Travel Essay in Art: Sofia

March 17, 2019

At Structura Gallery, Sofia with an art work by Kirik Kuzmanov

It’s springtime in Sofia. Maria Vassileva gives me a Martenitza to pin on my jacket. It’s a pagan tradition for the beginning of spring, a bringer of good health and good luck. On the first of March you give the Martenitza to friends and when you see the first blooming you can take it off and hang it in the tree. 



When I arrive, it’s an overcast day in Sofia. It’s very quiet in the city. “Is it always like this?” I ask Maria. “This weather makes our blood pressure goes down,” she laughs. When the sun comes out the next day, the volume turns up.  

Maria advices me to look down while walking on the sidewalks in Sofia. There are holes everywhere where you could easily stick your foot in. But renovations are on their way in the city. Maria is skeptical. The new pavements are aesthetically ugly, she says. Traffic regulation is basically the only thing the city is really good at. When you cross the street, cars actually stop. 

From my hotel window I observe the cats in the backyard. Sofia is a cat city. They multiply in the backyards. Although it’s a wonderful 20 degrees outside, hotel Diter keeps its heating on in the breakfast room. The cheese melts before it gets on my toast. 

Around the corner of hotel Diter there is Sun Moon. It’s a fancy café where you can eat self-made vegan cookies. I send A. a picture. “Why are you sitting there?”, he says, “You can also eat that in Berlin.” At the neighboring table a woman puts her fork straight in her beet burger and brutally scratches it on the surface of her plate. It’s ear-crunching and I consider suggesting to the staff the use of chop sticks. It would enhance their slow food concept.  


On the terrace of Sun Moon

I do my best to have an authentic Bulgarian food experience. The first night Maria invites me to her brother’s restaurant Spaghetti Kitchen. I have a moussaka that unlike the Greek version doesn’t contain aubergines, which makes it less greasy. Afterwards Maria buys us some baklava. The second day I have a kind of börek with yoghurt sauce, spicy meatballs and a salad in the colors of the Bulgarian flag: tomatoes, cucumbers, and white cheese. Just the looks of it makes me feel satisfied. 


Bulgarian salad

I’m told to visit the Natural History Museum. It’s the oldest museum in Bulgaria. In 1886 it opened with Prince Ferdinand’s personal collection of birds, mammals and butterflies. Apparently Ferdinand liked to shoot until he was shot himself and the First World War started.


At the Natural History Museum, Sofia

Maria shows me the Sofia City Art Gallery where she was a chief curator. We walk by twice and each time Maria points out in amazement: “I worked here for seventeen years!” She seems to have a hard time believing it herself. 

Now, after having been a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Art and a chief curator at the National Gallery, Maria is the director of her own institution: the Structura Gallery, which has the most amazing architecture. A young Bulgarian architectural team renovated the building and if you look out of the large front window you see the back of the central post office. It has a New York’s meat-district-feel to it. While I’m there, artists hop by at Structura Gallery to say hello to Maria. So does Kirik Kuzmanov, who made the curtain for the front window. Upstairs in the office I see other works by Bulgarian artists. One drawing is by Christo. This is the moment it dawns on me that Christo is Bulgarian. 

At the Gallery, Maria is assisted by the wonderful Zoya Petrova. Zoya has an Instagram that tells the life of a dog and a gallerist. Besides dogs, Zoya and I also share a love for French design. She tells me that a lot of French design gets produced in Bulgaria so you can sometimes buy it for cheap in outlet shops. Many things get produced in Bulgaria because of the cheap production costs. The man next to me in the airplane flies monthly to Bulgaria to work at the production site of his company that produces packaging.  

I’m in Sofia to talk about gender in the arts in Germany. Maria tells me she was part of The 8th of March Group, which started out in 1997 and she gives me a publication "The 8th of March Group. A Brief History of Art in the Last 25 Years in Texts and Images". Later I read in a interview with Maria about her “failed attempt to explain to several intellectuals in New York that a group of female artists does not necessarily make it a feminist one. Firing back promptly they assured me that a group is already feminist when more than three women gather together.”

