Beyond Gender: Female, Feminist, Queer and Gender Related Art from Bulgaria

by Boryana Rossa

Gender is an integral part of any artwork. Nevertheless, we often hear about the so called "universal themes" that are automatically considered to “not be related to gender.” But within the hierarchies of the art world and the art market, even abstract art is evaluated with consideration of who had created it - a man, a woman, a person with a hybrid identity, an animal or a robot. Each art production is placed in a hierarchy that corresponds to the identity of the artist who had produced it, where the man, along with his creations, is traditionally the most valued one. Therefore, in order to understand the art that deals specifically with gender, the hierarchy, in which this art is functioning, must also be reviewed considering the very specific socio-political context that produced it on a first place. Then, of course, we will see that the hierarchies, that are always gender influenced, are also strongly dependent on their interactions with categories such as class, national, ethnic and racial affiliation, physical abilities, but also economy and politics, which directly affect migration. The Bulgarian context of the last four decades, on which this text focuses in more detail, is determined by the specificity of the late (developed) socialism and the transition to capitalism. The art and self-determination of artists that produce art dedicated to gender issues is closely intertwined with these processes, although many of these artists do not necessarily consider this important. The emancipation of women, which in Bulgaria started after the end of the Second World War, is the result of the long struggles of various feminist groups in our country.[1]

These struggles are echoed in the political line followed by the communist authorities specifically in relation to women, which as a result in a very short period gives them rights that in many of the capitalist countries in the 21st century have not been yet materialized.[2]

This dramatic improvement in the situation of women has a strong positive effect on their participation in the creation of artistic production as well as in the presence of women as subjects or rather heroines of artistic works featuring strong female perspective.    Despite all these changes, the patriarchal power structures remain very strong in the family environment as well as in many professional hierarchies. Women, above all in cinema and literature, register and criticize these problems of the double standard (writer Blaga Dimitrova, film directors Irina Aktasheva, Binka Zhelyazkova). Many of them deal specifically with female sexuality, which is no longer a taboo and is looked at from the perspectives of sexual revolution. The sexual revolution that took place in Bolshevik Russia in the early 20th century has had its resonance in Bulgaria in the 1940s and 1950s. This had happened despite the re-establishment of many aspects of the pre-revolutionary conservative policies regarding sexuality in USSR by the Stalinist regime, at the very same time period, when emancipatory ideas started to bloom in Bulgaria. However, despite the emancipation policy that the communist party is assumed to be perpetuating in Bulgaria, the above mentioned art works by these women authors, influenced by the emancipatory wave, are looked at with contempt, because they examine and criticize the specific problems of domestic life which preserves the patriarchal hierarchy and often projects the same conservatism in higher authorities. Widely accepted is the idea that gender rights are now equalized - "there is nothing more to be desired" - everything on top of this is a whim, a sick desire of women to destroy men. It is important to note that this attitude continues to this day and is a motivation for many artists and women who work in the arts to entirely avoid women related topics in their art works. It is very easy to observe a double bind that presents conflict between ideas and policies. Another very important aspect of definitions such as "feminine", "feminist" and "gender-based" in Bulgarian art is the attitude towards feminism[3]

as a social movement and theory. The split of "bourgeois feminism" and "socialist feminism," started in the early 20th century and manifested itself differently in different countries. In the post-socialist countries, the term "feminism" continues to refer to female formations representing the higher society that do not interact with and deliberately excludes from their groups women who represent other social, ethnic and national communities. These “others” are considered somebody who should not have equal rights with men and with high-ranking women. Therefore, during socialism, the term "feminism" is avoided as a negative one. Women's problems, gender inequalities, politics of sexual liberation and education are referred to as "the female problem," "gender problem" or "women emancipation." [4]

This is one of the reasons that in Bulgaria--as well as in many other post-socialist countries--the term "feminism" is still inherently considered negative, although its instrumental exclusion from the programs of any of the socialist women's initiatives has been criticized by their prominent representatives.[5]

This controversial attitude has been inherited since the end of the socialist epoch in 1989, and in some cases it has been even argued that feminism in Bulgaria has never existed.[6]

But after 1989, the negative attitude towards feminism in Bulgaria has become even more complex. Conceptually the current negative attitude towards the term has much less to do with the division between socialist and bourgeois feminisms. Many have simply internalized this negativity without historical understanding of its origins. But now, to this “heritage” we can add the growing negativity towards the socialist women emancipation as a whole, where western feminism and socialist women emancipation overlap.[7]

Now this very woman emancipation, to which contemporary women owe the current relatively progressive legislation,  is considered to be a communist stunt aimed at turning women into men or as evil women's attempt to destroy men.[8]

The newest element in this bouquet of negativities is the understanding of feminism as a colonial Western force completely unnecessary to our local situation and aimed at destroying “our values.”[9]

These negative public attitudes towards feminism are superimposed on the continued dominance of patriarchal structures in many families that last throughout the entire socialist epoch until now, and on the double and triple burden put on women, who are workers, mothers and care takers altogether. This complex situation has led to a rapid return to conservative values after 1989, which is evident in the gradual erosion of women's rights, specifically in maternity, labor law and equal pay. All these problems find a resonance in post-socialist art, and in many cases, they are presented as a direct political speech. I will discuss the most important trends in this area.  Female art The art-group "The 8th of March" started its existence with the organization of the exhibition and the theoretical conference "Erato’s Version" in 1997.[10]

This exhibition and the establishment of the group happened as a reaction to the “Exhibition of Erotic Art” in 1996, which took place at Gallery Sezoni and featured only male artists. The initiators of "Erato’s Version" are the artists Adelina Popnedeleva and Alla Georgieva with curators Maria Vassileva and Iara Boubnova. This exhibition was meant to oppose the cliché that erotic love can only be experiences by men, which intention is stated in the publication that supported the event. The question of eroticism in art is perhaps typical for the 1990s in Bulgaria, when with the opening of the book market of erotic and porn literature the interest in eroticism as an art topic increased. However, it has been reviewed mostly by men and for men. But eroticism should not be merely a representation of the male gaze and desires only, while the female gaze is never discussed. This one sidedness of the discourse reflected the presence of women in the erotic literature (especially of that time) as well as in the male art, as remaining most of the time just objects.[11]

