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, graduated from the Fine Art Academy in Sofia in 1985, performed and exhibited across Bulgaria for a decade thereafter and since 1994 has studied video art, practiced and settled in Basel, Switzerland. In 2009 Bendji founded AM contemporary – an artist-run cultural institute based in Basel collaborating with various artists and curators, including myself.
Following my long-standing interest in women artists, including Albena Mihaylova-Bendji, I am pleased to be contributing to the group exhibition Personal Structures – Reflections accompanying the 59th Venice Biennale 23 April – 27 November 2022 at European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Mora, Strada Nova 3659 Venice 30121 Italy.
Personal Structures is a biennial contemporary art exhibition organised and hosted by European Cultural Centre in Venice. The sixth edition in 2022 revolves around the idea of reflections, which embodies the dual meaning of a visible episode perceived by the eyes and a mental deed stemming from the action of thinking and pondering with the mind. As envisioned by the European Cultural Centre, the act of reflecting carries the potential to foresee possibilities and the responsibility of imagining a better future.
Personal Structures – Reflections features Bendji’s installation Fictional Biographies and a related programme of talks and screenings curated by myself to be presented in-person at European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Michiel, Strada Nova 4391 Campo Santi Apostoli, Venice 30121 and online by AM contemporary, Basel and European Cultural Centre, Venice in autumn 2022.
“Fictional Biographies by performance artist and filmmaker Albena Mihaylova-Bendji is a quartet in tune with deep time and circadian rhythms. It rests on the environmental, feminist, social and political justice pillars delineating Bendji’s practice since 1985 when she emerged as the leading female performance artist in Bulgaria. A tender portrayal of four women threading on the edge, searching for life’s meaning amongst deserts, oceans, ashes and mountains. Conceptualised as a monumental museum-quality suspended cinematic projection, Bendji’s work is inherently scalable. In response to the Venetian heritage site of Palazzo Mora, Fictional Biographies is presented as an intimate four-channel video installation nestled in an alcove – both a shelter and a shrine for the four protagonists” Iliyana Nedkova
For further insight into Bendji’s Fictional Biographies please see
- my essay Albena Mihaylova-Bendji, p. 26 in Personal Structures. Reflections Exhibition Catalogue. Venice 2022 Art Biennial Palazzo Mora Palazzo Bembo Marinaressa Gardens ISBN/EAN Personal Structures 2022 9789082943467. Edited and published by European Cultural Centre, Venice 2022. View and download your free digital copy of the entire 558 page catalogue HERE
- my essay Generations of Women Artists Perform published to mark International Women’s Day 8 March 2022. Please view and download HERE
- my wee essay in Fictional Biographies 59th Venice Biennale 2022 flyer. View and download your free digital copy below.
I have also turned my curatorial and critical attention to Bendji’s key role as one of the four founding members and instigators of the Women on the Edge Artists Collective by contributing to their latest group exhibition catalogue 2014-21 published by AM contemporary, Basel in January 2022.
Women on the Edge Collective Exhibitions Catalogue (ISBN 978-3-033-08920-4) is the first fully illustrated, bilingual (Bulgarian and English) survey of the annual exhibitions and performance art projects from 2014 until 2021 with artists’ statements by all members Albena Mihaylova–Bendji, Veneta Marinova, Monika Romenska and Nadya Genova. The Catalogue was funded as part of the Legacy programme of Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019. Copies currently available through AM contemporary, Basel ORDER HERE
Women on the Edge Collective Exhibitions Catalogue has been presented by AM contemporary, Basel as part of:
- Personal Structures – Reflections group exhibition accompanying the 59th Venice Biennale 23 April – 27 November 2022 at European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Mora, Venice
- Bang Bang. Translocal hi:stories of performance art – an exhibition project by Revolving Histories/Performance Chronik Basel 8 June – 21 August 2022 at Museum Tinguely, Basel
- I Never Read Art Book Fair Basel 15-18 June 2022 at Kaserne, Basel
I also joined, albeit via Zoom, the Women on the Edge Collective Exhibitions Catalogue hybrid launch at Plovdiv’s U.P.A.R.K Gallery on 25 February 2022 for a conversation with all members of Women on the Edge Collective Albena Mihaylova–Bendji, Veneta Marinova, Monika Romenska and Nadya Genova alongside key supporters Reinhard Manz, Lyudmil Stanev and Galina Lardeva-Minkova READ MORE and WATCH HERE
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).
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