Interview with art historian Sonja Abadzieva Dimitrova: MSU was a guide where tastes were tempered

Sonja Abadzieva Dimitrova / Photo: Personal archive

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) in Skopje celebrated the 10th anniversary of its founding act (February 60, 11) with a noon matinee on February 1964. The anniversary of MSU attracted a large audience. With joy in her eyes and pride in her heart, among the present audience was Sonja Abadzieva Dimitrova, art historian, curator and art critic, and in the period from 1977 to 1985, director of the institution.

A huge number of collaborations with foreign and domestic artists, mounted exhibitions, published monographs, art forewords for catalogs, essays and critical texts about the work of artists connect her with MSU. She devoted almost her entire life to work in and with MSU, and some details remained permanently etched in her memories.

This year, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) in Skopje marks 60 years since its founding act in 1964. Bearing in mind that for a certain period you were the director of the institution, what kind of feeling does the jubilee give you?

- I am almost the same age at this jubilee, in one year there is a difference, which means that we have grown and developed together. That umbilical cord is so strong that I cannot be objective in evaluating the real valorization of MSU, and the feeling, it is simply unconditional love, if you want we can label it as sentimentality. Of course, there must be elements of comparison, and of course, I was always better at "that time" of the birth and youth of the Museum.

Sonja Abadzieva Dimitrova (in the middle) among the audience on February 10 at MSU

The museum itself is based on the solidarity art collection, which was created after the 1963 Skopje earthquake. From today's point of view, such artistic solidarity is almost impossible to imagine. Is there an answer to the question why so many world artists donated their works to Skopje?

- When mega-institutions, such as UNESCO, ICOM, associations of artists from Poland, Croatia, Italy... and museums around the world come into play, a very positive trend of a specific kind of empathy, sympathy, solidarity is created. As if the states were competing in the desire to resurrect it, to leave their stamp on a dying city. At that time of initiation of knowledge about the enormous and dynamic help of Skopje, I do not know how we few employees handled customs, transport, verification and documentation of the arrived works of art. So, we worked a lot, rejoiced a lot, believed and hoped. That's why from the first depot of MSU, in an apartment near Zelen Pazar, we carried the works of art by hand, "walking" to the new accommodation in a shed of the Assembly of the City of Skopje.

But we also had great help and understanding from politicians and companies. I will mention today the unimaginable fact that we exhibited (first part of the art collection, and then the renowned "May Salon" from Paris) in the National Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia. And the giant "Interimpex" gave us the room on the former street. "Gyuro Salaj" - the golden point in the city - where Pablo Picasso presented himself with solo exhibitions with original graphics, Petar Mazev with paintings, Jordan Grabul with the first minimalist sculptures. Then the sidewalk, as well as the street in front of the gallery, were too narrow to gather the curious citizens.

I wanted to recite all this at the recent 60th anniversary of MSU, at which I was invited to speak, but recitations do not work for me, so now I use the opportunity to communicate some "intimate moments" about MSU, which are remembered, but not are noted.

Sonja Abadzieva Dimitrova at the time she worked at MSU / Archive of Sonja Abadzieva

You held the position of director at MSU in the period from 1977 to 1985, and you succeeded the first director of the institution, Boris Petkovski. If the founding of the institution and the opening of the MSU facility in 1970 were challenges for Petkovski, what challenges did you face during the management of the institution?

- This jubilee was supposed to be dedicated to the founder of MSU - Professor Boris Petkovski. I became a director, almost by force, under the pressure of politicians. At that time, he had great responsibility for everything and there were no candidates for director positions. My main intention was to maintain continuity in the growth of the museum collections and it worked, but not with that intensity.

However, my colleagues and I contacted hundreds of artists around the world, telling them the story of our institution, whose core was the works of Picasso, Vassarelli, Soulage, Masson, Zao Wu Qi... We also followed the world's art exhibitions, in order to keep up with the new ones. artistic names and practices, both through contacts with friends and directly with the artists.