In this context “Erato’s Version” marks the beginning of a series of events organized by the group members with curator Maria Vassileva that started to address the contemporary women's perspective and engage with women’s topics in art typical for that time. Another core member of the group, apart from Georgieva, Popnedeleva and Vassileva, is Nadejda Oleg-Liahova. Over the years in the events organized by this group, had participated many other artists such as Boryana Rossa, Daniela Kostova, Mariela Gemisheva, Silvia Lazarova, Nina Kovacheva, Monika Romenska, Nadia Genova. [12] 

It is important to note that most of the participants in the group do not define themselves as feminists, but as artists who make "female art" that deals with women's topics and represents women’s perspectives, but is not “feminist.”[13]

This contradiction between "female" and "feminist" is a definite result of the history of the acceptance/rejection of the term, reviewed above and will continue to raise questions about whether women's topics are feminist and can you fight for women's rights without calling yourself a feminist. In addition to being part of the group, the artists-members work independently on the women's topics of their interest, intersecting them with the specific social problems of our time. Alla Georgieva creates a series of photographs "Bulgarian Souvenirs" 2006-08, which are a commentary on pseudo-patriotism, typical for Bulgaria specifically for the last two decades and expressing itself in widely produced patriotic-folklore decorations and theatricality covering harsh anti-social policies. In these series are depicted women dressed up in folk costumes, showing their nude bottoms through the roughly cut holes in their skirts. The depiction of women in Georgieva’s work, as well as her female perspective on the world, is serious and critical, but always includes the comical, the laughter. This thread has been consistently developed in her works some of which are: "Georgiev’s Have a Nice Carpet" 1998; "New Hedonism" 2004; “About Love, the Big and the Small” 2008; “Life is a Song” 2018 and others and defines her unique artistic approach. Common for most artists involved in the group is that they use themselves as objects in their art, often producing performances in which they play themselves or present caricature or metaphorical depictions of a woman. For example, in "Alla's Secret / Collection 2000 - I, II, III " 2000 series, Georgieva poses in the kitchen, lying on a tray of kebabs or shredding cheese on Shopska salad, while dressed in expensive underwear. Here, the consumer's look on the woman as an object that must look great, comically intermingles with the requirement that the same beauty has to perform her daily domestic work.  Meanwhile, from an object of desire she transforms into a machine, reproducing life. “Re-production” 2011 is a curatorial project of Georgieva that deals with motherhood not only as an act of birth, but as a reproduction of society. Adelina Popnedeleva relies more on drama, though also with a high dose of irony. In her performance “Nirvana” 2000, she washed white shirts in mud; in “Hans Christian Andersen's Masochistic Performance” 2000, she weaved nettle shirts, focusing in the traditional reproductive work made by women, which is usually considered insignificant in comparison to the creative work of the male creator. In this performance Popnedeleva finished a garment, while her hands were burning from the nettle poisoning. We see that through Popnedeleva’s actions, these banal reproductive activities become a cathartic ritual, on the one hand, perhaps presenting the woman as a victim, but on the other, elevating this labor to the level of alchemical creation. In hеr “Margo of London” video from 2012, Popnedeleva talks to a woman whose children have emigrated from Bulgaria, as she touches on the various problems of contemporary women who have passed into their 50s, their realization as human beings, their sexuality and opinions on various political and social issues. Throughout the entire video, Margo is completely naked, covered in mud (the interview was taken in the mud baths in Varna), and with her body shapes and vitality, she is strongly reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf. Although sometimes her words can be silly, her complete lack of camera-shyness and the courage of her talk are contagious. Nadejda Oleg-Liahova often explores her face using different materials such as ice, ice-cream and soap to cast it. These castings are part of ritual performances of fusing, eating or melting. Although the artist has never stated her desire to address typically female problems with her work, or to call herself a feminist, the fact that her face is female poses certain possibilities for interpretation of these transformational performances related to female identity and its social dimensions. Mariela Gemisheva, who is also a fashion designer, features her body and her clothes in her work too, telling us not only about herself and who she is, but also revealing the social role of clothes – our “shells.” In addition to her numerous fashion shows, engaged with these ideas, Gemisheva makes performances and photographs. In her performance “Fish Party” 2004, models in bridal gowns, exposing their bottoms, fry fish in the gallery until the space is filled with a heavy odor. The smell of fish is, of course, a representation of the stereotype about women’s smell, which Gemisheva exaggerates to absurd dimensions. In “Fashion Fire” 2003, her models put off their dresses and burn them right at the yard of the fire department building on Rakovski Street in Sofia. It is a strong gesture in which Gemisheva seems to be destroying her own works and herself along with them, but at the same time she conceives this spectacle of power, of her own power to perform such a self-sacrificial and therefore creative ritual. This self-sacrificing, but also phoenix-like position is present also in her 2008 self-portraits and “Out of Myself” 2002. In her 1990s fashion shows, Gemisheva includes unisex and gender-fluid elements, such as women models wearing apples in their underwear, instead of a penis, taking them out right on the catwalk and eating them while walking. Thus, her work fits into the queer trends of the 1990s, which will be reviewed below.  Feminist art In 2000, art-critic Diana Popova curated the exhibition "Anti-Feminism, Anti-Machismo." Three of the post-socialist clichés mentioned above can be noted in the text in the exhibition catalog, namely that gender equality has already been achieved and that there is nothing more to ask for; that women's emancipation is a communist invention to make women work against their will to stay at home as housewives without professional realization and just taking care of kids; and that there was no feminism in Bulgaria until 1990, which the curator herself maintains and affirms. In the curatorial text we can also find the cliché that Bulgaria is a tolerant multi-cultural place in which everyone had coexisted peacefully for centuries and "cannot tolerate any discriminatory idea - whether based on nationality, religion or gender."[14]

This exhibition, in which I participated, was the reason why I began to define myself as a feminist artist. The exhibition very clearly synthesizes the typical problems of gender and its intersection with the social realities in post-socialist Bulgaria, to which this text is dedicated, as well as the generational differences between women artists.[15] 

