Hristina Tasheva, In Belief Is Power

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Softcover with thread-sewn binding, 176 pages, with 121 monochrome and color photographs (seventeen provided by the “Historical Museum Prof. Alexander Fol”; sixteen found online); 5.12 x 7.68 inches. Includes drawings, one text by Hristina Tasheva, and thirty-eight handwritten, numbered text fragments from various sources in Bulgarian, translated into English by Zornista Hristova and Vesselin Petrov. In an edition of 500 copies. Edited by Hristina Tasheva. Design by Velina Stoykova. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In Belief Is Power, the most recent photobook by Bulgarian artist Hristina Tasheva, is the result of an arduous project. Set in her country’s Strandzha mountains – a border region connecting southeastern Bulgaria to the European part of Turkey – the book combines found black-and-white images with Tasheva’s color photographs, drawings, and text fragments to engage with the following questions:

“What provokes the fear of foreigners? What exactly forms the ‘Bulgarian’ identity and what is the life and history of the local population living near the border, where different political interests intersect? How does this border-area reflect what is happening across Europe? . . . [And as] Bulgaria is said to be the fastest disappearing nation in the world – is there a ‘beautiful’ nationalism that would help a vanishing nation preserve itself?”

A common thread Tasheva’s work, which explores the essence of the migrant experience, arises from her biography. “Sixteen years ago, I arrived in the Netherlands. As an illegal Bulgarian migrant, I had no rights in general; I was invisible to the system and to the people. They were simply OK with me doing jobs under the table, but against me sharing their rights and wealth. To find out what exactly my position was, I started to take photographs.” Tasheva’s status first changed in 2007, when Bulgaria became a member of the European Union, and in 2013 she was granted dual citizenship, providing new opportunities for education and to pursue a career as an artist.

The following year marked the beginning of what would later (and adversely) be described as the “European refugee crisis”. Under the pretext to protect the European Union from further migrant “invasion”, Bulgaria – itself a transit country – built a fence along its Turkish border. Like many other countries, it also began to nurture propagandistic grounds for nationalist movements, culminating in the formation of civilian-led squads hunting for refugees along the border, at times with the help of British and other Western nationalists. Following these events through international and Bulgarian media, Tasheva was left shocked and ashamed. (“How is it possible that a country like Bulgaria, with two million emigrants abroad, could be so hostile towards other people in need?” she wrote me.)

Shame, in its varying degrees, can induce emotional and mental paralysis. Tasheva, however, opted for research and artistic activism. First aiming “to meet and expose” the nationalists, she began to educate herself about the border and the Strandzha region. Through increasing media coverage of anti-migrant movements, conversations with her Bulgarian family members, and reading Kapka Kassabova’s book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, her objective slowly evolved. Fearing to provide yet another platform for nationalist voices, she decided to focus instead on the question “of what creates nationalism”, using the Strandzha area as her case study. But most importantly, she wanted to take into account the local population – their history and culture, their beliefs and struggles.

Refraining from clearly delineated chapters, In Belief Is Power unfolds in loosely arranged sections, allowing for multiple, at once converging and conflicting, narratives of identity and ideology, traditions, and propaganda to unfold. To ground her project in the country’s (regional and national) political history, the book opens with a set photographs depicting archaeological and military ruins, including monuments and observation posts – visual clues that consistently reappear throughout and that, despite their largely derelict state, still possess an aura of terror. This feeling of constant threat is even more potently conjured by Tasheva’s ever-present images of the towering, barbed-wired border fence. Another set of interspersed photographs capture plants and isolated animals, like a stray dog and her pups, a bewildered looking cow, or horses standing forlorn in an abandoned house or patiently pulling a patched-up wagon.

While these images insinuate rather than expose, Tasheva did not shy away to include others directly addressing the violent ethnic conflicts of the country’s past. Found in a local museum and online, the most disturbing photographs are a group of wounded and emaciated children, taken during the Second Balkan War, and the horrifying picture of the bodies of Pano Angelov and Nikola Ravashola, two Bulgarian revolutionaries, killed fighting for autonomy from the Ottoman Empire.

