Naomi Lev in conversation with: Maria Vassileva, Boryana Rossa, Adelina Popnedeleva, Alla Georgieva, and Daniela Kostova. In the event of this special reunion, I asked the participating members of The 8th of March Group to join me for a conversation about their past, present, and our collective future.
Naomi Lev: Maria, I will start by asking: How did The 8th of March Group form? What were the circumstances and why at that time?
Maria Vassileva: Our story begins in 1997 with the exhibition “Erato’s Version.” At that time, Adelina Popnedeleva and Alla Georgieva informed me and Iara Boubnova, of their wish to respond with artistic means to the exhibition “Erotic Art” staged in March 1996, at the Seasons Gallery. They felt challenged by the fact that only male artists had been invited to contribute to that show. The hackneyed view that men alone were entitled to handle this theme had understandably aroused their discontent. The idea to mount a separate show betrayed both the desire to demonstrate the views on eroticism of the women artists, and to release the pent-up negative energies with respect to social taboos in general. This is how the exhibition “Erato’s Version” came into being. It was staged in one of the exhibition halls of the 6 Shipka Street Gallery. This was the first time in contemporary Bulgarian art that women artists proclaimed openly their commitment to the feminist cause.
Following the “Erato’s Version” exhibition emerged a small group of women artists eager to get together, to talk, and to organize joint exhibitions. It included Adelina Popnedeleva, Alla Georgieva, Boryana Rossa, Daniela Kostova, Dimitrina Sevova, Elena Panayotova, Mariela Gemisheva, Monika Romenska, Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova, Nadya Genova, Tanya Abadjieva (they started to call themselves “The Eighth of March”).
What they wish to demonstrate is that there is a female point of view in art. They do not seek to wage war, nor to ridicule the male half of society, but to defend their own territory. Of course, they do not confound feminism with style and do not want feminism to be reduced to an issue of style. Style can be analyzed only in the context of the specific historical situation. On the other hand, they do not want the position -- they uphold to be divorced from style. Thus, they are trying to change the discourse, i.e. the attitude towards female art both in the practice and the theory of art.
NL: Maria, as part of the research for this project, while searching for women art collectives in Bulgaria, I realized that The 8th of March Group is really the only one that exists. Can you tell us why that is, which collectives existed in the past, and what role did these collectives have in the Bulgarian art scene?
MV: The creation of artistic groups was very active in the early 1990s as a reaction to the previous period. During the socialist times it was not possible for artists to freely unite in groups or collectives. This only happened within the political system and the way it arranged artists was by specialities in educational institutions, or by sections in the Union of Bulgarian Artists. These early unions played an essential role in breaking the totalitarian model and asserting the right of contemporary art to exist alongside traditional art forms. They were active in the late 1980s and early 1990s and quickly disintegrated, having played
their part. Of the later formations, the XXL group, active in the mid-1990s, proved relatively stable. The place of the Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia, which includes artists and curators and has been active since 1995, is important. They are not an artistic group, but rather a laboratory for ideas, but unconditionally creating some of the highest quality products in the field of contemporary art. The 8th of March group is no longer active, but since it never proclaimed its end or its beginning, it is not known if it will not work again.
NL: Indeed, this current online show is a kind of revitalization and activation of the group, as its particular qualities relate to the overall importance of the role of all-women collectives in contemporary society. For this project, I suggested reflecting on one of your previous exhibitions, and re-examining its theme from an up-to-date point of view.
The show “Reflections Multiplied” from 2006 (more info here ) offered an interesting and pretty bold perspective on women and their roles in society). How have these roles shifted? And in this respect I will quote from Vassileva’s text from 2006: “How do women artists fulfill their social functions and provide for themselves a century later?”
