One to Watch: Tanya Atanasova is a Bulgarian born figurative painter, currently based in Antwerp, Belgium. Atanasova shares how extremely emotional, intense moments, and strained relationships have informed her art.
“Back in the day, surviving was a real thing,” she says. “Having the skill for ‘guessing the person’ and knowing who to trust was often your only weapon in life. So, there is no wonder I primarily paint people and portraits.”
On Becoming a Portrait Painter
BY TANYA ATANASOVA
I was born in 1978, in Koprivshtica – the very heart of The Balkans. At the time I was born, Bulgaria was still a communistic people’s Republic and I can still recall a lot of the regime-time-feel of the country and the mentality back then. On the surface our family was a standard, middle-class, working family, but digging deeper – it had a rich history of extremely emotional, intense moments, and strained relationships, which have played a significant role throughout my life.
I had two brothers, who were very much into painting, creating, crafting, and inventing things and we all use to attend painting lessons at a local artist’s atelier for years.
When I was nine, my brother Iliya (11) – an incredibly bright kid – died by an insane accident and that marked the beginning of a very different life then. My father could not bear his depression anymore and quickly found his way to abusive drinking and gambling. My mother left us, starting a new live and becoming super-religious. And in a sense, they both found their consolation in different niches / addictions and we were left behind, growing up with all the complexity of “neglected kids.”
As I grew up, the socio-political situation in the country had changed (it was around the time of the fall of The Berlin Wall). The small-town mentality together with the numerous family secrets started suffocating me and one night, when I was 13, I left the house of my father and took the train to no return.
I came to Sofia and I found my mother; I moved in and lived with her during the next few years.
Those were trying years of changes, chaos, comprehensive, pervasive crisis, hyperinflation, mafia wars and general misery and impoverishment. The ones who could, left the country; many people just didn’t make it.
Back in those days, I met the Sredovski family, who almost adopted me and thanks to their moral support and the super hard work of my mom and my brother supporting me financially – I graduated successfully from the National Art Academy in Sofia. In the hungriest years of the modern history of Bulgaria, I studied art and everyone claimed I was crazy.
Many stories later, I became the very first Erasmus exchange-student in Sint-Lucas Academy in Ghent and a year later, I moved to Belgium to stay.
As a slightly traumatized kid, I easily made an “observing teenager.” (I only opened up verbally, when I met my second family – they are all very sociable and chatty). I’ve been trying to understand people and social phenomena nonverbally all my life. I used to be good at reading body language and facial expressions. Back in the day, surviving was a real thing and having the skill for “guessing the person” and knowing who to trust was often your only weapon in life. So, there is no wonder I primarily paint people and portraits.
Nowadays, when things start to move too fast, I tend to slow down and start on a painting, which will spend at least a few months in my studio with me. In the era of quick-replaceable social media profile pictures and selfies – my gaze goes into the story of every character I create. I am interested in the psychology and unique complexity of my model and I try to become an intermediary between subject and viewer – building a connection that goes beyond painted portrait. Looking at the paintings should be like glimpsing the character’s diary or reading a page from his / her biography.
Also, being born in a country where everything was about functioning in a group, the communal life and with unification going on on every level – I’m now, very much interested in the individual. For that and many other reasons I love painting portraits/individual moments and personal stories.
My solo show ECHTE MENSEN – Real People, is just one more declaration of love for personal stories. The exhibition is open for visitors at Cultuurhuis de Bijl, Zoersel (Belgium), and is on view through February 2021.