Visitors to Sofia's Nevsky Square will be familiar with the small embroidery market staffed by middle-aged women. But some of their designs have changed...
Needlepoint lace, colourful blankets and finely embroidered linen squares form the mainstay of the product on display. The artefacts represent a connection with Bulgaria's folk roots as well as a great opportunity for tourists to pick up a few light gifts. But such brief exchanges, haggling over a few leva, leave little time to uncover real lives and personal histories.
Meet American artist Anya Lewin. She has embarked upon an unusual project aimed at analysing the economic issues facing the stallholders. Anya has already made a number of studies of workingclass communities in the West, most recently assessing the decline of the steel industries in the American city of Pittsburgh and Cardiff in the UK. Now she has turned her attention to the fate of the Bulgarian women at the market, some of whom have “regressed” from solid industrial jobs to makeshift small craft businesses exposed to the elements.
Anya was artist in residence at InterSpace, a media arts organisation located in Sofia. During her time there she met many people and tried to assess Bulgarian culture inside the EU. She fell in love with Bulgaria and its rawness, a complete contrast to her adoptive UK where the “nanny state” seems set on micro-control of citizens' lives.
She was particularly struck by the traditional craft activities of the women working in Nevsky Square. She noticed that the processes of embroidery bore a striking resemblance to early low-resolution computer video graphics. Of these video games, Pacman is probably the most well known and, according to “The Killer List of Video Games” (www.klov.com), the most popular arcade game of all time.
During her residency, Anya began reworking the original graphics for Pacman and came up with the idea of embroidering the entire game board. She replaced the game's original ghost figures with European countries' flags and Pacman himself was transmuted into a European flag - complete with open mouth. The consequent tablecloth design humorously suggests a federal Pacman gobbling up as many of the 27 EU members as it can. Anya professes that she can never see a “United States of Europe” emerging from the current EU. She points out that the last thing Europeans want is a homogenised mass that swallows up individual cultures.
Anya became close to some of the women. A few of them are now producing up to 10 multi-coloured designs from her digital graphics. Some of them are just topping up meagre pensions, while for others it's a full-time occupation that supports their families.
Ani, one of the stallholders at the market, speaks openly about the change in her circumstances during the Transition Period. What had been a quiet hobby suddenly became a means of economic survival. Ani had worked as a telephone dispatcher in a factory in Pernik when, along with her colleagues, she was suddenly made redundant. Her story chimes with the experience of many older Bulgarians. For several years during the early 1990s chaos prevailed until the present state of relative calm was achieved.
Another one of the women, Dora, worked as an electronics engineer for most of her life. She too has managed to keep her family going by running a stall. She is resigned to her loss of status in the eyes of former colleagues, which is strange given the skills required to produce such embroidery. Her neighbouring stall holder, Reni, worked as an urban planner before 1990 and misses the camaraderie of that period. She now produces embroidery herself and subcontracts out to a small group of women she knows.
Ani is sanguine about her situation and would not go back to the Communist era, although she misses the relative calm and security of that period. During her 17 years as a stallholder she has seen Sofia change but not always for the better. People are now more stressed, she says, and there is less sense of community. For her, embroidery represents a meditative escape from the market economy's fast lane. The description of this escape is curiously similar to how abstract expressionist painters Pollock and DeKooning talked about their work.
Lewin, as an artist, recognises the problems with her work. In other countries she could sell these bespoke items for much more than they cost her to produce. But she remarks that the women have set their own rates and that this represents fair trade in the broadest sense. What attracted her about commerce in Bulgaria is the way it is linked to social exchange. Not just money has changed hands but genuine insights have been shared and new friendships forged.
It's apparent on visiting the market a few times that a close knit culture (no pun intended) exists among the women. Everyone has their regular patch and it would be unthinkable to take someone else's space even if they didn't turn up in the searing summer heat. Lydia, perched at one end of the market, formed a special bond with Anya. A member of her family recently fell ill and benefited from American drug treatments. She sees Anya as a kind of symbol of hope. What started out as an art project has now become a close friendship.
The completed linen tablecloths subvert the merely decorative function associated with embroidery. Before she left Sofia, Anya exhibited the finished products at a restaurant in the capital. She invited the women from the market as well as lovers of crafts and political leaders to acknowledge the women's achievements and stir debate around Bulgaria's membership of the EU. Appropriately, the menu included dishes from all 27 member states. There is no such thing as an EU dish, after all. Maybe politicians should bear that in mind.