Despite the problems addressed by “Erato’s Version” exhibition, Popova claims that the new generation is "free from the need to fight for equality because it does not need it anymore".[16]

This apparent contradiction, while noteworthy in itself, raises the question about the difference between generations - those who lived during socialism and those who came afterwards. It also reveals strategies used by women artists of different generations to address their problems. Emancipation, which creates the symbolic capital of earlier generations, is rapidly losing ground, with new generations experiencing problems that their older peers have difficulty registering and even understanding, because they had formed as individuals and built their careers in a very different social system and societal climate.[17]  

However to these negative tendency of regression in women’s emancipation we can add the very positive and progressive tendency of increased public sensitivity to feminine identity and femininity in its non-hetero-normative forms, in the era of the third wave of feminism, which includes queer identities and queer practices.[18] Part of this very new context is the rapid development of plastic surgery and technologies that have enabled the sculpting of living bodies; the use of avatars in virtual social networks; and the creation of human-machine hybrids that cyberfeminism, which originated in the 1980's, talks about.[19] 

Some younger artists work on these topics, though not all of them define themselves or their works as feminist. In my video performance of "The Moon and Sunlight" 2000, featured in the exhibition "Anti-Feminism, Anti-Machismo", I honestly tried to be anti-feminist in order to fulfill the “assignment” given to all participating artists by the curator, Diana Popova. The three women artists, along with me were Daniela Kostova and Zornitsa-Sofia and the male artists were Houben Cherkelov, Georgy Toushev and Kosio Mintchev. In the course of my work, however, I realized that to be an anti-feminist was absolutely impossible, no matter how I try. My work would be read as a feminist, because of my own personality and because of my female body, participating in the video as the main character, who defines me as a woman before the world. The relationship between the artist's body and the interpretation of her works has become an integral part of my work, as well as my analysis of what are the political, social and cultural reasons for gender to play such an important role in our lives. In my photo series “The Good Woman, the Bad Woman and the Ugly Dude” 2001, I began to analyze the already mentioned generational difference in attitudes towards feminism in the post-socialist society. I continued to develop this topic in my video installation “After the Fall” 2012 which looks at gender representation in the socialist and post-socialist cinema. This video installation features re-enactments of scenes from socialist and post-socialist films from Russia, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, recreated by actors based in the United States. In addition to generic feminist analysis of films such as “Monday Morning” 1967; The Hammer and the Sickle” 1994; “Hipsters” 2008; “Daisies” 1967, “Ladies Turn” 1980; “Mission London” 2011, I have also worked on transnational parallels and comparison of these considered "local" representations with other quite different "local" contexts like the one in USA. The premiere of this installation and my dissertation text was intended first to be for a US audience, and this can be thought as a reason for creation of cross-cultural parallels.  My major intention was to build a dialogue between varieties of cultural and political situations in different historical times. Therefore, I have chosen to not make exact copies of them, but rather interpretations, in collaboration with the actors.[20]

Below, I would like to outline why is this important when we talk about differences between generations in Bulgaria in their approach to gender issues and to politics in general. The art generation “of the Transition,” or the one that has been forming since the early 1990s, to which I belong, as well as the next generations, have started to register the different and rather degrading position of women after the end of socialism. They were told that equality of genders has been already achieved, but this has been rather difficult to see when we observe the expanding objectification and commercialization of the female body, the gradually increasing unwillingness of private businesses to provide maternity and child care, which unwillingness started to transform the state politics on that matter, a process especially visible today. These new generations of women artists are forming their identity at the time when the poverty increases and becomes a reason for widening the emigration and deepening the demographic crisis. These processes of trans-nationalization of the Bulgarian population fuel nationalist policies that demand "traditional and national" to family roles. These very nationalist policies are at the same time actively supporting the abolition of maternal rights and blaming women and consequently women emancipation for the emigration and the demographic crisis. Those are new processes, not existing before the end of socialism. They are directly reflected in art-activism such as the 2013 Feminist Workshop,[21]

or in works and practices that some artists already started to identify as feminist, sometimes historically sensitive, sometimes being a tabula rasa to the term.[22]  