During my tenure, we collected 1165 new works, including names such as Saul Levitt, Georg Baselitz, Bridget Reilly, Niki de Saint Phalle, Victor Passmore, Mimo Rotela, Yannis Gaitis, as well as a large collection of Japanese and Greek authors.

What I would like to emphasize is the start of publishing monographs, in cooperation with NIP "Macedonian Book", of famous Macedonian artists: Dimitar Pandilov, Dimo ​​Todorovski, Toma Vladimirski, Borko Lazeski, Spase Kunovski... and with obligatory reviewers of top Yugoslav professionals.

Dispersed activities (thematic educational exhibitions outside MSU) in working groups, in schools and cultural centers in the villages were another expanded activity (for example, we presented the "Kitsch and Art" project in the factory "Usje", schools and Culture Centers in the villages of Sandevo, Ilinden...).

The dynamics of the Museum included parallel and successive presentations from the fields of architecture, caricature, film and video art. We managed with Boris Petkovski to break the usual practice of presenting Yugoslav creativity exclusively by three Yugoslav republics, taking over the Yugoslav presentation at the Venice Biennale in 1978. Then, as commissioners, we presented the realizations of Dusan Perchinkov, Petar Hadji Boshkov and Tomo Shijak to the world public.

Preparations for the permanent installation of the MSU collective with Boris Petkovski / Sonja Abadzieva's archive

Do you remember the moments of the opening of the MSU facility and what the museum meant for the fine arts in Macedonia at that time?

- From the moment when the whole of Macedonia gathered at the inauguration in MSU and when the "white swan" of Blaže Koneski was revealed over the Skopje sky, it became a kind of sanctuary, respected, encouraged and visited by top artists, professionals, politicians, cultural workers. Every foreign delegation or persons from abroad came first to MSU, then eventually to the monasteries (Tito, King Baudouin, Michel Dufresne, Jacques Chaban del Mas, Pierre Restany, Raphael Alberti...). The museum tried to show current authors from around the world at the same time as Macedonian artists. It became a cult place that was difficult to reach, it was an elite institution in every way, a paradigm.

What is the "weight" of the solidarity collection from today's perspective?

- Dozens of authors from the MSU collection are today in the focus of world lists of priority authors. Occasionally, later and some, at the time, peripheral creators soared into the focus of experts, changed the marginal position to an actual one. However, our museum collection is not only a child of solidarity. We also practiced exchanging works with other museums or galleries, there were significant purchases from at least two purchase commissions (republic and city) and from the Museum itself, donations, etc., which we exhibited continuously as "Donated works".

Our fine art, as much as it was following other people's steps, it was also the incorporation of an individual, identity-critical spirit in the global speech

Considering that for 20 years you also worked as a curator at MSU, what is its significance in the development of contemporary art in our country?

- MSU was a guide, according to the activities that took place under its "dome". Tastes, directions, "stylistic" determinations were tempered here, because one of the capital landmarks for our authors were the collections themselves, from which established and future authors were educated. An extremely heterogeneous construct in terms of chronology, styles, techniques or areas, the collection offered a plethora of possibilities of processing, reformulation, an effort to discover a "terra nova" in the territory of the known. Forms of pastiche, borrowed narratives from authoritative figures, were also practiced. That imitation without asking questions later merged into a collective discourse commonly called postmodernism. Our fine art, as much as it was following other people's steps, was also the incorporation of an individual, identity-critical spirit in the global speech.

I single out the first exciting achievements, declared as "artepovera", with which we seem to open up the Yugoslav horizon, revealing the magic of nature (first Simon Shemov, then Petre Nikoloski, Gligor Stefanov).