MV: The idea of the exhibition was actually to show that there is not much difference between the desires, passions and dreams of the first professional women artists in Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th century and those of contemporary artists. Many of the interests remain the same - motherhood, love, nature, the self. Both then and now, defending territory is an important part of women's lives. In this case, we are talking about women intellectuals who, although they lived in different times, steadily fought against the prejudices and attitudes of society, and balanced their personal and professional lives. There are changes, of course, and they are visible. But woman is still the second sex. That is why sometimes the means of expression of women artists today are more provocative, more aggressive. Obviously you have to shout louder in the hope of being heard.
Boryana Rossa: This obvious shift of roles cannot be analyzed, understood, and perceived, without consideration of the progress in women's rights realized during the socialist era, and the decline of women’s rights in Bulgaria after its end. However, parallels between women’s positions in Bulgaria and the Western world from just before and after this period are common. The incredible leap forward that was made by the policies of women emancipation after WW2 had given women agency that is lacking among the generations that came after 1989, myself included. Although many aims were not achieved – such as dismantling patriarchal structures in the private sphere and in many areas of social and political life – these changes had given freedom and had opened opportunities for women of any class to live lives that were not possible before these changes.
The increasing focus on women’s bodies as commodity and the gradual reduction of maternity and child care, which affected how Bulgarian women think about their career and professional realization are only few of the “new” developments after the socialist period, or they are rather returns to the old modes and became an intrinsic part of the life of at least three generations of women since.
There is a significant difference in the self-esteem of women who formed their career during socialism and the ones that came after and the way they express themselves and situate themselves in the art world. So what I see is rather not that women nowadays are quite different to the beginning of the century, but that they are getting closer back again. I see a vector of progress in the queer expression, which is perhaps one of the key significant differences between women now and a century ago.
But If we speak about art using as a reference the show “Reflections Multiplied”, I would say that besides the obvious difference in the mediums and the formal language used by artists of these different periods there is a difference in the topics presented and the critical statements made. The women from the earlier generations focused on mundane everyday situations and the poetry of life, from their upper class position. The newer generations, however, engaged with a larger scope of thoughts with more aggressive visuals, employing nudity and exploring connections to all fields of life, related not just to the “women” domain or the domestic settings.
I believe the role for this shift played not only the historical time, but also the accessibility of artistic education and career to women from different classes (not only the upper class), that was mostly introduced after WW2, which diversified the narratives told and the experiences expressed.
Alla Georgieva: Specifically referring to this exhibition I can say that the change is significant. It is very important to keep in mind that the women artists of the late 19th and early 20th century were mostly from wealthy families. They had the means to travel abroad and to educate themselves without thinking about the bare necessities of life. The situation in which the husband or the father were the main source of financial resources allowed the pursuit of art to be mainly in the realm of entertainment, a pleasant addition to family obligations. The appropriate definition of it is "salon." Subjects were mostly confined to a narrow family circle: self-portraits, portraits of relatives and children, and of course still-lifes. The powerful world turmoil does not seem to have affected women artists of this generation at all. The First World War, the Russian Revolution, the great changes in art, the emergence of new movements and genres -- Cubism, Futurism, and so on -- remained unreflected in their work. They seem to have felt the most comfortable in the romance of Impressionism.
In this sense, there is a significant difference in being a woman artist today. There are different women artists around the world, but I can speak specifically for myself. My understanding of a contemporary woman artist includes a sense of engagement with all that is happening in contemporary life, both in the country where I live and in the world at large. Our generation is very different from that of the women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We went through the era of socialism and since 1989 we have been living in an era of democracy and a capitalist form of economy. For me, the choice of profession was a fully conscious one, with full understanding of all the consequences. I have never relied on anyone's financial support, and I have always understood very well that I would be living in a world of serious competition. In Bulgaria it is difficult to make money from being an artist and I always worked any job I could to earn money for my projects. Almost all of my projects I financed myself, with very rare exceptions when I happened to find some money to create a work. Nowadays there are many funding programs, residencies, grants for the younger generation. In my time, there were almost none.
NL: We can also look at particular artworks from the 2006 exhibition to reflect on these changes and compare them -- as a mirror approach, or as reflections, to works made in more recent years.