One example is the series of sculptures by Albena Baeva "Nudes" 2017. She creates chimeras composed of women and animals, often used as offensive names for women (such as sheep, snake, bitch). These images rendered as depictions of goddesses are also digitally placed in varieties of landscapes as monuments of worship. In this piece, as well as in “The Sheep, the Snake, the Bitch and Their Pig” 2017, Baeva embraces the insult and transforms it into a hyperbole, that carries enormous feminist strength. Most of my work is dedicated to gender issues and as I have mentioned, I define it as feminist. In this text I will talk about just few of them, as examples of a work made by a pos-socialist generation. "Vitruvian Body" 2009 is a performance in which my partner Oleg Mavromatti stitches my naked body with surgical threads to a metal structure, replicating the drawing in which the original Vitruvian Man is inscribed. Better known as Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing, the Vitruvian Man was initially created by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who wanted to express geometrically the perfect human body proportions and to use them to create measurements and standards in architecture. Vitruvius uses a male body and inscribes it into a drawing consisting of a circle and a square, to represent these proportions. I have replicated this construction three dimensionally in metal. Vitruvius’ drawing is often used in medical imaging and branding, to represent “humanoty.” It is problematic that this "human" whose universal proportions are proposed as a standard is actually a white man, who cannot represent the diversity of humanity. By stitching myself to this construction and shedding my real blood, I am showing how painful it is for my female body to not be considered a part of the human standard. In this performance I address not only the absence of the female body, but also the absence of many other bodies – for instance other races, ethnicities, or generally the bodies with an inherent difference from the body of the white man. I insist on the need to overcome trauma with humor, therefore I almost always talk to the audience and make jokes during the performances in which I represent this trauma, as did in the “Vitruvian Body.” This belief in the power of humor I implemented in my “Amazon Armor” series 2013-2014. In them, after my breasts were removed because I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I started to replace them with fruits, vegetables and various items from the Internet meme folklore. My point was to exaggerate the secondary sexual characteristics – the breasts will be watermelons; cucumbers will be penises. Overlapping with the development of the third wave of feminism, the art of the 1990s started to increasingly address the idea of gender performativity along with the response to the regressive trends in women’s rights in post-socialist society. Emigration and functioning in a trans-national context is a topic of many women artists as well. The evolution in Daniela Kostova’s works is indicative of this phenomenon. In her 1999 video “Frame” she captures her daily activities. although in the middle of the video image there is a big black rectangular that covers it almost entirely. A thin frame around the black is left, where we can barely see what the artist is doing. Her "feminine" actions are framing this solid black rectangular, that diminishes their importance. In the 2008 photo "I Am Whatever You Want Me to Be" the artist talks about the transformations required from her as a woman but also as an emigrant (she has lived in the United States since 2003). In her 2009 “Decadent Eclipse” photo, she is lying on a bed floating in a sea of trash, with two children next to her and a bagpipe as if stuck in her belly. This strange representation of motherhood, registers problems, which are deeply traumatic for contemporary women such as the obligation to be mothers in a consumerist society, where the body and life of women are also subject of consumption. Motherhood and the family as social structures that do not need to follow heteronormativity are reflected in her photos “New (Role) Models” 2015, a series of portraits of her daughter’s queer babysitter, as well as in her series "Loose” 2018, in which she looks at the architecture of playgrounds, as shaping social habits, restrictions and freedoms. Daniela Kostova and Zornitsa Sofia were the other two participants in the exhibition "Anti-feminism, Anti-machismo" together with me. At this exhibition, Zornitsa Sofia identified herself as a feminist and presented two works that represented her feminist views.  Although her works did not show anything extraordinarily new, her very identification with the term feminism, reflected one more time the already formed demarcation line between ours and the previous generation. Zornitsa Sofia interviewed all other participants, asking them about their   orgasms. She also did a re-make of the classical Greek composition of the Three Graces represented by the male participants in the exhibition - Houben, Kosio and Tushev, opposed to the three musketeers and D'Artagnan – re-enacted by the female participants and the curator Diana Popova. Contrary to the curatorial idea of the exhibition, declared in the catalogue that there are "no problems" between the genders in Bulgaria, Zornitsa Sofia called for a fight. We can also see an extension of this call in her later work as a director of the feature films "Mila from Mars" 2002 and "Voevoda" 2017, in which she plays the main role of Rumena Voevoda. These two films acquire admiration for their allegedly strong female characters, but evoked criticism because of their intertwining with the above mentioned conservative nationalist strategy[23]

of seeing the past as a source of unshakable traditional national values, which has an intrinsic anti-women sentiment. The problem here is that in the non-cinematic realm, these traditionalisms are in active contradiction with directors’ attempt to create powerful women characters. Another problem with these characters is that both heroines - Mila and Rumena – are physically fighting men in these films, but they both end up defeated by their own submissive femininity, completely in tune with the conservative scenario of putting women in their place.[24] 

Boryana Ventzislavova is often working with social topics related to identity. Her early project EURO DE LUX 2005, was dedicated to sex trafficking. This work can be seen as a beginning of a stable thread in Ventzislavova’s works dedicated to human diversity and human rights. In almost all of her works, Ventzislavova intersects the gender theme with broader conversations about human rights in the context of the European Union and the common European values, along with elements of her own history as an immigrant from Bulgaria to Austria.In Iskra Blagoeva's paintings, we see varieties of female identities and images of mothers that are inspired by the aesthetics, the spectacle and the performativity of sadomasochism ("Black Paintings of Joyful Events" 2015.)[25]

In her installation "Never Forever" 2015, Blagoeva uses red curtains to symbolize the menstrual cycle; a fishing rod, which according to the her is a male object, appropriated and "mocked" by her; and a children's lullaby mobile electronic toy decorated with female jewelry, designed to enchant with its brilliance as a woman is supposed to enchant, but in the end seduces the viewer into a "the discomfort of the red, into anxiety”. [26] 

This discomfort and anxiety also exist in Zara Alexandrova’s and Leda Ekimova’s works. In “Avatar” 2017, “Instinct” 2009, “Finally I Get Rid of Them” 2017, Alexandrova makes human-animal chimeras with the participation of the plastic surgery as contemporary consumerist necessity, creating strange and sometimes monstrous, sometimes desperate creatures. In Ekimova's drawings and installations "The Dog that Leaves" 2012, "Geometric Anuses" 2012, "The Kiss" 2007 we can see a non-heterosexual intertwining of people with animals, that in this case are given the halo of tenderness and sympathy and not the glow of monstrosity. Queer Art In the 1990s, queer identities and performativity take over the world’s pop-culture, which as well happened in Bulgaria, as I have already mentioned. This is a trend that does not occur without pre-history. In this context, I would point out that the traditional view that Western countries are more welcoming to the queer culture until the end of the 1980s should be reviewed, not only as a blatant generalization, but also in the light of historical facts, such as that USSR is the first country in Eastern Europe and one of the very early ones in Europe to decriminalize, albeit briefly, 1922-33 homosexual relationships. Bulgaria decriminalizes homosexuality in 1968. In 1960s Dr. Todor Bostandzhiev is successfully developing and popularizing his research where he argues that homosexuality or transgender identity should not be considered diseases, ranking Bulgaria among the comparatively more progressive countries in Europe and in the world that shared this thinking during this period. Globally, homosexual cultures have been generally considered subcultures until the 1990s. To a big extent this still continues today, as it is in Bulgaria. The participation of these subcultures in the art and culture of specific countries is developed and presented in various degrees. The re-consideration of historic artistic practices, as representative for queer identities and discourses in the past can change significantly dominant post-colonial discourses that proclaim the progressivity of the western countries over the eastern European ones. This re-consideration, however, depends on the existing historical research, which in some countries, is still quite limited. For instance, this text cannot rely on significant resources from Bulgaria, that follow the local development of queer culture, and its influence on art and pop-culture before and during socialism. Nevertheless, here I would like to point out that it is inevitable that such culture existed before the 1990s and should create more focused interest, mentioning an example that is widely known, namely the homo-erotic sculptures of Vaska Emanuilova.[27]

