Albena Mihaylova-Bendji

Networking (2021) by Albena Mihaylova-Bendji – installation and participatory performance at Kasko, Basel. Image of artist’s performance by Reinhard Manz

Albena Mihaylova-Bendji (b 1959, Plovdiv) is an established Bulgarian Swiss video artist and documentary filmmaker who spent her formative years in Prague, Czechoslovakia 1968-72, studied at the Fine Art Academy in Sofia 1980-85, performed and exhibited across Bulgaria for a decade thereafter and since 1994 has studied video art, practiced and settled in Basel, Switzerland.

Following my long standing interest in women artists including Albena Mihaylova-Bendji, I have turned my curatorial and critical attention to Bendji’s performative and video art practice, including her key role as one of the four founding members and instigators of the Women on the Edge Collective by contributing to their latest group exhibition catalogue Masisters. Healthy Mind. Healthy Body published by AM Contemporary, Basel in early 2022.

Pages from Women on the Edge Collective exhibition Catalogue featuring Albena Mihaylova–Bendji, Veneta Marinova, Monika Romenska and Nadya Genova

I have also embarked on the first monographic attempt to focus on Bendji’s early works spanning 1980-89 as the female protagonist of performance art in Bulgaria and by now an established Bulgarian Swiss video artist and documentary filmmaker. This initial research was shared at the online conference Not Yet Written Stories. Women Artists in Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw, 2-3 September 2021. The landmark 1971 essay by American art historian Linda Nochlin Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? served as an important impetus for the rediscovery of women artists such as Bendji in the history of Bulgarian contemporary art in the 1980s.

Watch my conference presentation from about 28 min in and my contribution to the panel discussion related to feminist performance art in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia with Slađana Petrović Varagić and Kateřina Štroblová moderated by Barbara Borčić WATCH HERE

Conference programme DOWNLOAD HERE

This conference paper is my initial investigation of Bendji’s seminal performative works from 1985-89 tracing their engagement with political activism, aesthetic anarchism, the carnivalesque, improvisation, feminism, public art, body politics, conceptual art, experimental theatre, action, happening, video art and non-conventional art forms. The intention is to continue this initial research through in-depth analysis drawing on both primary research methods (including interviews with the artist and exploring the artist’s own archive and diaries of the 1980-90s) and secondary research sources (including a close and critical reading of both contemporaneously and more recently published theoretical, historical, or cultural studies which briefly mention some of Bendji’s early works).

Lake and Tape (1985) by Albena Mihaylova-Bendji – a body art performance at the Murla Lake in the foothills of the Central Balkan mountain range

This initial investigation presented on 3 September 2021 as part of the conference Not Yet Written Stories. Women Artists in Central and Eastern Europe featured a range of Bendji’s early works including Lake and Tape (1985) – a body art performance at the Murla Lake in the foothills of the Central Balkan mountain range, Breathing Exercises (1989) – a participatory performance set on the rooftop of the Union of Bulgarian Artists building in central Sofia as if drawing a breath of fresh political air and escaping the interior confines of the bastion of socialist realism, as well as Burning the Documents (1989) – a solo performance and a gesture of political resistance referencing historical acts of self-immolation. I argued that Bendji’s early works had lit fires in the minds of other great Bulgarian women artists such as Boryana Rossa who were to follow in her footsteps and collectively move away from the Soviet ideological sphere of contemporary art influence since the 1980s to date.

Albena Mihaylova-Bendji in 2021 echoing her body art performance Lake and Tape (1985) Image by Reinhard Manz

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