On the trail of Bulgarian art around Europe
Exactly one year ago, in the warm but still isolated month of July, we, the co-founders of 5new got into a car and sped towards hope. We were only armed with one #PinkCloudBlast to guide us in the right direction and protect us from bad luck. We hoped that we would have good weather, that the pandemic measures would not thwart our plans and that we ourselves would remain healthy enough to be able to carry out the long-planned and repeatedly rescheduled meeting with Evelyn Heylen – the Cultural Manager at the Hugo Voeten Art Center.
We went to the hiding place of Bulgarian contemporary art, in a small and quite unpopular town in Belgium – Herentals. The treasure of over 1000 works of Bulgarian artists is kept with care and diligence by the heirs of an equally unknown collector – a dreamer who simply fell in love with our art and understood our masters well.
Inspired by the past and by the works hidden behind museum doors, we decided to tell in our own way the story of a remarkable collection compiled in the 1990s. The man behind this collection is Hugo Wooten, and although he is a well-known philanthropist in Bulgaria, in his native Belgium and around the world, he remains a man like any other. What sets him apart from other ordinary people, however, is his belief in art, inherited from his mother, accompanied by the motto Je m’en fous. We couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person Hugo Voeten was. Why an ordinary businessman heads to post-socialist Bulgaria and begins to challenge artists to reach new creative heights. Without specifically seeking the expertise of art professionals, Hugo Voeten trusts his instincts, which he developed from a young age visiting auction houses and antiques with his mother. But why read about these stories from the past here, when you can actually hear and see them in our specially arranged interview with the curator of the collection, Evelyn.
The history of this collection is very inspiring for travelers who can stop at the two key points. Our first stop is Herentals and the old grain factory, transformed into a unique center with nine floors dedicated only to art, and a third to Bulgarian art. The second detour from this sort of archive of some of our recent art history is the Geel Sculpture Park. The entire garden adjacent to Hugo Voeten’s summer residence is dotted with works by our artists. See shots of gardens in our video collection, which we presented during the traveling exhibition “Why in the world Bulgarian Art” at the Ruse Regional History Museum.
The short walks through the monumental art showed us how multifaceted the talent of Bulgarian artists is. The collection of Yugo Wooten includes works by Alexandra Chaushova, Alyosha Kafedzhiyski, Atanas Yaranov, Bora Petkova, Valentin Starchev, Valyo Chenkov, Vanko Urumov, Velislava Gecheva, Velichko Minekov, Vladimir Dimitrov, Galin Malakchiev, Genko Genkov, Desislava Mincheva, Dimitar Boykov, Svetlin Rusev, Snezhana Simeonova, Stefan Lyutakov, Tsvetoslav Hristov and others.
It is an incredible feeling to walk along the Bulgarian stone alleys, lined with tons of granite from the village of Ilindentsi in Bulgaria, specially ordered by Hugo Voeten. Even the ground we walked on spoke of this unrelenting talent, which, like a genie from a sealed bottle, was released in the 90s of the last centuries.
But let’s look at the narrative more chronologically. On July 5th, 2021, we already traveled to Antwerp, where we stayed overnight, so that on July 6th, at early dawn, we could head to the Belgian collector’s treasury in Herentals, Belgium. We had planned to have our working meeting to finalize the final details of the script over a glass of wine and a delicious dinner. Our plan included not missing out on enjoying charming Antwerp and here are some shots from the exciting start. Antwerp is a city steeped in artistry. Almost every corner hides something that reminds of the creative spirit. This encouraged us to blend in with the crowds and even try to find common ground with them. Excited about our upcoming visit to one of the largest collections of Bulgarian contemporary art in Europe, we asked a few passers-by what they knew about Bulgarian artists and whether they knew the collector and their fellow countryman who believed so strongly in the talent of our artists. The answer among all those asked was unequivocal – no one had heard of Hugo Voeten, and the idea of Bulgaria seemed close to them only through the artist Christo and his wife, who lived in France. This recurring plot in our meeting with the local population did not disappoint us. Even on the contrary. It turned the question “Why exactly has Bulgarian art won Voeten’s heart” into a leading one during the interviews we did and gave within the project. Of course, not everything was smooth sailing that day. We had armed ourselves with a rucksack of just three handsfrees acting as microphones, three personal smartphones with cameras, two stands, power strips, duct tape, clips, make-up, some memory sticks and a question script. Predictably, we ordered a set of lights to add light to the phones’ cameras, but during the pandemic, and at the height of it in Belgium, something went wrong and the lights were days late! We were already considering lighting alternatives when the hotel reception called us with the saving news that a courier had just left a package for us. We immediately rushed to unpack and test the fixtures.