Adelina Popnedeleva: In the 2006 exhibition “Reflections Multiplied", I participated with works of a very personal nature which included: images from Symptom (2004), relating to my long-standing migraine, alongside a video installation titled Petty Compromises (2000).
Adelina Popnedeleva, Symptom, installation detail, 16 photos, 60 x 40 cm, psychotherapeutic performance, and video documentation, 2004
The photographs are of real migraine crises, alongside documentation of performances that are an attempt to understand and overcome the problem. During the opening, I performed a 45-minute psychotherapeutic talk with the participation of V. Zankov, which was also recorded. After the psychotherapeutic session the migraine attacks gradually calmed down, and finally stopped; no matter what may have been attributed to this, it was a fact. For me, personally, it is due to my decision to face my psychological issues, and in a very public way, rather than discreetly in the psychotherapist's office.
I made Petty Compromises as a sad statement. To spit on yourself should mean to deny your values. And when I did that, my goal was to show the situations I put myself in real life.
Because I suffered from excruciating migraines for years, I began to read psychoanalysis and later mythology. I think it was in Fraser's texts in The Golden Bough, that I encountered an interpretation of spitting as fertilization. It was based on homeopathic magic (saliva is similar to semen). This gave me the reason to interpret spitting as an act of transformation. A new meaning was applied to this work -- I am the one who propels myself and this undoubtedly leads to transformation.
In regards to your question, I don't think there is any change in the works I am involved with in "Multiplying Reflections" and the present presentation. They are very personal performances, related to my experiences, to the pain of migraines (Symptom together with Psychotherapeutic Conversation), to my adjustment to life (Petty Compromises), and to my attempts to understand myself and the world around me (Nirvana and Alchemy)
Adelina Popnedeleva, Petty compromises, Video installation, 2000
NL: Can you tell us about the shift that happened in between Nirvana (1999) and Alchemy (2010), which are presented fully and partially in this online show, and how they also support each other?
AP: In my performance Nirvana, I wash shirts in muddy water, and then I hang the shirts. I wear a white dress with muddy marks on it.
We live between black and white in the world of antipodes. Psychologically, the performance expresses the encounter with the “shadow,” our dark unknown side. We have to accept this side in order to become aware of life as a stream that changes colors. The cycle of life includes the dead and the suffering -- the black water. Rebirth is only possible if we are strong enough to accept the dark side.
Later in Alchemy, I express a new step in my psychological development -- coming out of nigredo. This time I wash the shirts with "gold": I am dressed in seven white shirts of different lengths, which I take off one after the other and wash with golden water. With the last shirt I enter the trough to become a golden girl. This idea was based on a Bulgarian folktale in which two heroines face the same trials to which they react differently; as a result, one is immersed in black water, and the other in golden waters. In Alchemy I performed the golden immersion with the Nirvana video performance in the background, reflecting on the previous psychological state, and creating a dynamic between the two -- giving context as well as a story.
Adelina Popnedeleva, Alchemy, Live performance documentation at festival “Le arti del gesto”, Lamezia, Italy, 2010
Adelina Popnedeleva, Nirvana, Performance documentation, Sofia Mineral Bath, 1999
NL: Alla, your works also create a really interesting dissonance throughout the years. Can you tell us about New Hedonism (2004) and Gold Collection (2002) presented in the 2006 exhibition, versus your recent series of works from the exhibition “Life is a Symphony”?