It is a matter of time and effort on the part of historians of art and culture to study deeply this example as well as others. The phenomenon of the 1990s, however, is the fact that many of the previous cultural and political norms were rejected for good or for bad, and in the resulting value vacuum a new field for experimentation had opened.  In these early post-socialist times this vacuum did not offer much restrictions in any political or artistic tendencies and intensively involved experimentation in gender performance. Night clubs and drag performances become so widely accepted that in gay clubs the audience was really wide and diverse and did not include primarily members of the LGBTQ community. Drag queens like Ursula became media stars overnight. [28]

Not only has this subculture influenced contemporary art, but artists such as Yasen Zgurovski who performs as Julieta Intergalactica since then are active performative participants both in the night live and the contemporary art world.  The performativity of this period can be traced in the current work of artists such as Voin de Voin, who also develops spaces and communities such as Æther. [29]

Æther functions as an independent artist-run space where one of the important topics is that of gender identity. This activity of Voin de Voin corresponds to his style as a performance artist - charismatic, at the center of the organized by him crowd, spilling his energy into the others, creating together with them situations and performative imageries. Here, the strategy of making art and producing culture is as much a work of queer art as the artifacts themselves - be they photography, collage, sculpture or live performance. The artists who interact with this context are Lubri, who is a photographer, Alexander Gerginov, who is also a fashion designer, and to some extent Stefan Karchev, another fashion designer who has similar strategies of creation of everyday performances like Voin de Voin. In his thesis work Miscible Displacement 2015,[30]

with which he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Karchev brings together queer identity and immigrant displacement.  To the trajectory of creation of places and collectives can be added “the fridge” which, in addition to being organized by the artists Natalia Todorova and Ivana Nencheva, who themselves create queer art has been also a home of the theater company Meteor, established by the director Ani Vasseva and the philosopher Boyan Manchev, later joined by Leonid Yovchev. Meteor’s theater spectacles and performances has consistently included representation of gender as a dynamic, fluid notion, while critiquing various aspects of our contemporary life. Another important figure from the 1990's is Ivo Dimchev, who started his career as a director of his own mono-spectacles. In “Lili Handel” 2004 he creates a queer image that interweaves and transforms the male body into feminine and vice versa many times, using not only his abilities as an actor, but also his voice and the set design. Dimchev, like Voin de Voin, not only creates his own performances, but also curates the site in which they will occur. The MOZEI space, which he has maintained for years, presents not only queer art, but also queer curatorial strategy.  The need for context and place was the reason for me in 2012 to start Sofia Queer Forum -  long-term curatorial project together with the philosopher Stanimir Panayotov. The forum, which already has five editions, aims to investigate, with the means of contemporary arts, gender and sexuality as parallel systems through which we value ourselves and the others around us. The focus of this event is also on the constantly changing concepts of "gender" and "sexuality" linked to the social, political, cultural and medical factors inherent to a particular time and place. The forum works with invited curators who offer their own themes, to be the focus of specific edition. Some of the curators include: Stefka Tsaneva, Vladiya Mihaylova, Mohammad Salemy and Patrick Schabus. In addition to exhibitions and discussions, the Forum also publishes books.[31] 

Technology as an active participant in gender identity formation has been partly addressed in the forum, mainly because of Panayotov’s and my personal interest in it as an artist and as a member of the ULTRAFUTURO group. Established in 2004, together with artists Oleg Mavromatti, Anton Terziev, Katia Damyanova and Miroslav Dimitrov, the group focuses on the social influence of technology today.Donna Haraway defines the cyborg as "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,”[32]

which is fundamental to ULTRAFUTURO in the construction of the idea about the robot as the "Other" (the Woman, the Different). In its 2004 manifesto, ULTRAFUTURO proclaimed the necessity of "overcoming gender," or more precisely the hetero-normative gender binary that underlies gender hostility. “The Last Valve” 2004 performance in which I stitch up my vulva with a surgical thread is one that illustrates this manifesto. To this aim of overcoming gender hostility should contribute not only society’s good will but also the development of biotechnology. Therefore, the performance also talks about the artificial creation of the "Other" in today's bio-labs. It addresses the development of unclassified forms of life to which classic taxonomy does not apply. Those are tissues or organs used in scientific experiments that lack characteristics such as gender, race or even species. The existence of these living and unclassified bodies, as well as the fact that they do not fall into our categories of differentiation, can help us imagine what would the world be without the hatred that finds its base in these differentiations.[33] 

Categories such as biological sex, race, nationality, ethnicity and even species do not exist for those forms of life that, by their very existence (as the art-collective claims), can teach us acceptance and compassion. The ULTARFUTURO collective also functions in sync with the techno-culture and the technological acceleration, which helps sustaining the hybrid identity defined by Donna Haraway. Haraway says that "we are all cyborgs" because of the active presence of technology in our lives. Moreover, the cyborg metaphor historically contains in itself the plasticity and hybridity of gender identities. Our technological creations embody our desires and dreams about our own identity as we dream it beyond any convention. In this key, as well as of course through Lacan’s concept of “the mirror phase,"[34]

should be interpreted the SZ-ZS Performance of the group, made in 2005, in which Oleg Mavromatti stitches me up a with surgical thread to my mirror image. The entire work by the collective is deeply influenced by developed during socialism techno-utopias such as the Russian Cosmism and local sc-fi literature. After 2000, the freedom of queer expression achieved in the 1990s began to gradually disappear, first, to the closure of clubs and bars, and then to public disapproval. Yasen Zgurovski actively responds to these conservative tendencies in his paintings and posters, applying the necessary seriousness to the matter, but also laughter. On his painting and poster labeled "New Beginning" 2012 a young man licks a pink swastika. The voice of heterosexual men – both conservative and progressive – in gender related art from Bulgaria will be reviewed next. The Male perspective As I have mentioned previously, the male perspective on gender and gender identity is often presented as the "universal view on the world." This is especially valid when male artists create images of the mother, the homeland, the image of the wife or the woman as a muse or a beautiful object. At the same time the dominant images of men are those of the demiurge, the god, the human being, the active creator, or the one who is sacrificing himself for the good of humanity. I will not discuss these works, but I would like to emphasize that their presence in the visual arts stabilizes gender stereotypes, therefore they should be studied not as universal, but as biased gender representations in the arts. If a woman artist tries to escape in her work from the stereotypical female characters, she intrinsically becomes the one that falls off the universal and represents only the "female perspective" and is accordingly pushed into the territory of the personal, subjective and non-universal. The problem that I see here and will try to develop further through examples, is not that the work by women artists should be considered universal, similarly to the work done by men, but rather that the male’s view cannot be considered valid for all. Here I will focus on works and curatorial projects created by male artists in which they specifically focus on gender issues or on male and female gender identity, extending one foot beyond the territory of the  stereotypically "universal" and are entering the slippery-slop of the territory outside the stable heteronormative binary, reviewing also varieties in masculine identities. In his photo installation “The Wanted Category” 1996, Kalin Serapionov presents black-and-white portraits of the main male figures in Bulgarian contemporary art, comparing them with his semi-naked self-portrait and another self-portrait in women's clothing. Here he presents the possible performative, but also identitarian deviation from the standard masculinity applied by default to his body of an established male artist. After arriving in Bulgaria, Oleg Mavromatti made the film "The Biggest Meatball in the World" 2001,[35]

