This is the first part of a conversation between Bulgarian/Dutch visual artist and researcher Hristina Tasheva and EEP's Maya Hristova covering the beginnings of Tasheva's career as a photographer, her migration to the Netherlands and her book "The Queen of the Animals and the Most Beautiful Gardens" that was published in 2017. In 2018 the "Queen..." was followed by another book, "In Belief Is Power" which will be discussed separately in the second part of this interview. Both books were made possible with the financial support of the Dutch Mondriaan Fund which also selected Hristina as a recipient of its Scholarship for Established Artists for her research on the collective memory of communism in Bulgaria and the Netherlands including the Bulgarian labor camps, a project called "Encyclopedia of Pain".
Hristina Tasheva is one of the most brilliant and highly original contemporary visual artists coming from Bulgaria today. Her artistic practice deals in depth with polarizing issues such as migration and identity which are largely discussed and, to this day, little understood in the context of EU realities and politics. Her ability to interweave the personal into the bigger picture of Europe's social issues helps us gain invaluable insights into the lives of those less powerful in the otherwise well-educated democratic societies of contemporary Europe. Shining nuanced light on aspects regarding the blind cultural racism and migrant discrimination in the West as well as in the East of the continent, Hristina has continuously maintained a firm position as a citizen and as an artist.
All images represented in this article are direct scans from the book.
You are a visual artist, originally from Varna, a city by the Black Sea in the east of Bulgaria. After studying Economics in your hometown, you decided to move to the Netherlands, where you have been living for 18 years now. What did this move mean to you back then?
Well, I did not want to go at first. I had just graduated from the University of Economics in Varna. Leaving home was motivated by financial reasons. I set off with a loan, a small bag with clothes, a small photo album and a huge amount of naivety, mixed with socialist idealism. I thought it would have been a short trip, I was excited to see what kind of world will be unveiled to my soul. In a way, it was the beginning of a long-awaited adventure.
One of your first projects is "A Better Life" (2007) which appears on your website as one image and a long body of text. The photograph shows you looking up from a closet full of dirty shoes, a vacuum cleaner and other cleaning utensils. Below lies the body of text without any form of punctuation or formatting, a written collection of all the daily tasks you had received as a cleaner by your employers in the Netherlands. In an interview you describe your first experiences in the new country as follows: "With time I noticed that people don’t see me. I had become a part of their interior, they did not care to pronounce my name correctly; they were not showing any interest in where I came from or who I was." To what extent is your work as an artist grounded in your experience as an immigrant?
"A Better Life" was one of my first projects. It actually contains more images of the houses which I was cleaning, as well as self-portraits. The full title is "A better life or an attempt at psychological therapy" and was presented in the documentary “The Houses of Hristina” (2007) by Suzanne Raes.
During the first two years of my stay in the Netherlands, I was an illegal immigrant. As such, I had to work on the black market where I could choose between household work, agriculture, construction, you can imagine the remaining opportunities. My father had always told me that there is no shameful profession if you get by with honest labor. In reality, as an immigrant despite the fact that you work in an honest manner, you are deprived of your political rights as a citizen and you remain outside the system. And is that not the point – the unwanted jobs are to be "given up" to illegal immigrants, whose presence everyone is aware of, but who have no rights and no reason to settle. In this way, people are turned into modern-day slaves: bodies, body-robots, programmed bodies. The self-portrait I made in the cabinet is a visualization of me questioning where my place is and do I exist; in what circumstances does the body become an inanimate object.
When Suzanne Raes told me she wanted to make a movie about my everyday life, I agreed. I was hoping that we can refute the clichés, which the right-wing parties create about the migrant as someone who is willing to do anything in order to drain the social system while contributing nothing to society, as some sort of social trash.
Today, I continue to express my position as a migrant, an artist and a citizen via the medium of photography, as I try to give myself an answer to questions like do we have the right to belong and how does our presence influence the concept of nationalism, how to expose and fight the methods and strategies that turn someone into a body, a number, and an invisible being, or what are the factors needed to transform the feeling of loss and nostalgia into nomadic cultural richness and freedom, what does it mean to possess an identity in a globalized world?
Eventually, you finished your BAs at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and your MAs at St. Joost in Breda. How did your studies and local culture open up new ways for you to explore the themes that you have devoted your work to?
The first photography lessons I received were in Leo Erken’s studio. In the evenings and weekends over the course of four years I worked on my first projects, I taught myself to develop black and white films and photos in the darkroom. At that time, I had put photography on a pedestal.
When I started my training at Gerrit Rietveld, the way I expressed myself changed. My photographs turned into colorful images, the pedestal crumbled. I was trying to build some kind of a constructed language looking for metaphors. I included paper sculptures, I wrote texts, I acted out scenes and then I photographed them. I taught myself how to develop and express my ideas better and better each time, absolute freedom from all kinds of rules. I allowed myself to be cynical.