AG: New Hedonism Project (2004), focuses on the theme of personal fulfillment of the modern woman. Women always dream of having independent choices for their future, the possibility of professional realization, financial independence, which in turn require certain sacrifices. Women increasingly choose a rather long path of education and qualification. This takes time, and of course, their youth. Years of practical work follow, often accompanied by fierce competition in a profession that must be defended on an equal footing with men. The desire for professional and life success takes on new shapes. The modern world allows women to express themselves fully in their profession, but makes no allowances for women's biological peculiarities. The most difficult and controversial issue has been that of motherhood. The maternal instinct in women is extremely strong, the desire to start a family and bear children often comes into sharp conflict with the desire for professional fulfilment, which implies achieving peaks on a par with men. As we have observed the situation in recent decades, the choice of the period for bearing children is postponed until later years and has already settled somewhere around the age of 40 for women. Here, biological possibilities collide, significantly shorter for women, possible manifestations of risky health situations threatening both mother and child. My project focuses on this tragic rupture and disconnection, on the responsibility to make the right choice for oneself that one will not regret in the future. As a metaphor I use young women with good professional careers: singer, playmate, and businesswoman, that are breastfeeding pet-babies: kitten, bunny, and piglet. The need to be a fulfilling mother, to give love and care for your child, to indulge in the happiness of being a parent versus ruining your career is a difficult choice that raises many questions. Is the modern woman a victor or a victim after all the feminist struggles? To what extent does the right and pleasure of belonging only to oneself, of being the beginning and the end of existence give rise to guilt? On the other hand, does the fully satisfied maternal instinct replace the feeling of unfulfilled personhood? Is it possible to achieve a balance for both ideas?
Left: Alla Georgieva, New Hedonism I, Color photograph, digital print on canvas, 142 x 172 cm, 2004. Right: Alla Georgieva, New Hedonism II, Color photograph, digital print on canvas, 142 x 172 cm, 2004
The poster AG Gold Jewellery/Collection Balkan (2002), was made on the occasion of the wars in the Balkans, after the collapse of Yugoslavia. The theme of War is constantly on my mind and I often return to it in my work. In the face of modern wars, when there are all kinds of world peace organizations I feel angry, humiliated, manipulated and totally lied to. War is a brutal mud that our hypocritical supposedly high tech and civilized world is mired in to the hilt. The war involves speculative nationalist-patriotic rhetoric aimed solely at geopolitical spheres of influence. War is the selling of arms as a way of strengthening national economies, carried out against a false rhetoric of 'peace among nations' . Nothing changes with new technologies, the world remains just as greedy, unscrupulous and inhumane.
Alla Georgieva, AG Gold Jewelry, Collection Balkan, Poster, digital print on paper, 114 x 130 cm, 2002
My project "Life is a Symphony (Life is a Bed of Roses)" (2018), stands perhaps closest to the world of women artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because it deals not with external, but with internal, personal experiences. For them, looking at their inner world was limited to looking at their own face, a self-portrait, sometimes in the mirror. I know of no work from this period in which the physical sufferings of women artists were the focus. I allowed myself a greater openness, even in the representation of my body, my anatomy, as well as a baring of feelings, sharing with the general public the moments of fear and insecurity I experienced in a difficult life situation. The modern woman is completely free and has no inhibitions to speak publicly about her physical suffering, to analyze with different forms of visual expression her conditions, to draw parallels and associations. At the same time, as a modern person in possession of a considerable amount of information about art history, I took the liberty of making analogies and interpretations of my personal stories with those of great and beloved artists.
Alla Georgieva, Atlas of Anatomy, Oil on canvas, 100 x 70 cm, 2012 (presented in "Life is a Symphony" 2018)
NL: Boryana, your work Golden Carelessness (2017), really looks at the question of power and identity today, from various angles. It also explores femininity and womanhood as a brand, a political statement, and of course the selfie culture -- a very accurate description of our complex roles and reflections. Can you tell us how you view these complicated relationships, and how you view the role of the female image through these lenses?
BR: As a cyber feminist, to me it is very important how advances in science and technology are affecting our understanding of self, as well as our social roles, but also the society as a whole. Every kind of technology – including painting, which is a technology – is giving us varieties of methods to modify our representations and consequently the perceptions of women in society. It is important how these images are produced locally to reflect our societies at their place and time in history, and how they are used globally as both tools for exploitation and liberation. Images produced worldwide participate in processes of colonization, self-colonization and anti-colonization.
