by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Picturing Bulgaria's many faces

Nina Nikolina, pop singer

Bulgaria has many faces. The shadowy thick set jaw of corruption glimpsed behind the blacked out windows of a Mercedes 4x4; the peroxide hair and pouting lips of chalga writhing in seductive flashes of naked flesh; the ruddy-cheeked countenance of folk gaily picking rose petals in the fields of the Socialist dream.

Painter Henrik Engstrom, or "HEN", became fascinated with these last two when, flicking through the TV channels in his native Stockholm, he came across some Bulgarian TV stations.

"Maybe I'm a bit obsessed with popular culture. It's always fascinating. If I come to a country I will try to look at the television - not good television, but see what normal people, young people, look at," he says. "We have digital TV in Sweden with a lot of channels and I actually stumbled upon some Bulgarian channels. We had maybe 10 Bulgarian TV stations - the good ones and the really bad ones! Bulgaria made an impression on me."

Henrik Engstrom

Henrik Engstrom

He would have been happy to watch this from a distance, but says he was struck by something. "What fascinated me was how one day you would see someone in a chalga outfit and the next day they would be singing a traditional folksong in national costume. This duality was interesting for me because in Sweden people choose: you are either simple or you're serious, but you cannot be both, it's not possible. Maybe it's not in Bulgaria either, but they're trying."

It was this dual face of Bulgaria that planted the seed for an idea for an art project. HEN decided he wanted to paint portraits of Bulgaria's divas, but to portray them in a different light to the usual glamour and glitz. He wanted to paint them bare faced, without their make up.

He made his first trip to Bulgaria in August 2005. He had been in meetings with the Bulgarian embassy in Stockholm and told them that he wanted to do an art project in Bulgaria. However, "They said, 'We do not work with culture, we work only in politics.' Well, they're not doing a very good job because the image of Bulgarian politics in Sweden is of corruption, corruption and more corruption!"

So, he arrived in Bulgaria having done some research on the country and its music, but not knowing anybody. "The first trip was like an adventure. Today I have all the connections and I have quite a good network. But if I try, I can remember what it was like the first time I came: really without information, or any contacts. I was only here for a little more than a week, but in that week I managed to have a lot of meetings. And for a Swedish boy this wasn't as easy as it sounds because very few people speak English. But things unfolded." Over the course of the next year and a half, he met with 18 singers.

Maria Ilieva, pop singer

Maria Ilieva, pop singer

"We met for photo sessions. It was important they came without make up and I wanted them outside in natural light. The reaction was mixed. Some said no, but some of them were actually quite happy, like, 'Oh, finally someone wants to see the real person'. It was sweet in a way, they were happy because they could finally be themselves."

The start of what HEN's friends back in Sweden refer to as his "Bulgarian Obsession" was well underway. "Part of the idea was to prove to myself and to other people that the world is not so big. Bulgaria in the Swedish mind seems very distant. We don't know much about the culture. So I wanted to go somewhere and prove that you can connect and make something happen in another place."

Now, one and a half years, and many long hours of painting later, ("I calculated at one time, and I really don't want to think about this, that I put in between 700 and 1,000 hours"), something has happened: DIVA, an exhibition of portraits of Bulgarian singers from the popular music scene and the folk scene. These were exhibited at the Sheraton, Sofia, at the beginning of the year where they were auctioned for charity, namely the Breast Health Awareness Campaign and the AIDS Foundation.

Sofi Marinova, chalga singer

Sofi Marinova, chalga singer

"Both of them are information campaigns. Breast Health Awareness is about saying to people 'go and be checked every year, because we can prevent this.' And the AIDS campaign is the same because they have five clinics here where you can be tested free, but no one knows about them. The AIDS Foundation is run by Kalki, a Bulgarian singer who was very popular about 10 years ago. Every young girl loved Kalki and he's still singing and doing music and theatre. His style is really ethno, I mean we are in Bulgaria, but he is ethno even here."

The success of the exhibition and the auction has prompted HEN to want to continue with his project elsewhere. "This project has a lot of potential I think. It creates positive media attention, with little investment - a lot of effort, but little investment. We are discussing doing it in Greece. It would be on a smaller scale, with less paintings, but working with singers again and again for charity."

As for immediate plans though, probably a rest is in order. "I've done too many paintings. It's good to do maybe five paintings a year," says HEN. "Last year I did something like 30."

In the future, HEN would like to return to Bulgaria to work more on promoting the image of a country which he believes has a lot to offer, but which at present is not being effectively portrayed abroad.

Rather than just the cheap property, or the beach and ski resorts which pull in the package tourists that Bulgaria is largely known for in Europe, he believes that Bulgaria's many other faces - its stunning scenery and its rich cultural and historical heritage - deserve to be shown to the world.

Daniela, chalga singer

Daniela, chalga singer


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