The Other Bulgarian Women: the show dividing a country

22 February 2022
Images: Misho

The artworks in The Other Bulgarian Women show women in Bulgarian national dress, flowers in hand, looking down from three-dimensional plexiglass portraits. The lights which illuminate their faces and surroundings change colour in time with electronic beats, mixed with the voices of a Bulgarian polyphonic choir. They look like modern-day Orthodox icons.

The images are recreations of paintings of peasant women by esteemed Bulgarian artist Vladimir Dimitrov. But the eight women featured in the modern-day photographs are trans.

The Other Bulgarian Women is a mixed media show by the artist and PR specialist Misho, also known as Mihail Vuchkov. The exhibition is set to open on International Women’s Day at a gallery run by LGBTQ+ NGO Single Step in Sofia. But the show has stirred outrage in Bulgaria’s national media ever since the beginning of February, when it was announced to coincide with Dimitrov’s 140th birthday.

“National identity is hard to blend with LGBTQ+ rights [in Bulgaria],” Misho told The Calvert Journal. “Nationalists would say that through my art I am changing the meaning of history — as a criticism. They don’t want trans women to wear our traditional dress, and touch our symbolic Bulgarian rose. But LGBTQ+ people are Bulgarian, just like everyone else in this country.”

The controversy only increased when news broke that Misho had received state funding to create the series, via a 2020 Ministry of Culture grant promoting equality. The grant had amounted to £4,000 — roughly enough to cover two of the eight works.

Despite the small sum, some commentators demanded the Minister of Culture’s resignation, and on 15 February some of the staff on the commission that awarded Misho the grant were asked to resign. Half of the members did.

“The fact that the authorities gave me some money is important because it was the first time that the Bulgarian government acknowledged that Bulgarian trans women exist. For me, the biggest trans problem in Bulgaria is visibility. We know that somewhere there are trans people in our society, but we’re only fine with them because we’re not seeing them,” he said.

Although the outrage is recent, The Other Bulgarian Women has in fact been in the making for 12 years. The idea for the show came to Misho in in 2010, when he returned to Bulgaria after an MA in Media Studies at New York’s New School. Misho was sharing a flat with his ex-boyfriend and his friend Natasha Rich, a trans woman at the start of her transition. Rich, who features in one of Misho’s plexiglass paintings, was then working as a makeup artist for the Japanese brand Shiseido in Sofia. But that year, Rich decided to join the Sofia Pride Parade. The next day, she lost her job. Officially, she was let go due to the financial crisis, but Misho believes it was because Rich had been seen on TV during the parade. “I wanted to help her, so I went to Sofia Pride Parade, the only LGBTQ+ NGO we had in Bulgaria at the time (now we have six), to see how we could get her job back. They told me: ‘Misho, you are naive, you spent too much time in New York City, we cannot do anything about a queer person being fired in Bulgaria.’”

Unable to find another job, Rich moved out of Sofia, and back in with her parents in Dobrich, in north-eastern Bulgaria. “When somebody is fighting, you should respect her will to follow her dreams, her personality. Instead, the only thing Natasha got was a slap on her face,” Misho says. “I decided to do something. I started doing research on trans identity. I had to do my homework because as a gay man, I didn’t know much about trans issues: in the LGBTQ+ community, we are very segregated — lesbians hang out together, gays have their own cliques, trans people have their own separate communities — and Natasha was the first trans person I got to know closely.”

The Other Bulgarian Women sees Misho reach back to a time where cis women were similarly discriminated against

Misho wanted to find uplifting examples of trans women fighting for their happiness in Bulgaria. But it took several years until he found eight people who wanted to act as models. “Every single one of them told me the same story: that they’d go dressed as women to job interviews and just get asked if they are “really” women: no professional questions. After multiple rejections, they’d get tired, and start presenting as guys. One of them had such gender dysphoria that she had to take a shower and go to sleep fully-dressed.”

The Other Bulgarian Women sees Misho reach back to a time where cis women were similarly discriminated against. “I wondered what artist portrayed women before they got their rights? Dimitrov’s name came to my mind. The vast majority of his works represent peasant women working in the fields, picking fruit in a village in the Kyustendil province between 1924 and 1938, as changes in women’s rights were only starting to happen in major cities.”

Initially, Misho took photographs recreating Dimitrov’s portraits, but was displeased with the result. So, together with an engineer, he created plexiglass installations with LED lights, so that the colours of each artwork change roughly 50 times every 20 minutes. The changing shades are a particularly potent metaphor for gender and our perceptions of it. “Every conversation, every experience adds something to your personality,” Misho says. “I wanted the viewer to connect with the picture.”

The final show, opening on 8 March, will also include a documentary telling the stories of five of the women portrayed in Misho’s works. The artist’s former housemate, Rich, also features in the film. Now living in France, with a job and a long-term boyfriend, she is much more fulfilled. Meanwhile, Misho believes the scandal is just part of the process in fighting for trans rights in Bulgaria. “For the first time in our history, in all of our national media, we speak about trans people,” he says.

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