“You have to be crazy to do what we are doing”, Katrin Sarieva tells me over a cup of coffee. And I think she’s right. To launch a contemporary art gallery in Plovdiv in 2004 no doubt required a strong measure of triumph of optimism over common sense. Back then, the city wasn’t the vibrant, sought after destination it is today. But she (with her daughter) did it anyway. And she has built quite the venue, heavily featuring Bulgarian-born artists and being committed to promoting their work far beyond the borders of our homeland.
I first learned of the Sariev Contemporary Gallery from Instagram. The striking images and provocative concepts kept drawing me in. Then I realized the gallery is adjacent to my favorite cafe in Plovdiv and I paid it a visit. The space is very compact but its impact is oversized. The solo show “I Walk a Labyrinth Which is a Straight Line” by Stefan Nikolaev was on view when I first visited. And this coming Friday, July 14, a new exhibition by the artist Dimiter Shopov will open and luckily, I get to see it this week.
Katrin Sarieva is not simply a talented patron of the arts, curator, and historian. More than anything, she is a gifted story teller - and, boy, does she have stories to tell! Her family lore is equal parts fascinating and tragic - her progressive and wealthy grandparents were nearly decimated by the communist regime. Her own life has been marked by the ups and downs of the painful transformations Bulgaria has been going through during the last decades. But Katrin dares to dream and when I ask her what she thinks is the reason for the pronounced tendency of my fellow Bulgarians to be skeptical or even jaded, it’s the lack of dreaming on a grand scale she cites as the culprit. And I suspect she may be right.
Katrin believes that art, contemporary art in particular, is a form of community engagement and that it’s an important way for travelers to get a sense of the “here and now” of a place. Together with her daughter, Vesselina Sarieva, she is the founder of the Open Arts Foundation, a public-interest non-governmental organization dedicated to sustainable development and the creation of models and practices to support the Bulgarian modern culture. Another long-term project is the creation of the so called Alternative Map of Plovdiv. It was first conceived in 2013 and initially included seven theme-based walks. Among them are a Bauhaus Architecture route and a Communist Era one. Recently, the list was updated to include the Hadji Hasan Neighborhood, the Hills as a Form of Urban Life, and a few more. Each one is carefully constructed to reveal a cohesive, colorful part of the city’s identity.
We talk at length and jump around random subjects - her love of fabrics, her past as a career academic with a history degree, her travels. She pulls a copy of one of her late husband’s poetry books from a shelf - the artnewscafé doubles as a book store/library. We talk about jewelry and fashion - she has a striking sense of style. “Everything I own has a story”, Katrin playfully laughs. “And if it doesn’t, I invent one.”
As the conversation winds down in the hot summer day, I ask her to describe Plovdiv in three words and she poses and laughs. “Plovdiv is like a mediterranean lover”, she tells me. “Somewhat self-centered but, oh, so vigorous.”
It’s not just that everything Katrin Sarieva owns has a story, it’s that everything she creates has a story. And I look forward to discovering more of her tales.
Katrin’s recommendation for a consistently good quality restaurant in Plovdiv - the restaurant at Hebros Hotel: http://www.hebros-hotel.com/