Martina Vacheva in conversation with Marie Himmerich

Martina Vacheva (*1988, Plovdiv, Bulgaria) is an artist based in Plovdiv. She graduated from the National Academy of Art in Sofia, majoring in “Book and Print Graphics”, and attended the illustrator’s class of Georg Barber (Atak) at the University of Design and Fine Arts, Burg Giebichenstein in Halle, Germany. Martina’s work has been included in international group and solo shows, among others at KVOST, Berlin, Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires, or Swimming Pool, Sofia. Martina Vacheva is represented by SARIEV Contemporary, where she had her exhibition “Mud” (9 November 2018 – 30 December 2018)At the moment she is preparing a project for Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts 2019 curated by Slavs and Tatars. Marie Himmerich and Martina met for the first time in Plovdiv in 2018. The conversation finally took place via Email and skype talks.

MH: Your approach is strongly influenced by narrative, inspired for example by Bulgarian fairy tales or folk legends. How did this interest come about?

MV: My interest in fairy tales began around 2012 when I was studying at the National Academy of Art in Sofia. As my focus was especially on books I began to collect old editions, firstly because of their graphic language, their layout and illustrations. Later my attention turned in particular towards Bulgarian editions of fairy tales, songs and proverbs dating from the 1920’s and 1930’s. In these, the tales are narrated or recounted very pristinely, I sometimes even came across different dialects, and I was very attracted by their harsh language, stories and motifs that implied a great authenticity. Fairy tales contain much evidence of a nation’s heritage, but also of psychology, of social status, history, lifestyle, fears and joys … 

Kukeri hunting Karakondzoli, 2014, graphic transfer, acrylic, collage on paper, 21,2 х 29,6 cm, Private Collection
The Legend of Katerina’s Den, 2015, graphic transfer, acrylic, watercolor, pencil on paper, 22 x 53 cm

I was also wondering where you find your stories.

Most of the books I found on the different gipsy markets in Bulgaria. Some of the stories that they contain are rather unknown today, some of them can easily be recognized by their heroes while others are worldwide renowned fairy tales that have been transformed from a Bulgarian point of view with regard to their wit and plot. For example, I found the story “Parent Cannibals” which is a Bulgarian version from 1917 of a tale by the Brothers Grimm called “Brother and sister”. I decided to make an edition just with this fairy tale and maintained the language used which is quiet forgotten in Bulgaria today, combining it with a new design and illustrations. I also added some extra Bulgarian mini-plots to the original narrative of the sister and her deer brother, among others the story of a scary woman who made a soup from one of her boobs as she felt forced to offer her husband meat for dinner. Such stories captivated me so much that I continued to search for further folk tales and legends. Sometimes I even go to mountain villages where the old people are keeping stories orally, stories which have been transformed or become a legend just by being retold from one person to another during time. The world now is globalizing so fast that I like to keep these forgotten narratives from the past and give them a new live.

The Soup, 2013, part of the book project “Parents cannibals”, 2013, collage, acrylic on paper,
22 x 53 cm

MH: Another project of yours has been a fanzine edition and meanwhile you are working in all kinds of media, including recent experiments with sculpture. How do you choose your medium?

MV: For me, each material and medium gives a different sense, dynamics and weight of the idea. This functions as a whole – an idea in sync with the choice of media and material, and the way of treating them, as well as deciding about colour and aesthetics. When I studied at the academy, I never thought that I will develop just in that or that direction. For one of my first works, “Serial Portraits” (2015), I chose the concept of the fanzine edition as a form to represent portraits from the actors of cult American TV series dating from the 1990s. These left a lasting impression on a large part of the Bulgarian society, namely at a time when the first western films were shown in the post-communist country. While TV series are a typical, loved, addictive but also highly criticized format in modern pop culture, for me it was interesting that they reproduce and recycle images into pop icons and even create archetypes. 

Serial Portraits, 2015 – 2016, fanzine editions, 13 x 19,7 cm each, colour digital print on recycled offset paper, 26 pages, 100 copies

MH: Your painting practice seems to be very aware of style, reminiscent for example of the traditions of bad or naive painting. Some, as is the case with “Baywatch” (2015), seem to cite the organizational structure of hidden object images, as they are known from children’s books. At the same time, in most of the painting works there is a strong impression of decorative flatness. Are there any stylistic role models or references that matter to you? What role does humour play in this context?