Looking at photographs of suffering is always difficult. These, however, become even more taxing with their preceding and following text fragments (numbers 13 and 14 in the book). The first one briefly lists the Bulgarian Revival process – a forced assimilation campaign of the Communist regime: “‘The Big Excursion’, Exile, Wave of migration, Home check, Forced assimilation. The inculcation of Bulgarian civil identity”. The second is an excerpt from Lyubomir Miletich’s The Destruction of Tharcian Bulgarians in 1913: “As I was coming back from my second journey around Tharce at the end of June 1914, the refugees were just as destitute: they were still being ‘temporarily’ sheltered by makeshift government committees, without any unity of plan, without any provision made for their origin, or former occupation, or what climates they were coming from; and most importantly without even the minimum of tools for any kind of work and production [. . .] And the refugees themselves started hoping that the war will turn the political tides in their favour and instead starting anew they would be able to return to their hearths. And so the settlement process came to stop and the refugees remained in their provisional homes, wherever they might be, to suffer and hope.

Although referring to events more than seventy years apart, these descriptions invariably feel like cause and effect. And their implications couldn’t be timelier (just imagine the photographs and stories that will emerge, yet again, from Syria).

There is a lot of ritual and religion in Tasheva’s pages, too. Introduced through another group of monochrome images, the photographs show men and women of different ages, alone and in groups, engaging in processions, fire-dances, or playful fights. Tasheva’s color photographs of icons, crosses, sacred caves, religious gatherings, and votive offerings, or the tender image of a young woman dressed in white, her head topped by crown of leaves, carrying a flame, not only trace these rituals into the present day, but emphasize the pagan roots of the country’s Christian rites.

Tasheva reinforces her deliberate pairings of old and new imagery, which varies in size and layout, by including carbon-paper drawings, rendered from photographs not included in the book, and handwritten text fragments, including excerpts from the Bible and conversations with locals. In doing so, In Belief Is Power creates an emotional topography as complex as the Strandzha region itself. Context is obviously crucial, and Tasheva often wondered if, by meeting these people and spending time with them, she fell into the trap of what she calls “beautiful nationalism”? To create an image of hope while, at the same time, taking a critical position towards the same subject, was a her continuous struggle – and it reminds me of Máté Bartha’s Kontakt series, in which he photographed military-style youth camps in rural Hungary (another country promoting ultra-nationalist propaganda), increasingly grappling between his pacifist convictions and the bonds created with the teenagers he met.

I must admit In Belief Is Power is a challenging book to begin with – and takes several readings to sink in. The fact that the English translations and captions are grouped together at the book’s end, making for a continual back-and-forth-flipping of pages, does not help. Initially, I was also frustrated by the lack of information about the Strandzha region and the people Tasheva quoted. Who are they? And why do they think and feel the way they do? It made me wonder whether my dissatisfaction was the result of an incomplete design or a purposefully intended strategy?

Returning to the texts and images, I began to follow Tasheva’s clues, researching the names of people and places she references. In doing so, I not only began to learn and draw connections for myself, but I also became aware of the book’s ambivalence and its complex notion of sacrifice and Christian iconography. Both are present in Tasheva’s images of lambs already – or about to be – slaughtered, but more poignantly in her repeated reference to the local Saint Marina, also embossed on the book’s cover (and on whom the title In Belief Is Power is based). Among the most venerated saints in the Strandzha region (and embodying a pagan mother goddess), St. Marina is often depicted with a hammer fighting off the devil, allowing for a symbolic reading of self-directed action, as opposed to passive endurance.

The devil, of course, or who he embodies, depends on peoples’ political convictions, economic struggles, religious beliefs, and personal upbringing. In Tasheva’s case, however, the message feels clear. Not so obvious is whether we actually get to understand what it is that provokes the fear of foreigners and the embrace of nationalism. Then again, are there univocal answers to these questions?

If I were to derive a lesson from Tasheva’s book, it would be that understanding is based on knowledge; and knowledge can never be consumed, not through the news, a film, or a book. Instead, it is only gained. This requires time, diligence, and openness – a certain kind of radical empathy that keeps you walking that extra mile.

Collector’s POV: Hristina Tasheva does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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