After a two-year period, I continued my education at St. Joost in Breda. I needed to give a better shape to the questions I was examining; to support my visual practice with theory and the other way around; to orient myself as to where my artistic practice belongs on the map of art; to define clear goals so that I could continue developing as an artist.
The fully international environment at the Dutch art academies with its variety which brings along the opportunities for development is what shaped and influenced my methods of work entirely. There are no limits, it is all up to you as an artist, your motivation to work, your quest for new knowledge, your ability to dive into personal projects.
Today we are going to talk about two of your latest book projects, which came out shortly after each other - "The Queen of the Animals and the Most Beautiful Gardens" (2017) and "In Belief Is Power" (2018). Although, we will talk in detail about each one, could you introduce us to the themes of these two works? How are they connected?
Both projects exist in book format and are related to Bulgaria and the political, economic and social factors, which determine the situation in the country. The main topic is the migration of people to and from the country but looked at from two different angles. I tried to put Bulgaria in the context of what is happening in Europe while presenting my work to a wide and diverse audience with different backgrounds. Of course, the interpretation is mine, and completely subjective. I always look for some sort of personal gateway to the topics which I work with so that I can assert the result. What I state is always from my perspective, from the stance I have taken, I don’t allow myself to comment from the perspective of others – that is such a wide concept.
What was the process of inventing the visual language we see in "The Queen..."?
"The Queen…" is a portrait of the country in which I was born and my mother at the same time. During the process of developing the project, I decided that I will concentrate only on the material which I had from the neighborhood in which my mother lives in and her living space, as in my view, it was quite representative of the whole country. All of this under the condition that what I create is half-fiction. My stories are never completely autobiographical; what happens to me is a kind of starting point and to it, I add "the knowledge" accumulated through theory, any other research on the subject, stories I have found on the internet. In "The Queen…" I was looking for the metaphors of this generalized image of the mother – mine and that of the home country and that is why we cannot talk about a recreated documentary image.
One of the purposes of this project was to express what the migrant loses when choosing to live in another country. My mother’s illness became the reason why I approached these questions from this perspective. The pain, the loneliness, the guilt, the destruction of one’s hope, these are all related to a person’s spiritual world and perhaps that is why close-ups, bright colors, the transitions between the seasons, and the fully filled pages came to be predominant while shaping the book.
In the first sentence of the preface to "The Queen…" you say "When shown in West European news, Bulgaria (my homeland) is described as the poorest EU Member State." You have a way of expressing painful personal observations and experiences through objective facts without sounding apologetic or shying away from being political. How do you manage to achieve that balance?
I am neither a writer nor an activist and as an artist engaging in political topics, I use photography and text as the mediums I work in. In my opinion, the commentary on the common/political is possible only through the personal, subjective, poetic. Everything we do as individuals is related to politics, society, social interactions and that is why for me the personal is political. My whole life up until now has been marked by this. This tie finds its reflection in the combination of cold general facts with personal, emotional experiences. From psychological research, it has become clear that people react with their hearts to that in which they believe in, not to statistical investigations. Hence the triumph of fake news nowadays. That is why in my practice, I have chosen to seek the balance between facts and emotions when communicating with a potential audience. This is possible through a kind of artistic intuition, a feeling of when you have reached the line, which you should not cross so that your work does not become too sentimental, nostalgic or moralizing unless the point is to cross this border. For me, the balance is a matter of sensibility which develops over time.
Where does your need to photograph come from?
The need to photograph relates to the need to voice my position, my desire to tell stories, to ask questions. Photography has become a universal visual language that we all share: it is approachable and familiar to everyone. It is a language I rely on to communicate with a broader audience. The way images are made, spread and applied reminds me of folklore with its anonymity, poetry, amateurism, horizontal structure of sharing life as a main source of inspiration. My images, following this tendency, are non-commercial and anti-neoliberal, marginal and folkloristic, poetic, subjective, semi-fictional, not made especially for the privileged in society, but aiming towards everyone.
Above all, this is a work about the mother. In an interview, you say your mother did not contact you when she fell ill, because she did not want to worry you. In the text to the book, you quote a friend saying "Maybe that is why your mother is ill because you left her alone." Her presence can be sensed all throughout the work, but you never show her face or let her speak directly, why is that?
For better or for worse, no one knows how much time they will spend with their loved ones. If you had known what would you do? Would you have made other decisions, like not emigrating for instance? When my mother told me about her illness I decided that we should spend more time together. The first time I got back home for two months, but soon I realized that despite everything life goes on and that somehow we would not do more together than we usually had done earlier. At the same time, it was as if in a way my life had stopped, because I had not lived in Bulgaria for a long time. The book "The Queen…" is a project in which my mother, my sister, my husband and I took part as if in some sort of ritual which marked the limits of our lives and strengthened the bonds between us. We understood that all of us had to continue on the path we had chosen.