In this period, in the absence of a general signifier, the awakening of feminist orientations took place, encouraged by official and non-institutional instances, by me and by my colleague Susana Milevska. Attention was particularly focused on the permanent setup concept, modified several times since 1970. Significant emphasis was also placed on the presentation of Macedonian authors outside the country (Munich, Turin, Rome, Paris, Bradford, Athens, Belgrade, Zagreb...).

The poets Mateja Matevski and Rafael Alberti with Sonja Abadjieva at MSU / Archive of Sonja Abadjieva

MSU has always been the place where new phenomena in fine art were exhibited. What tendencies existed at the time when you worked as a curator and curator, and what are they today, since you regularly visit the exhibitions at MSU, but also in other art spaces?

– The art speeches, as I mentioned, were heterogeneous, starting from lyrical and expressionist abstractions, enformal, surrealism, new figuration, to the beginnings of the first performances and actions in public space, but there were also provocative projects, such as, for example, "Appendix 2 " by Gligor Chemerski (parody, open criticism of MANU's policy).

And then and now I miss some more solid pillars, I'm even sentimental towards the modernist Rimbaud "to express the unspeakable, examine the invisible and hear the unheard". Even today we are faced with some colorful screen of visions, visions, youthful spirit of curiosity. I will not establish trends and styles, I will mention certain reflections of injured human dignity, dark a la Yannis Kounelis interpretations, Polokian irritating dynamisms, Baconian woundedness of the psyche, cheerful Warholian parody, reinterpretations of Tony Smith, emphasized "Afro" figurations, today especially current in the USA, experimentation with new technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

But at the same time, the performances, the ambient, multidisciplinary, transmedia actions or the "site specific" projects, also existed velvety anachronistic interpretations of the history of visual arts.

With what purpose did you once initiate and found the magazine "Golemoto kasle"?

- It would be an understatement to say that I am proud of this initiative and long-term realization of the first and only contemporary art magazine in Macedonia, initiated in 1995. Taking note of the situation regarding the marginal recording of artistic developments, we concluded that it is really incorrect to ignore the significant contribution of our fine arts.

The "Big Glass" wanted to be a kind of child - a reflection of Marcel Duchamp's cosmic signification. The idea was to cover the breadth of our artistic potential, to indicate the differentiation of expressions, often compared to the realization of great events in the world through interviews with top authors, such as Yayoi Kusama, Tony Craig, the interpreters of the "Fluxus" movement...

I think that suddenly the largest breadth of our art historical and critical capacity was opened up until then. New opportunities were given to creators and all critics of all generations. Speaking of fine artists, I cannot keep silent about my revolt against the Ministry of Culture (regardless of the managing minister), which as a rule, for years, allocates not only modest funds for cultural creativity in general, but drastically and impermissibly underestimates the visual artists, bypassing their personal material investments in artistic production, without being dignified.

Even today, our "glorious people" are in such an inferior position. As an adviser to a Minister of Culture and a member of several committees in the Ministry of Culture, my efforts to change this practice were in vain. That's why we created the "Big Glass": as a necessity and as a protest.

Cover page of the latest issue of "The Big Glass" magazine, launched on February 10, 2024

You have published multiple monographs on notable authors, publications and books. You also worked as an art critic. How important is professional art criticism to be present in the media and why?

- Yes, I was lucky to publish a dozen monographs, several books and write more forewords, criticisms and reviews. It is our duty and creation expects it from us. Today, the profession of critic almost does not exist, although Macedonia is a member of the World Association of Art Critics AIKA. As a compensation for this shortcoming, we should accept "Cultural Press" and thank it for its persistence and value.

What are the projects or processes that you are personally glad you accomplished?

- These are exactly my constant efforts for the growth of collections, monographs and exhibitions of Macedonian art in the country and outside it, and especially the organization of the Venice Biennale (1978, 1993, 2005), as well as the magazine "Golemoto kasle".

(The interview was published in "Kulturen Pechat" number 219, in the print edition of the newspaper "Sloboden Pechat" on 24-25.02.2024)

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