemplify Bulgarian society?
This reminds me of my failed attempt to explain to several intellectuals in New York that a group of female artists does not necessarily make it a feminist one. Firing back promptly they assured me that a group is already feminist when more than three women gather together. By the way, this is the impression we create in Bulgaria as well. Which is kind of weird, because feminism, be it political or cultural, simply never happened in our country.
The members of the 8th of March Group range between extreme feminists and ardent opponents of feminism, though the group as a whole has a balanced perspective on the prospects of women as a group within a society-surprisingly still a patriarchal one-as well as on feminism and its manifestations at the end of an era.
The 8th of March Group is not at all about defending female rights and freedoms at all costs. Rather it maintains an elegant presence, which has a subtle, yet noticeable effect on rigid norms and beliefs.
(1) Over the years following its establishment the group was represented by the following female artists: Adelina Popnedeleva, Alla Georgieva, Boryana Dragoeva, Daniela Kostova, Daniela Sergieva, Dimitrina Sevova, Elena Panayotova, Mariela Gemisheva, Monika Romenska, Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova, Nadya Genova, Silvia Lazarova, Tanya Abadjieva, etc.
Maria Vassileva, Research Bulgaria
Born in 1961, Maria Vassileva is a chief curator of the Sofia City Art Gallery and a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia. From 2003 to 2005 she coordinated the Visual Seminar, a project of the Institute of Contemporary Art in partnership with the Institute of Advanced Studies and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. Since 1999 she has been curating the “8th of March Group”. She holds a PhD in Art History and Fine Arts from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Art Studies, in Sofia. She has authored various international publications and curated several exhibitions, most recently: From Ideology to Economy. Contemporary Bulgarian art 20 Years Later, State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, Moscow, 2009 (together with Iara Boubnova), Nedko Solakov, Sofia City Art Gallery, 2009 (together with Iara Boubnova), Value Point, Hilger Contemporary, Vienna, 2009 (together with Alenka Gregorič), European re-Union, Galerie ArtPoint, Vienna, 2007. Maria Vassileva lives and works in Sofia.