The concept of this year’s Sofia Queer Forum, Manifestations of the Personal, resulted mainly from the Politics-Art-Gender/Queer panel discussion initiated after the forum’s first edition in 2012, published in the online magazine for art and criticism Blister. A contentious issue in the discussion was that sexuality and sexual identity are something personal and, as such, are apolitical – just as one’s taste for clothing, food or music. In conclusion, one of the participants in the discussion came to the question: Why politicize the apolitical?

Yes, the issues of gender, gender identity and sexuality can be perceived as personal (and apolitical?) but only in an ideal environment free from any conflicts. It is a fact, however, that we are not living in one. Here and now (in Bulgaria, Europe, the world, albeit to a different extent) there are established and sometimes seemingly unshakable standpoints prescribed by the heteronorm. By deviating from it or not accepting it, an individual comes into a direct confrontation with moral and institutional prescriptions, the transgression of which is invariably “political”. Speaking about the notions of queer the sublime moment of manifestation of the personal (i.e. its becoming public) is saturated with conflicts and contradictions and it is precisely this fullness of senses, meanings and interpretations that is the uniting theme of this year’s forum.

“Manifestations of the Personal” is a kind of provocation – exposure and disclosure, creation of multiple shared personal spaces. Contradictory and multidirectional “intimate” self/expressions by eleven artists, some of whom are engrossed in exploration of their own nature, others deal with feminism, religion and fetishism, and still others proceed from their personal stories in search of the basic question of predetermination. It is not by chance that this exhibition is prevailed by self/portraits which represent most of all self/contemplation and self/analysis. 
The exhibition at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery features the works by the artists Svetozara Alexandova, Kiril Bikov, Voin de Voin, Antonia Gurkovska, Ivo Dimchev, Stanka Koleva, Krassen Krastev & Paul Dunca, Lubri, Boryana Rossa, Natalia Todorova.

Voin de Voin, for example, has created a particular kind of a portrait of his mother, in search of those factors which have determined his personality and his sexuality. The artist’s urge for understanding the relationship with the mother and its significance for the formation goes through his personal archive of photos and memories and reaches its peak in the hypnosis session, through which he completely exposes a deeply personal side, of which he himself has been unaware before. Boryana Rossa tackles another fundamental issue of sexual identity – the ideals of beauty a woman's body is associated with. Rossa’s “manifestation of the personal” is connected with her "new body, which has no breasts" (as the artist herself says) - a manifestation that becomes a political statement against the stereotypical perceptions  of the female body, causing the "different" bodies to be invisible to the public. The concept of the “new” body embraces and includes the “difference”- the body is not determined by the binaries of heteronormativity and its prescriptions any more, which is a concept fundamental for the entire show. 

The concept of beauty is addressed also by Zara Alexandrova who in her work Metaphysics of Beauty uses another element expressive of femininity – the nails. By distancing the beautifying attribute from its object, the work calls into question not only its significance in the context of beauty stereotypes but also the way it is referred to in terms of genders. 

Stanka Koleva's photographs are reminiscent of a classic nude portrait, in which the male eye observes a seductive woman. Moreover, Koleva’s aesthetic approach and the classical photographic methods she employs give a stronger sense of the early photographic portraits of the 20’s. The photographs, however, are actually a self-portrayal which makes the work, as well as the act of its creation, a kind of liberation from the classic visual tradition dominated by the male gaze and perspective. Classic images and their reconsideration are also the theme of Lubri’s photographs. The nude women, known from classical painting, have been replaced by nude men having the hedonistic spirit of full liberation. The hyper-sexuality of nakedness is balanced by the concealed sex (hidden sexual characteristics?). The invisibility of the sex creates a sense of liberation. Ivo Dimchev presents photographs as well - intimate self-portraits reproducing once more the motive of a restless search and challenge to heteronormativity.

Another key theme is religion and its controversial relationship with the church which rejects any deviation from the norm. Krassen Krastev and Paul Dunca do not reject religion but, being homosexual, they are banned from the church, which makes them build their own modern rituals and attitude to sacred motifs, places and elements - rituals that are critical, vital and sincere. Similarly, Kiril Bikov has not given up religion. On the contrary, his sexuality urges him to explore and analyze it. He searches analogues between religion and sexual fetish practices. For example, during The Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an act of purification and supreme magnanimity. At the same time, feet are among the most common sexual fetishes related to the body, and this represents the central theme in Kiril Bikov’s work.

Apart from the politically and emotionally charged "nakedness” and "manifestations" used by the artists in proposing answers to the questions about sexuality and gender identity, the exhibition includes also abstract work which, in its complete departure from literalism, drives toward self-reflection and thoughtful self-observation. The work of Natalia Todorova offers a view from multiple perspectives, including one to the viewers themselves who, while closely observing her work, see their own reflection in it. 

Another thing altogether is whether an artist’s queer identity is always presented in his/her work. In what way a work speaks about its author? For example, Antonia Gyurkovska’s abstract paintings full of senses, meanings and interpretations, are displayed  along with a video that brings forward the act of a self-depiction. The paintings and the video, the abstract and the literal, complement each other to create a sense of deep intimacy. To manifest the personal.

Stefka Tsaneva