Golden Carelessness reflects a moment in world history when these processes obtained very vibrant, even disturbing imagery. During the night of the first travel ban imposed by Trump administration over people from seven Muslim nations (in 2017) when thousands of people were stuck at airports not knowing what will happen to them, Ivanka Trump posed for a selfie for which she said it depicted the amazing evening she had with her husband. This is obviously a representation of her blatant insensitivity upon the specific historical moment and her lack of self-reflection as a woman of power.
But the irony was that she was dressed in a foil-like dress, resembling unintentionally the material from which emergency blankets that became an iconic image of the Syrian migrant crisis are made. She was immediately visually juxtaposed by part of the Internet community to a Syrian girl, wet from the sea water, from which she has just been rescued and covered in an emergency blanket. This image became a meme, giving a very different meaning to the “innocent” selfie Ivanka made that night. In a case like this I believe the role of the artist is to make a political commentary and to explore all other possible layers of meaning that this imagery contains. Although Ivanka is a woman, specifically repressed and used by the patriarch in her own family, her selfie is an image of power and carelessness about the disasters created by herself including.
What I also want to say by this work is that representation of femininity and womanhood varies by geographical location, and the political positioning of the subject in a given historical moment. These variations cannot be absorbed by some universal notion of womanness. Although Internet exchange of selfies had created in us the feeling of belonging to the “global village” it also exposed the hell-deep gaps and differences between women in the world, embedded not only in cultural differences but also in their positions towards colonialism and economic power.
Both images: Boryana Rossa, Golden Carelessness, Live performance documentation at FACES: gender, technology, art, Shaumbad, Graz, Austria, 2017
NL: Daniela, you are the youngest generation participating in this show -- your view is a drastic change from what was exhibited in the 2006 exhibition and your approach is somewhat different towards the role of women, mothers, and women artists. Here you present a work that features your spiritual ambitions as well as career ambitions, alongside your fulfillment as a mother. These two worlds clash but also compliment each other -- can you tell us how you view the changes in roles of women in the art world from previous generations to yours?
Daniela Kostova: I feel that when we talk about recognition and space for women artists we need to think about the complex circumstances of each artist and context: history, access, support structure.
I think that my work changed the most after becoming a mother. And I realized that this was something that many of The 8th of March collective members have experienced way before me. In my work I always dealt with limitations in one-way or another, and motherhood became one of them, as I always worked from experience and with what was around me. In this case, with my family and my child.
In the 90s I was free in a way that I am not anymore as I am taking care of another human. But at this time and age I am blown away by all these amazing women artists taking on their careers and making an enormous leap, presenting retrospectives at MOMA and in leading museums all around the world. I think that this was unimaginable 20 years ago…
While in Bulgaria I learned about strong women artists such as Vaska Emanuilova, who was present in the beginning of 20th century. And later on about Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois who worked in the US, but most artists I was studying from or referencing at the time were men. They were associated with freedom and power. During the time when I started showing my work (the late 90s), older women-artists in Bulgaria were experimenting with new forms, connecting experience, knowledge and information in a unique way to create a platform (The 8th of March Group), and a discourse that brought attention to the subject. Words such as “feminism” were not used much as they would bring negative connotations to the way that group was perceived. The Bulgarian society was (and still is in my opinion) a very patriarchal one, so that wasn’t really the time to wave the feminist flag and get people on board, and it wasn’t the goal of the group either. It was more important to give space and visibility to women-artists and what interested them.
I was really impressed by the shows that Maria Vassileva has curated, the artists she worked with, their material choices and the specific locations of The 8th of March Group shows. They were very clever, original and inspiring! Maria’s curatorial work and simply the integrity of each of The 8th of March Group members were very important. I remember at that time, I didn’t have affiliation with a particular group, and was just experimenting and looking for my own place under the sun. So the The 8th of March Group has created a context for people like me.