There is the news that the Zaghreb collective What, How & for Whom is appointed to direct Kunsthalle Wien. People in the Sofia art scene are excited. It’s is a good sign for the Balkan, they agree.

On Thursday night everyone is going to the Christo documentary for the opening of the Sofia film festival. I rather go to the opening of the exhibition Chain Reaction at Aether, an experimental platform run by Voin de Voin. At the opening I meet artist Izkra Blagoeva. Izkra tells me she’s working on a series about female murderers.  She also tells me it’s not a good thing to live in a city like Sofia that lies in between two rivers. “Why not?” I  ask her. “The humidity gets into your bones,” she says. 


The fishy shoes of Voin de Voin

Izra is skeptical about Bulgarians. On Woman’s day she plans to demonstrate with a sign that reads “Stop producing Bulgarian kids.” It’s true that Bulgarians can give you that kind of deadpan look. First I thought it was because of the foreign language that nobody welcomed or talked to me while walking into stores. But after Izra’s explanation it seems that Bulgarians are just not into nice small talk, not even as a sales strategy. 

Back in Berlin I come upon a group of Bulgarian expats in the backroom of art space Barbiche. Ina, herself an artist, tells me there are not two rivers in Sofia. There is one quite far away from the city and a very small canal in the city itself. Bulgarians like to make problems, she says, they enjoy to criticize. Ina gives me an example: the new stones on the platforms of the streetcars. First people thought they were too big so they shortened them but now people say they are too short. I point out that, despite their sense for criticism, Bulgarians must like each other. Otherwise they wouldn’t get together in Berlin, right? 

It’s springtime in Sofia. Maria Vassileva gives me a Martenitza to pin on my jacket. It’s a pagan tradition for the beginning of spring, a bringer of good health and good luck. On the first of March you give the Martenitza to friends and when you see the first blooming you can take it off and hang it in the tree.  When I arrive, it’s an overcast day in Sofia. It’s very quiet in the city. “Is it always like this?” I ask Maria. “This weather makes …
At Structura Gallery, Sofia with an art work by Kirik Kuzmanov

It’s springtime in Sofia. Maria Vassileva gives me a Martenitza to pin on my jacket. It’s a pagan tradition for the beginning of spring, a bringer of good health and good luck. On the first of March you give the Martenitza to friends and when you see the first blooming you can take it off and hang it in the tree. 



When I arrive, it’s an overcast day in Sofia. It’s very quiet in the city. “Is it always like this?” I ask Maria. “This weather makes our blood pressure goes down,” she laughs. When the sun comes out the next day, the volume turns up.  

Maria advices me to look down while walking on the sidewalks in Sofia. There are holes everywhere where you could easily stick your foot in. But renovations are on their way in the city. Maria is skeptical. The new pavements are aesthetically ugly, she says. Traffic regulation is basically the only thing the city is really good at. When you cross the street, cars actually stop. 

From my hotel window I observe the cats in the backyard. Sofia is a cat city. They multiply in the backyards. Although it’s a wonderful 20 degrees outside, hotel Diter keeps its heating on in the breakfast room. The cheese melts before it gets on my toast. 

Around the corner of hotel Diter there is Sun Moon. It’s a fancy café where you can eat self-made vegan cookies. I send A. a picture. “Why are you sitting there?”, he says, “You can also eat that in Berlin.” At the neighboring table a woman puts her fork straight in her beet burger and brutally scratches it on the surface of her plate. It’s ear-crunching and I consider suggesting to the staff the use of chop sticks. It would enhance their slow food concept.  


