Irena Todorova: Traditions are in the hands of the young generation

Round table “Living Heritage in the City” – 6 July, online
Photo exhibition “A Journey through the Living traditions”

Mrs. Todorova, you are responsible for cultural heritage in the region of South-East Europe. How did our region cope in the hardest days of the Covid-19 crisis?

This one is a solid request- the Regional Centre Sofia is aimed at focusing the politically accountable people`s attention towards the questions of cultural heritage. Tradition and heritage cannot be placed in the hands of an institution; they rather are in the hands of people, on one side, and on the other – in these of the political elite. Our mission is to be a partner as well as a bridge between the two. Policies for intangible cultural heritage in the southeast part of Europe are a product of various priorities and balances, we can’t just summarize how we’ve done; of course the most anticipated answer would be – hard, hard because culture was most affected. The crisis weighed on the social as well as cultural life in general, many cultural events were postponed, even cancelled, some were conducted in a completely different way, obeying to the safety measures. All of this violated the proper celebration of customs. A survey done by UNESCO shows that many communities used songs, dances, crafts to battle the crisis, as a means for social cohesion, creativity and inspiration. In the center of all this is the individual, who is a bearer, an architect, a creator of the intangible cultural heritage and above all else should be preserved living. The larger part of carriers of ICH are elders, or in other words the most vulnerable group. This crisis has given us the chance even more so to understand that if we don’t change the situation, if younger generations do not take on and continue practicing traditional crafts and skills, they will just become a part of history.

How do we preserve culture – both here and around the world? Is there a way to “persuade” young people to come back to Bulgaria and what would it be?

The answer to this question wouldn’t be synonymous – Culture is a concept based on values and as one it should find a well-deserved place in political and managerial programs. Seems like here all the different governments after the “Transition period” fail to give culture the – in my opinion- necessary respect. Post-communism reduced its meaning solely to institutional infrastructure, which automatically loosened its influence. Little money for museums, little for theaters, a dime spent for cinema etc. All in all, market principles pushed away high culture exactly because of the lack of investments from the State. The performers were left on the short end of the stick; they had to readjust their focus, in order to somehow make it. This is how popular culture started its enlightening, more or less educational movement. Don’t get me wrong, I am not picking at pop-culture, but rather what I’m doing is criticizing the State’s inability to conserve and popularize our cultural forms on a European and global level. What does it mean to make the young come back here? We cannot persuade them to like folklore, we must be able to adapt to the global world, we must find the strength to think about ourselves as Europeans, to rid “Balkan” of its negative meaning, and rather give it a new form. If you take a look at the literature and art after the Liberation, how many western influences are there that are not much talked about nowadays. Our goal, especially aiming at the later development of the EU, is to manage to imagine European identity as a constellation of belonging to your nation, but also to a bigger continental community. The idea of culture as connected to the idea of nation can’t be left in the past, there must be a vision towards the future. The nation is a construct, an imagined community; it can’t be just left without a vivid vision and strategy from the politicians. That’s why we lack our youth, they don’t feel the need to consume our culture, but when they’re travelling and see cultural institutions that differ, go to symbolic historical places they come back with affectionate stories about foreign heroes and their doings. There is a need for museums, galleries, which bring life, spike attention, which socialize, not stay quiet. Sofia is more and more trying to achieve this thanks to some of the younger minds in the Municipality. We can see that when there are years spent working towards that, things begin to happen. Crucial for the change that we have been striving for years on end has been accepting the National strategy for Culture. There are many adversaries of change because the sector is conservative and we see a lot of internal resistance. Despite that, time needs to pass in order for us to see changes.

What lesson did you learn from the chaos that occurred in the world?

The good news for all of us was that we all of a sudden realized we live with culture, no matter what kind – elitist or popular, that we can’t live without music, cinema, literature etc. I hope after all this we think about people who give us this chance to be alive thanks to culture, even more so support them in order for them to move forward. We also can’t ignore the fact that the Bulgarian government, although contributing to the lot of problems in the cultural sector, tried to show that artists aren’t completely forgotten. They somehow managed to find a way for subsidies and programs helping the sector.

How does a young woman take part in the battle for tradition?

 I don’t participate in that battle. Traditions survive because of people’s willpower. They’re dynamic, transform in time depending on generations and because of that they’re regarded as a ”living organism” in which many people take part, there are various social actors. By the way the Regional center is exactly that. My battle is another one – we need to transform the way in which we think of culture in general, to shed it from its nationalist use; to understand that we have contributed towards the world cultural heritage, but that we aren’t extraordinary. Cultures don’t have borders, the outlines of regions with distinct cultural practices don’t match the states’ borders. That’s why we can share heritage that exist in particular regions. Here’s an example for you: the martenitsa, regarded as “ours” by most Bulgarians, actually isn’t. It can be found on Bulgarian, Romanian, Moldovan and North Macedonian territory and thanks to a joint initiative was recorded in the honorary List for Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Who is your personal best teacher?

 This year is, apart from everything else, it is Vazov’s year. Congratulations to the institutions for doing so much for reminding us and even teaching us about Ivan Vazov in the first place. These are the specimens I was mentioning earlier, grand, overleaping national borders and the time in which they are living. So, Ivan Vazov writes in “Daskalite” that good teachers are the ones who leave firm traces in our soul. The most I’ve learnt is from my parents – they made my character. In university I met my scholarly supervisor who gave me faith and motivation to carry on ahead. And today I share my life with a man, without whom not one lesson would have been worthwhile.

In which age would you live in, given you had the choice?

I do have a romantic feeling towards the Belle époque. A time of flourishing – intellectual as well as cultural. The advent of the style of Art Nouveau, gifting aesthetics the artist’ signature and highlighting beauty. In Bulgaria this style, which emerges in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, makes the symbiosis between secession (more widely acclaimed here) and the traditional Bulgarian style, then in its zenith, and to incarnate it in our national consciousness. That’s what I mentioned earlier, this striving towards admission. This style introduces a new type of art here, it’s a step towards overcoming the rural patriarchal reality and presenting a new type of sensitivity towards art, inherent for European urban culture. It doesn’t contradict the national, but is rather in dialogue with it, flows into mythology and folklore without opposing them. Remember Ivan Milev, Haralampi Tachev and many more. Despite my romantic feeling towards that time, I am part of the contemporary and my place is here.

What are the most significant values you want to teach your daughter?

Piety, love and honor.


Interview for 24 hours media, 31.07.2020

/translated by interns/