starring artist and photographer Boryana Pandova, partnering with the art historian Svilen Stefanov and the artist Rassim. Almost everything happens in a dungeon where power tensions--metaphorical and not so metaphorical to the art world and the contemporary world at large--are resolved with the help of much blood shed. After quite painful but also funny arguments, psychedelic deliriums and a lot of violence, Pandova (in the movie, the characters have no names), appears to be the only survivor. She leaves the dungeon and ends her journey being interviewed by the well-known at the time reporter Ina Grigorova of the Egoist Magazine.[36]

Grigorova asks Pandova how she managed to deal with all these men; Pandova proclaims The Age of Women and the two women head towards the horizon holding hands. Here there is a great deal of irony and criticism to the institutions of art and the power structures of contemporary capitalist society. Women take a dominant and strong position, rarely known in our art and cinema, but typical for male characters. Other actors, who participate with their own names are famous Bulgarian male artists such as Nedko Solakov and Dimitar Yaranov. Pandova's heroine actually physically escapes from the claustrophobic hell of the underground space, but at the same time she escapes from the moral claustrophobia of sexism. [37] 

In 1997, Rassim made his one-year performance „Corrections 1." In it, he makes a record of his bodybuilding workouts, aiming to transform his elegant slim body, into a body with very well-defined muscles following the aesthetics of the most infamous heroes of the 1990s in the post-socialist scape, the so-called "mutri." “Mutri” are the meme of the 1990s. Members of the newly formed mafia, many of them former wrestlers, they demonstrated their body shape widely. Of course, the local side of this aesthetic carries a broader international ideology: it is the ideology of the artificially inflated body, the body of the consumerist era, when movement is not part of everyday life, but is an added activity that happens in a specially dedicated fitness center. This new body culture is not presenting the natural properties of the individual, but the anabolic body sculptures, that follow the life-style imagery in magazines. Rassim has repeatedly showed this work in varieties of interpretational contexts, but most often this performance is regarded as a contemporary critical (but perhaps still caring a big dose of appreciation?) representation of 21st century masculinity. This type of masculinity and its domination in advertising are presented also in his poster "I Love Denitsa" 1996 published in the magazine Izkustvo, in which the semi-naked artist poses with his girlfriend and presents RASSIM as a commercial brand. The RASSIM brand is developed in a series of posters; a gold jar of anabolic steroids; and recently, artist's urine drawings: “Organic Paintings” from various years. This is one of Rassim's last cycles in which he paints bodybuilders' bodies, photographs from his family album, his pregnant wife, his son Iliya or his parents – all of which „went through“ his life system, his body, his male self. „Corrections 2“ 2001 is another departure from the boring normative masculinity, which in this case intertwines with questioning the solidity of religious identities. The 29-year-old Rassim is voluntarily circumcised, which he proclaims to be a sign of acceptance of all religions. The operation was performed by a surgeon in Switzerland and does not have a religion specific ritual characteristics. It is rather a personal ritual, after which the artist starts to wear on his chest a cross, a star and a crescent and the Star of David, embracing peace between religions and nationalities present in Bulgaria. The circumcision ritual, although commonly regarded as a religious one (or as hygiene-puritan tradition as it is in the United States[38]), is actually directly related to masculinity, to initiation, but often also to the trauma of genital mutilation. Since this circumcision is made in a mature age, as a work of art and designed quite consciously by the artist, masculinity becomes the dominant conceptual element. Another artist whose works bear the characteristics of modern masculinity, but also strongly present the fear of losing his white male privileges, is Ventsislav Zankov. While his male dominance can be seen in all of his sculptures and paintings, I will focus only on some trends in his work that support this observation of fear. In his early performances of the 1990s, Zankov performed a messiah, a divine sacrifice, or a priest whose rituals included divine domination. For example, in the performance REDIII 1991, he performs various activities with animal blood, wine, "bread "Dobrudzha" (as he writes in the description) and a human embryo. In the ritual, he also includes the naked passive and immobile body of his female partner, which he pets and kisses. In his description of this performance this woman is described as "aroused": Subsequently, the embryo is removed, blood clots are scattered around the path, the lamb's head has been uncovered and pierced with transfusion needles; the bread broken into pieces and soaked in blood, the wine poured into the water, the naked woman is aroused... In Zankov's painting of the 1990s, the image of women is the image of “beautiful bitches.” He often depicts models from lifestyle magazines, adding captions that comment on these already objectified bodies, further attributing to them the role of perverted self-indulgent beings who sold themselves for money ("Cinderella Married for Money," "Don't Fuck an Angel ”1999). An interesting evolution can be observed in his sculptures - from the infernal flaming dogs and the baby embryos from “F in Fire Stands for Fear” 1997, we gradually move towards these hellish women who are simultaneously suffering for their lost son. Tremoring in Oedipus’, or rather Electra’s fever, they embrace in their laps this son-lover who is actually a god, and consequently the Father (“Pieta” 2009). These incestuous relationships between the characters in Zankov's work gradually lose their apparent gender determination and become angelic or ghostly. In the "Last Pain" 2011, for example, we see a powerful but decaying male body, falling into fragments, and in "The Guardian of the Living" 2011 we see a male figure who receives oral penetration from an androgynous angel, an asexual cherubic body which consists only of wings and a head. We can observe the transformation of a well-defined masculine identity intertwined and interacting with angelic but also monstrous female bodies, which gradually merging into some unisex or asexual corporeality, a ghostly and incorporeal disembodiment, or even in an environment populated just by openings such as mouths, vaginas, and eyes (“New Ghostly Paintings” 2014). These metamorphoses reveal the anxiety characterizing the political and identity instability of the 1990s. In this case, however, these works reveal also the anxiety of a man, who observes the disappearing heteronormativity, and feels threatened by the more fluid concept of gender populating the public perceptions of the 1990s, which seems both terrifying and attractive to him. Zankov's curatorial project "Everything About the Man" 2008 is the culmination of this anxiety in which the artist tries to reinforce this perhaps a bit limited and stiff, even for his own taste very traditional heteronormative masculine image. This is the image of the man who "Does Not Know How to Cook and Does Not Iron."  Thus, is the statement on the T-shirt that Zankov wears in his "Portrait of a Man with a T-shirt 38” 2008 presented in the same exhibition as a public billboard. However, the powerful angel from the 2011 “Guardian of the Living,” which contains the female, the male and the divine, seems to be starting to dominate the later work of this artist, with its plasticity and inclusiveness of identities over the mundane heteronormative labor division, presented and insisted on in the exhibition “All About the Man.”  Conclusion Apart from the aforementioned works, there are many others that need to be considered and analyzed in the context of the ever-changing notions of gender and equality. Domestic violence was addressed by Desislava Dimova and Ivan Mudov in the “Still Life” 2000 series of photographs, by Boris and Gabriela Serginov's performances "Adultery" 1997 and "Domestic Landscape (Bitov peizaz)" 2001, as well as the video in which Rassim has sex with a journalist who asked him to pay that way for an article she would write about him. Their works, though seemingly presenting something mundane, something that everybody knows, actually address aspects of private life, that are constantly politicized. The axis of these reflected politizations are constantly changing depending on the dominance of specific gender identities and gender performance in the manifestations of power on every societal level. Thus, the works of art and the artists who make them, and who often declare their apolitical nature, are in fact involved by default in such a rapidly changing political debate. Perhaps contrary to their understanding, they play a serious role in shaping a culture that adopts or rejects these policies.      