The quotes in the text of the book are real. For me, they were part of the motivation for the creation of this project and food for thought for the ones that will read them. If there are answers they will be crafted individually and personally. My work as an artist ends at formulating the questions.
My mother’s face is absent due to the fact that she "plays" the role of the mother. This is not a documentary story but a kind of performance. At the same time, I went along with her request not to show her face.
Her words are present as quotes – the title is a sentence she said, as well as the words in her short text, which is also a part of the book.
In "The Queen…" we often feel the mood changing. In some images it is warm, we are inside the home, in the womb, life is everywhere, and the viewer almost becomes one with the reality of the book. Towards the end, there is a separation felt, we are lead outside, objects and textures lose their meaning. How did you go about constructing this reality?
The construction of this narrative is related to two images – my mother and the motherland, the motives of home, identity and belonging and the idea of nationalism. Where is home, who/what creates it and how does each person identify what constitutes their belonging?
My home is where my family is, my loved ones, friends, people I know, places where I live and that is why I can identify with them. I could not feel the same towards people and places that I do not know as a result of some nationalistic principle. The idea of belonging based on the notion of a nation bound to a given territory is unacceptable in my view, it causes conflicts and it is alien to human nature.
All this is reinforced by the overall book aesthetic. It consists of full-bleed images filling its pages almost without a break, while the image quality reminds of postcards printed in the 70s or 80s. What were some of the main decisions involved in the design and editing of this photo book?
I worked on the editing of the book with my husband Edwin Stolk, who is also an artist and sadly lost his mother 10 years ago. My initial idea was to include photographs made over the course of 15 years of coming back home during the summer and winter times, images I had taken all over the country. Eventually, we decided to leave out everything that was not from home or my mother’s neighborhood in order to zoom in on the details, creating an almost cinematic feeling, a still sequence shot entirely in close-up. In order to achieve the intensity which we were aiming for, we decided that the photographs should fill in the pages, while we compensated the lack of "air" with a larger format book.
For the design of the front cover, we worked with designer Emmy van Thiel further shaping the text and the printing of the book. We combined printing on a Comcolor printer (inkjet with soy ink) and Risograph (only black color) at the Charles Nypels Lab in Maastricht. Each page of the book was printed twice on the same piece of paper. By doing this, we managed not only to achieve a deeper contrast but an effect that lends the image with finer haptics and materiality due to the mismatching of the two machine printers.
The print on the front cover was done using the same method and in the end, we added a screen print with varnish so that when the book is held the Risograph layer doesn’t smear.
The book also became part of the student selection of the Best Dutch Book Designs 2017. Could you tell us about what we see on the cover?
For the cover, I chose a photograph of a film still from a Bulgarian socialist propaganda documentary film which I saw many years ago in the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia. It shows the helicopter which carried away the red pentagram from the building of the former Communist Party Headquarters on the 4th of October 1990.
"The Queen..." Book Cover | The Dismantling of the Red Star (Video)
In one of the previous issues of the Unseen magazine Joana L. Cresswell says "Like photography, plants are both evidence and allegory, illustrative, but with endless narrative potential. They traverse the fields of anthropology, anatomy, sexuality, geography, politics, cultural history and more, allowing photographers to co-opt the visual languages of each realm for their own practices." In "The Queen…" we see plants and flowers in the form of patterns on clothes, as a reflection in the mirror, wild grass growing behind the apartment block, a tattoo on the back of a woman or a bouquet of wildflowers. What role did you assign to the plants in the garden of your book? How is this work a comment to the material world we live in today?
I like your expression "in the garden of your book" or the garden of the Queen, which again points to a created world or an improved world. The life "inside" is orderly, "nurtured", the plants there exist with some kind of purpose – to make it more beautiful, to introduce variety or to serve as food and as such they reflect an inner world. "Outside" life looks oppressed by concrete. Whenever there is an opening of space the grass thrives and somehow manages to maintain its color despite the changes in the weather. The plants are thus transformed into metaphors in a world where materiality is a constant that can only be overcome with imagination. That is why for some the world created in the book will be beautiful, precious and personal; and for others, it will be ugly, strange and sinking in ruin.
The baked paprika with tomato sauce, the interiors, and the old cars - you reveal a world that could belong to the past, but not quite. I like very much a quote by the owner of Akina books Valentina Abenavoli "If a viewer is reflecting the past within a photograph with an attitude of the present, then there inevitably may be a risk of partially invoking the future." Do you feel this relates to "The Queen…"?
The world I have constructed in the book may be recognized as past for one, present for others and future for the rest. Time is a relative term. My life in two different countries at the same time, along with my journeys to other places around the world, create a present that I can compare only to fiction, while time-traveling is possible. When it comes to a person’s physical, anatomical existence - its beginning and end are pre-defined by birth and death. I believe that in our existence in between we have the opportunity to develop our imagination and spirituality.