MV: Aesthetics is not just a primary spur for me, but related to an inadequacy that I am seeking for. It is a conscious and purposeful part of my work. The naivety and deskilling oscillating between the form language of children’s drawings and comic are a mirror of the easily digestible pop culture of TV series which produces models of social behaviour and desires that tend to be easily accepted. In my work, humour expressed through irony and grotesque sometimes serves as a parody, sometimes I use it as a critical tool, sometimes it expresses just pure naivety in its clear beautiful form. The Bulgarians are too serious, they can’t joke, everything is so dramatic, dark and heavy, so I like to shake this part and say something against, to provoke questions but in funny way.

Baywatch, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 70 cm
Escrava Isaura, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 cm
Pizza & TV, 2018, from Serial Portraits (“Friends“), acrylic, collage on canvas, 44 x 50 cm

MH: Your ”Postthracians” ceramic series (2017) amongst others refers to the famous Thracian eating utensils which were made in pure gold, such as the Panagyurishte Treasure, one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural treasures and museum objects. The original is especially admired for its precise manufacturing, while your version alludes to the principle of deformation and the sometimes bizarre sensual characteristics of fetishes. How did this ceramic work come about?

MV: The “Postthracian” series is my first ceramic project and uses the antique aesthetics as it can be discovered on the archaeological sites while telling about Bulgarian stereotypes and an understanding of the way of life and aesthetics at the moment. It is like a social cultural portrait that shows different aspects modern Bulgarian society shares with the Thracians, for example their love for gold, as a reference to the imposed culture of kitsch in our country and sought in the objects themselves. Ceramic is a popular material in ancient art which is the main link to its choice for the project. The way of treatment as for example the use of golden crystal glaze, but also general stylistics, motives and symbols are inspired by the ancient Thracian vision. So the series represents the Bulgarian heritage and what will remain of us. However, in my recent gallery exhibition at Sariev Contemporary, “Mud”, I also use ceramic but rather as a reference to its earliest origin as a mud-derived material combined with other materials from nature and to mark the beginning of its evolution as an artistic means.

”Postthracians” series, 2017, Art Collection Telekom, photo: Art Collection Telekom
Tomb (from the ”Postthracians” series), 2017, crystalline glaze ceramic, 30 x 43 x 2 cm, Art Telekom Collectiom, photo: Mitch Brezounek
Come on Uncle to the Gypsy Market (from the ”Postthracians” series), 2017, crystalline glaze ceramic, 23 x 30 cm, Art Collection Telekom, photo: Mitch Brezounek
Amphora Head of Slut (from the ”Postthracians” series), crystalline glaze ceramic, 30 x 23 cm, Art Telekom Collection, photo: Mitch Brezounek
Baa (from the ”Postthracians” series), 2017, crystalline glaze ceramic, 19 x 24,5 x 24 cm, Art Collection Telekom, photo: Art Collection Telekom

MH: “Mud” has had a strong scenic quality, some works appeared like requisites for a plot, others contained segments of landscape. Could you tell us more about it and how the single pieces relate to each other?

MV:  This project is inspired from Bulgarian legends and motifs of lost fairytales which are – as “Mud” itself – a reflection of human nature, its evolution and decline. The works are a combination of ceramics with other natural materials which bear information on their own, such as dry grass, stones, branches, fertilizer, ash, lichens, mosses, clumps of mud. All of them are materials that decompose or convert into sand and ashes or that blot themselves out or take another form. So they mark a natural cycle as is expressed by the transformation of matter into dust, the decay of nature and its rebirth into another existence. The work “Stupid hatch stupid” (2018) for example refers to a tale about three stupid men hatching one egg together. Here the idea of “rebirth” is to be understood metaphorically as the reproduction of the ever same problems or mistakes. “Become a stoned mushroom” (2018), another sculpture in the exhibition, is inspired by the eponymous legend in which the heads of sisters that have been decapitated by hostile warriors turn into stone, taking the form of mushrooms. Such mushroom-shaped rocks really exist in Kurdzhali, a town in the south of Bulgaria. But a mushroom is also a living organism that grows from the ground or from excrements. So all of the sculptures are communicating on different layers, be it stories, symbols or eustasy. Formally they resemble rocks or fluid forms that are naturally shaped by overlapping and demolition. Such can be found for example in the caves of Snejanka which means Snowflake and that I also used as inspiration. Hence also the choice of a glaze close to earthly, natural colours such as green brownish nuances.