On the terrace of Sun Moon

I do my best to have an authentic Bulgarian food experience. The first night Maria invites me to her brother’s restaurant Spaghetti Kitchen. I have a moussaka that unlike the Greek version doesn’t contain aubergines, which makes it less greasy. Afterwards Maria buys us some baklava. The second day I have a kind of börek with yoghurt sauce, spicy meatballs and a salad in the colors of the Bulgarian flag: tomatoes, cucumbers, and white cheese. Just the looks of it makes me feel satisfied. 


Bulgarian salad

I’m told to visit the Natural History Museum. It’s the oldest museum in Bulgaria. In 1886 it opened with Prince Ferdinand’s personal collection of birds, mammals and butterflies. Apparently Ferdinand liked to shoot until he was shot himself and the First World War started.


At the Natural History Museum, Sofia

Maria shows me the Sofia City Art Gallery where she was a chief curator. We walk by twice and each time Maria points out in amazement: “I worked here for seventeen years!” She seems to have a hard time believing it herself. 

Now, after having been a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Art and a chief curator at the National Gallery, Maria is the director of her own institution: the Structura Gallery, which has the most amazing architecture. A young Bulgarian architectural team renovated the building and if you look out of the large front window you see the back of the central post office. It has a New York’s meat-district-feel to it. While I’m there, artists hop by at Structura Gallery to say hello to Maria. So does Kirik Kuzmanov, who made the curtain for the front window. Upstairs in the office I see other works by Bulgarian artists. One drawing is by Christo. This is the moment it dawns on me that Christo is Bulgarian. 

At the Gallery, Maria is assisted by the wonderful Zoya Petrova. Zoya has an Instagram that tells the life of a dog and a gallerist. Besides dogs, Zoya and I also share a love for French design. She tells me that a lot of French design gets produced in Bulgaria so you can sometimes buy it for cheap in outlet shops. Many things get produced in Bulgaria because of the cheap production costs. The man next to me in the airplane flies monthly to Bulgaria to work at the production site of his company that produces packaging.  

I’m in Sofia to talk about gender in the arts in Germany. Maria tells me she was part of The 8th of March Group, which started out in 1997 and she gives me a publication "The 8th of March Group. A Brief History of Art in the Last 25 Years in Texts and Images". Later I read in a interview with Maria about her “failed attempt to explain to several intellectuals in New York that a group of female artists does not necessarily make it a feminist one. Firing back promptly they assured me that a group is already feminist when more than three women gather together.”

There is the news that the Zaghreb collective What, How & for Whom is appointed to direct Kunsthalle Wien. People in the Sofia art scene are excited. It’s is a good sign for the Balkan, they agree.

On Thursday night everyone is going to the Christo documentary for the opening of the Sofia film festival. I rather go to the opening of the exhibition Chain Reaction at Aether, an experimental platform run by Voin de Voin. At the opening I meet artist Izkra Blagoeva. Izkra tells me she’s working on a series about female murderers.  She also tells me it’s not a good thing to live in a city like Sofia that lies in between two rivers. “Why not?” I  ask her. “The humidity gets into your bones,” she says. 


The fishy shoes of Voin de Voin

Izra is skeptical about Bulgarians. On Woman’s day she plans to demonstrate with a sign that reads “Stop producing Bulgarian kids.” It’s true that Bulgarians can give you that kind of deadpan look. First I thought it was because of the foreign language that nobody welcomed or talked to me while walking into stores. But after Izra’s explanation it seems that Bulgarians are just not into nice small talk, not even as a sales strategy. 

Back in Berlin I come upon a group of Bulgarian expats in the backroom of art space Barbiche. Ina, herself an artist, tells me there are not two rivers in Sofia. There is one quite far away from the city and a very small canal in the city itself. Bulgarians like to make problems, she says, they enjoy to criticize. Ina gives me an example: the new stones on the platforms of the streetcars. First people thought they were too big so they shortened them but now people say they are too short. I point out that, despite their sense for criticism, Bulgarians must like each other. Otherwise they wouldn’t get together in Berlin, right? 

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