 [1] Krasimira Daskalova, “Women, Gender and Modernization in Bulgaria 1878 – 1944,“ (in Bulgarian), Sofia – Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, 2012. Krasimira Daskalova, “Women Movements and Feminisms in Bulgaria (middle of XIX – to middle of XX centuries),” Sofia: The Bulgarian Association of University Women, 2006. Krasimira Daskalova, “Gender and Transition: 1938-1958” Academic Conference 2011. Center for Women Research and Politics.  

[2] In addition to the right to vote, women receive the right to have free education and free health care, equal pay, the opportunity to work in any sphere of life, two years paid maternity leave and maternity and parental care (which in Bulgaria is one of the most progressive in the world). The Committee of the Bulgarian Women's Movement managed to introduce many of these changes in social policy, despite the fact that its participants often came into conflict with some of the higher levels of the Communist Party. At the same time, in the United States, women currently have two weeks of unpaid maternity leave, with the exception of some private companies or some universities, where there is a paid leave between 3 and 6 months. Kristen Ghodsee, “Pressuring the Politburo: The Committee of the Bulgarian Women's Movement and State Socialist Feminism” Slavic Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (FALL 2014), pp. 538-562 (25 pages), Cambridge University Press 

[3] Krasimira Dаskalova, “Where are the Women in History?” МOVE.BG, April 2, 2017. Ioana Pavlova, “Expansion of the “private” space into the “public”: Magazine “Woman Today” 1954-1958” Sofia: Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” 2011. . Also look at the publication by Sonia Bakish in the magazine “Woman Today.”   

[4] In capitalist countries, feminist groups with different political agendas continue to coexist, albeit in conflict, and the term "feminism" continues to be used for all of them. Maria Dinkova, "Passions for the Great Women's Revolution" In Vezni Magazine, year XIII, #6-7, p. 30.

[5] Dinkova, p. 31.

[6] Maria Vassileva, „Interview with Maria Vassileva on her research in Bulgaria,“ For the exhibition Gender Check: Femininnity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK), Vienna, 2009.

[7] This negative attitude reached its absurd dimensions in 2018, when the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence was declared unconstitutional, including by the Socialist Party, which should have supported at least some basic aspects of the policy of the party it inherited. In this Bulgaria does not differ much from the other post-socialist countries. Dnevnik, "Jesus against “the gender "- to whom did Borissov give in the fight for the convention", February 17, 2018,

[8] Apart from being a generally accepted "truth", these ideas are embodied in films such as “The Sickle and the Hammer “ 1994, directed by Sergei Livnev, "Time is Ours" 2018, directed by Petar Popzlatev.

[9]  I am not going to discuss here the socialist and post-socialist critique of the white western feminism as colonial, I would like to just mention, that this post-colonial critique has a lot in common with the black and third worlds anti-colonial critique of western white feminism that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Bulgarian scholars such as Zhivka Valiavicharska, have studied this intensively. Her book on reproductive labor and socialism will be soon published by Concordia Press. Boryana Rossa, “Feminist Vlogue: In Social Isilation. Conversation with Selma Selman and Zhivka Valiavicharska.” April, 24. 2020.

[10] “Erato’s Version,” exhibitipon catalogue at ICA-Sofia. Sofia: Department of Art Criticism, Union of Bulgarian Artists, 1998.

[11] This trend is clearly seen in the discussions about eroticism in cinema in magazine Kinoizkustvo, with only male participants. Interesting is the position of the female film critic Genoveva Dimitrova, who in her text "Brala moma kupini" (Kultura, № 15, 1991) notes that Bulgarian male sexual shyness had produced series of rape scenes Bulgarian cinema, which are the sublimation of these suppressed by the patriarchal morale male desires. Todor Andreykov, “Innate Shyness or Puritanism (Conversation on Eroticism in Cinema), Kinoizkustwo, November, 1978.