Sketch for the installation of ”Mud” (9 Nov – 30 Dec 2018), at Sariev Contemporary, Plovdiv
Cave Snejanka, Bulgaria, photo: the artist
Golden Fever Shake the Death, 2018, crystalline glaze ceramic, porcelain, dry grass, 91 x 34 x 20 cm, photo: Maria Djelebova
Chevalier, 2018, glaze ceramic, clay, horse manure, dry grass, 138 x 80 x 40 cm, photo: Maria Djelebova
Stupid hatch Stupid (detail), 2018
Stupid hatch Stupid, 2018, glaze ceramic, clay, styrofoam, cinder, lichens, mosses, dried grass, epoxy resin, 128 х 50 х 50 cm, photo: Maria Djelebova
The Mask of Darkling mystic, 2018, glaze ceramic, clay, dried branches, 92 x 47 x 91 cm,
Snake Pit, 2018, dried branches, acrylic, pencil, charcoal on paper, 170 х 121 x 40 cm, photo: Maria Djelebova
Become a Stoned Mushroom, 2018, glaze ceramic, clay, styrofoam, cinder, lichens, mosses, dried grass, epoxy resin, 104 х 50 х 56 cm, photo: Maria Djelebova
Installation view ”Mud”, Sariev Contemporary, Plovdiv, photo: Maria Djelebova

MH: As concerns your more recent ceramics, such effects of the surface come especially into focus. I guess that it is quite complex to create them. How did you acquire the necessary skills to handle the material this way? 

At the end of 2016 I moved to live for a while in France, in a village near Lorient along with my boyfriend’s family. His mother, Florence Vivien, recently founded a family ceramic atelier called “Poterie de Kerouzine”. Thanks to her, I managed to learn more about the material and techniques of ceramic. With regard to the works in “Mud”, I actually spent a lot of time on their texture in modelling, applying different natural materials like feathers, stones or twigs on clay to make it not look artificial. Besides, Brittany is a really beautiful region with medieval architecture in front of high mystic forests and near the Atlantic Ocean where a lot of sea and Celtic legends were born. However, while I did the ceramics after my sketches in Brittany, I created the pedestals for the sculptures in the garden of my Bulgarian atelier in Brestnik. 

Making of „Become a Stoned Mushroom“ (detail), photo: the artist
Chevalier (detail), 2018
Making of „Become a Stoned Mushroom“ (detail), photo: the artist

MH: You are based in Plovdiv, a city which is about two hours away from Sofia. You’ve been abroad several times however you decided to come back to live and work in Bulgaria. Could you tell us a bit about the artistic scene on site and what you appreciate about it?

MV: Plovdiv is a very valuable city for me аpart from the fact that I am originally from there. It is one of the oldest cities in the world with a highly layered history, and has not accidentally been chosen as the Capital of European Culture this year. It is also a city that has always paid attention to art and also inspired the making of it. There are many people devoted to Plovdiv and who are willing to stay here and change the city in a good way. The gallery that I am working with –  Sariev Contemporary – is also based in Plovdiv and one of the most important engines that propels contemporary art in the city and culture on a large scale. Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria, but not so huge in size. It is close to the capital Sofia, but not far from the mountains and nature too, where, in the village of Brestnik, my parents created a house with an atelier. There is good reason for this, as apart from me, also my love Mitch Brezounek and my older sister Iva Vacheva, who is a great painter, work as artists. So it provides perfect conditions to live calmly and happily and to develop as an artist. I don’t need to live and work in an art capital like New York or Berlin to create my art. I just need a simple live. And I think it is good not to escape completely from the problems of an underdeveloped country like Bulgaria but to give what you can and share your knowledge. 

In Sofia, too, the contemporary art scene is changing very fast, in a positive way. Over the last few years, more and more serious spaces for contemporary art have been opened – Swimming Pool, Structura Gallery, Æther …– and many high-quality exhibitions and projects are taking place. Accordingly, this creates an environment that drives and creates conditions for the many artists who chose to live outside of Bulgaria because of the bad conditions for professional progress in the 1990’s, and who now return back to the country to live and work here as well. So these are factors that motivate me to stay and be part of this change. Anyway, we live in open times – I travel a lot, I am here and everywhere, but Plovdiv is very special to me and has a big potential. There is still much to be desired, but we are in good direction.

MH: Thank you a lot!

Become a Stoned Mushroom on earth pedestal in the artist’s garden, Brestnik 2018, photo: the artist
Earth pedestals for ”Mud” in the artist’s garden, Brestnik, 2018, photo: the artist

Marie Himmerich is an art historian and independent curator currently based in Baden-Baden, Germany. In 2018 she was a grant holder of the CLICK-Residency for curators in Sofia, Bulgaria, realized by the Goethe-Institut Bulgaria, the Art Affairs and Documents Foundation and Credo Bonum Gallery, Sofia.

Courtesy for all works if not otherwise stated: the artist and Sariev Contemporary, Plovdiv