There was a good amount of insecurity involved, just everything that I was doing was new. It wasn’t what I was taught at school, I didn’t know my tools well, and was learning them on the go (experimenting with a video camera, collaborating with other artists, going to shows). The contemporary art world was not well accepted (or integrated) in our society, so there was a big dose of risk as well as adrenaline associated with everything we did. The audience was also not prepared, there were many surprises. And I feel like this is what I really loved about that time: the curiosity, the wonder and surprise, all those public interventions and the conversations, even heated debates that a work of art could spark; something that wasn’t happening around a painting show, for example.
I wish I was more educated back then. Later on when I immigrated to the US and studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I learned about many feminist artists and civil rights movements in the 70s and 80s, the AIDS crisis, cyber feminism, and art activism, all of those influenced the Americans but also the International art scene.
Looking back I can see how simultaneously in the 90s, The 8th of March Group has created a platform and a context for many Bulgarian young women artists to jump off and refer to. It has established a name for itself and was treated with a lot of respect.
Daniela Kostova, Lexicon, Still from HD Video, 6.12 min. metal puzzle box, 2012
NL: Maria, what are the questions that arise within the group today from an experienced and mature perspective?
MV: The main question is why the situation with women's rights and place in society is not changing. Or at least not at the pace we would like. This largely demotivates us to continue our artistic practice in this direction. The naive belief that art can change the world is a thing of the past. This does not mean that we will lose our social activism or not take a stand on issues that are
important to society. For The 8th of March Group, reflecting on serious issues has always gone hand in hand with having fun (perhaps as a kind of apology to the critical gaze of a society that, at least in the mid-90s, treated any feminist action with great contempt). Over the years, however, the smiles began to disappear, and with them the pleasure of communal action.
NL: What does self reflection look like today for each of you? How are previous concepts communicated differently these days, and what are new concepts or ideas that arise? What will the future look like for us?
MV: From today's point of view, many of our joint exhibitions and projects look naive. We needed to do them, we believed in these ideas and we implemented them with a lot of enthusiasm. We have not followed other people's models, only our professional instincts. But times have changed dramatically. Today, such confessional forms that we mostly used, seem old-fashioned and out of place. We always sincerely shared our personal experience even when the price of this experience was high. Now things are moving fast and further away from personal drama. Sharing may not be in vogue. Many of the works of The 8th of March Group are heartbreaking and highly emotional. Probably also because we were fixated on both genders. Such a fixation can no longer exist. Things are blurring, becoming much more encompassing, not just in terms of gender, but of the universe as a whole. This is probably for the best. The unification of the sexes and the expansion of worlds may finally liberate women from their slavish existence.
AP: I’m still a strong believer that freedom of spirit is extremely important in both life and creativity. I do fear that the hard-won freedom will be replaced by the utopia we have already lived in. And I no longer dare to think about the future.
AG: I continue to create work in which I interpret the world through my own personality. I plan to continue working on my perennial series of self-portraits. I paint one self-portrait each year that reflects what I have experienced or thought about
during that time. The personal becomes more hidden and is expressed in more intimate visual forms -- most often in different series of drawings. Otherwise, in my programmatic and large-scale works, I seem to be moving away from my own image and increasingly prefer to take the position of an observer. It would be too bold to predict the future, but I enjoy observing the symptoms and latest trends in the life of our society and humanity as a whole, which I try to reflect in my works.
BR: In SZ-ZS Performance (2005), made with the collective ULTRAFUTURO, I stitch myself up to my mirror image (with the assistance of my partner Oleg Maromatti). This piece can be a perfect illustration of the Lacanian “imaginary, symbolic and real,” where the “imaginary” is my body, the “symbolic” is my mirror image, and the “real” is the impossible: the bloody stitch between the two. I had no idea how the final image would look prior to performing, and before I saw the photographic images of it, but it has been haunting me since. And its image still applies to the actual relationships between my desires, society’s expectations, and my own self-perception.
If I connect it to the transnational identity I own, and the transnational way of life I live, I see differences across cultures that help keep the critical distance I have to myself. The social utopia that I grew up in has been gradually falling apart into more dystopian times. However, the desire of building a just society, no matter how utopic it will be, is still there in my mirror image.