[12] Prior to the formation of the group, there were well-known performances by Nadia Genova and Albena Mihailova (Benji), who addresses in a fragmented way the female view on motherhood (“The Nameless” 1990, “I am Sick and Tired” 1 and 2, 1991). Maria Vassileva, "Interview with Maria Vassileva on her research in Bulgaria," About the exhibition Gender Check: Femininnity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK), Vienna, 2009. “Erato’s Version,” exhibitipon catalogue at ICA-Sofia. Sofia: Department of Art Criticism, Union of Bulgarian Artists, 1998. "The 8th of March: A Brief History of Art in the Last 25 Years in Texts and Pictures" Editor Maria Vassileva. Sofia: Gaudenz Ruf, 2014. 

 [14] Diana Popova, “Feminism / Machismo in Bulgaria?” Curatorial text in the exhibition catalogue „Antifeminism - Antimachismo“ Sofia: Gallery XXL, 2000.  p. 3-4.

[15] I will not hide that this exhibition is one of the favorites in my own biography because of the intensity of the problems presented in it, and the strong works created by the artists involved in it.

[16] Popova, p. 3.

[17] This generational difference, typical for the post-Soviet space, is very well formulated by the art-critic Nadezhda Plungian in her text "Feminist Art in Russia: From Women's Resistance to Queer Issues" In Sofia Queer Forum 2012, (Sofia: Anares), 2012 p. 23. “Sadly, the ideological boundary lies not just between the two epochs, but also between the two generations that occupy one and the same professional territory. From the observations and discussions within the movement, one can clearly see that most of the young female activists and young artists do not feel solidarity with their colleagues, which are one or two generations older; they also rarely seek their support.Calling this a “generational conflict” will probably not be quite correct. But when taklking about the fields of feminist activism and gender studies we cannot deny that the symbolic capital of women from the older generation, as well as the patriarchal facet of their gender roles, provide the opportunity for their partial safeguarding from the direct aggression of contemporary sexism.”

[18] More detailed review of these simultaneous processes I make in Boryana Rossa, “Post-Cold War Gender Performances. Cross-cultural examination of gender performances viewed through film reenactments.” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute : Troy, New York May, 2012.

[19] Regarding cyberfeminism, the hybridization between humans and machines and how this affects gender identity, read Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century“, (1985), in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

 [20] This installation is part of my doctoral dissertation, dedicated to gender performances in Bulgarian cinema, conducted in Rensselaer, Troy, NY, 2012.  Boryana Rossa, “Post-Cold War Gender Performances. Cross-cultural examination of gender performances viewed through film reenactments.

[21] Boryana Rossa, “What is a feminist Workshop?” edited by Boryana Rossa, p. 3-10, Sofia: Anares, 2013.

[22] For more detailed review of how women artists had transitioned from resisting to call themselves feminists, to calling themselves feminists in the 2000s read:  Rossa, Boryana. “Women’s” topics and the feminism in the Bulgarian art as a function of the transition from socialism to capitalism,” in Feminist Horizons: Violence, Labor, Mobilizations, edited by Kaline Drenska et al. p. 258-298. Sofia: LevFem 2019.   

[23] I decided touse "nationalist" here, although the word "patriotic" is more often used as an adjective about this film, to reflect the process of unifying the two words in the recent years. This equivalence of nationalism and patriotism is also reflected in the critical publications about the film. Emil Georgiev, “Voevoda: Cliché after Cliché, My Dear Mother: The Enthusiasm will be Big and Applauds will Lurk Around the corner, but…”  Plostad Slaveikov, 14.01.2017. Martin Kasabov, “Voevoda:”, 2017-01-20. Anite Dimitrova, “Voevoda” : Admirations for the Bravery, Critique for the Execution,” # 5782 (16) January, 20th 2017,

[24] Analysis of Rumema’s character by feminist audience can be found in: Boryana Rossa, DTOUR: Women in Bulgarian Film,” 2020, 48 min.

[25] Vladiya Mihaylova, “Sofia Queer Forum, 2015: Sweet Union,” Sofia: Collective for Social Interventions, 2015.[26] Iskra Blagoeva, “never Forever” bureau artrecord, 2015. 

[27] Vaska Emanuilova 1905-1985. A gallery on her name has been established in Sofia Emanuilova is one of the most popular women monumental sculptors in Bulgaria, who worked during socialism and made the central sculptural group of the biggest socialist monument in Sofia, the one of the Soviet Army 1954.

[28] One of the very few studies of this culture and period has been started by Vladiya Mihailova and Dessislava Dimova, 2015.




[32] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century“, (1985), in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

[33] In 2009 I have curated a bio-art exhibition dedicated to this topic. “Corpus Extremus (Life+), Exit Art, 2009: a New Class of Being: The Extended Body by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. (originally presented in The Transvergence stream of the ISEA06/Zero1 conference and published in intelligent agent 06.02

[34] The categories real, imaginary and symbolic, which determine subjectivity and are basic for Lacan’st psychoanalysis in this performance can be reviewed as follwos the imaginary is the physical body, the symbolic is the mirror image and the real is the border between the real body and its mirror image, where the stitching appears. Jacques Lacan, “The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis,” New York; London : W.W. Norton, 1998, c1973.[35] Producer Boryana Rossa.

[36] Egoist is a famous life-style magazine from the 1990s, which had continued to exist in varieties of forms until now. By reflecting contemporary culture, and featuring jornalists, who are also interested in art and culture, the magazine is a good diary of its time, especially in a general lack of cultural publicity at the time.

[37] Photos of the film production are a part of my photo series “The Good Woman, the Bad Woman and the Ugly Man” 2001.  „The Biggest Meatbal In the World“ 2001, Distributed by CINEFANTOM.[38] In USA boys are most of the time circumcised for hygenic reasons, although reaserch shows that this tradition had started in Victorian times, to prevent mastrubation, which was considered a sin. W. Dunsmuir and E. Gordon, “The history of circumcision.” BJU INTERNATIONAL, Volume 83, Suppl. 1: Pages 1-12, January 1, 1999.

Boryana Rossa, 2019