Art exhibition celebrating the beauty of trans women threatened by violent ‘facist’ protests
An art exhibition highlighting the beauty of Bulgarian trans women is under threat of violence from nationalist groups.
The Other Bulgarian Women features plexiglass portraits of trans women in Bulgarian national dress holding some of the country’s national flowers. The women’s faces are illuminated by kaleidoscopic lights, creating an elegant showcase of trans joy.
The show opens at The Steps gallery on Tuesday (8 March), International Women’s Day. But its opening will be marred by planned protests from nationalist groups.
Activists from the Bulgarian group Feminist Mobilisations will stage a counter-protest, standing against “facism” and for LGBT+ rights.
“Feminism means anti-fascism”, one of the organisers told PinkNews, adding that trans women in Bulgaria are “some of the most vulnerable” people in the country.
Mísho, the artist behind the exhibition, said that the inspiration for The Other Bulgarian Women came from a friend, a trans woman he and his ex-boyfriend once lived with.
“A huge part of her transition was in front of my eyes,” Mísho told PinkNews. “When you live with someone, you see them in the morning, how they feel, depression or happiness or joy – and I have experienced them from being so close to her.”
Mísho said his friend decided to “tell the world about herself” by leading the Sofia Pride Parade in 2010, which resulted in her image being published in media across the country. She was fired from her job shortly afterwards.
He reached out to the Sofia Pride Parade, which he says was the “only LGBT+ structure in Bulgaria” at the time, but was told the organisation couldn’t do anything. So Mísho decided to create a series of artworks showcasing “positive role models” for the trans community. He also looked to compare the experiences and discrimination of trans people in Bulgaria to the experiences of other minorities in the country.
Many of the women he approached were afraid to take part in the series. Ultimately, Mísho decided to do a “photographic reconstruction” of paintings by Vladimir Dimitrov, a famous Bulgarian artist who painted vivid portraits of peasant women.
Dimitrov’s work captured images of the “last images” of women living under “patriachal” rule, Misho said, “before the era of feminism” in Bulgaria. Through his research, he realised that the struggles of modern trans women not having access to society was similar to the lived reality of the women that Diminitrov painted.
“I realised that the women in Bulgaria before the era of feminism couldn’t work, she couldn’t take any part of our society and the only right she had was to stay at home – like the trans women right now in Bulgaria,” Mísho explained.
“Most of the time they’re at home because they want to prevent [themselves from becoming the victim of] violence – both physical and verbal.”
However, Mísho’s artwork has been met with outrage, with calls from far right-wing groups to ban the exhibition altogether and for the resignation of the minister for culture over a small government grant towards the artworks.
Mísho said that there is a “mantra in our society” that Bulgaria is a “very tolerant nation” because of the country’s history and geographical location, which has resulted in a “colourful” society. But there is a “majority” of people who believe the LGBT+ community – especially people in the trans community – “don’t have a right to our Bulgarian folklore”, and they “cannot touch the roses, the symbol of Bulgaria”.
“I said to myself, ‘come on, they have Bulgarian passports, they’re paying taxes, they went through the education system, they are still part of our society no matter of your [suppression],” he said. “So if Bulgarian symbols are for Bulgarians, you should recognise them in the first place as Bulgarians.
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While the nationalist groups plan to protest the exhibition, activists from the Bulgarian group Feminist Mobilisations will be standing in support of the show as part of the group’s march for International Women’s Day.
Gigi from Feminist Mobilisations said the informal group has long supported the LGBT+ community, and their manifesto includes several calls to support the queer community as well as trans people.
She told PinkNews it was important for the group to “show support” for exhibition and trans women as they’re “some of the most vulnerable populations” in the country.
“They’re really marginalised, especially here in Bulgaria,” Gigi said. “Their conditions are rough.”
Gigi said that visibility was important to “changing the material conditions” for the trans community, and there is a constant threat of physical violence for LGBT+ people and activists in Bulgaria.
Gigi said the group had filed a document with the municipality to inform them of their march so they could communicate with the police. Everything was initially fine, but then the municipality informed them that the far right-wing groups, which she described as “basically Nazi parties”, also filed documents to have a demonstration in front of The Steps.
Feminist Mobilisations was “suspicious in advance” that the nationalist groups were going to show up and wanted there to be “some form of resistance against them, because feminism means anti-fascism”.
The municipality asked Feminist Mobilisations to change the route, Gigi said, so there would be “no clashes” between the groups. After some deliberation, Feminist Mobilisations agreed to tweak the route slightly but will still “spend some time” in front of The Steps.
But Gigi said she is still concerned about the group’s safety as well as the safety of those who want to visit the gallery as anti-LGBT+ violence is rife in the country.
“We don’t trust the police – bearing in mind their track record – and in the past year, there have been dozens of cases of anti-LGBTI violence by the Nazis towards a lot of us,” Gigi said. “There’s been a lot of attacks in the last year, including physical violence, and the police basically do nothing. They’re not really there to keep us safe, and we know this.”
The constant threat of far-right violence does horrible things “to your soul”, Gigi said, adding: “It’s really scary. But we don’t feel like there’s an alternative. The only alternative I can think of is to stay home and not do this.”
They continued: “It’s not a choice that we can make. We’re going to be there, and whatever happens, happens.
“All we can do is try to gather more people, try to make people see why these things are important to fight for and hopefully something might change at some point.”