Residency: Melania Toma
4 OCTOBER 2022 – 29 OCTOBER 2022 / Sarieva/Gallery, Plovdiv

Interview with Melania Toma

Cabin UTROBA - Part of Sarieva Residency at Sarieva / Gallery

In 2020 Sarieva/Gallery announced an open call for a resiency aimed at artists of all ages. The invitation aimed to support the re-opening of the art scene and the work of the creators while the gallery is preparing to welcome visitors again after the COVID-19 epidemic. The support included: providing a work space in the gallery for the artist and a budget for materials. Sarieva Residency is a laboratory that changes the perception of gallery space and provides opportunities for artists to have experience in a new environment that provokes and supports them to create. During this unique residence, the artist also has the opportunity to interact with the city and its area and to meet with specialists and people to contribute to the development of his work and his journey. The first selected resident, who transformed the gallery space into their own studio was Maria Nalbantova. In 2022, followed the residencies of Tsvetomira Borisova, Elena Tchergilanova and Melania Toma.

S: In his famous book “The Origins of History and Consciousness”, Erich Neumann (one of the most successful students of Carl Jung) writes “every creature comes from a womb”. Following his theories of an individual’s psychological development, the womb becomes an image, a “primordial symbol of the place of origin”. Can we find similar ideas in “Cabin UTROBA”?

M: Neumann analyses quite a lot the figure of the Great Mother and the Womb. He famously said that all creation myths began with the Uroboros, a symbol essentially referring to a self-contained, all–possessing continuum. Although the Uroboros appears both as the round container, the maternal womb, likewise the masculine one. This symbol is essentially feminine, and we cannot think of its origin outside of the woman.

The Womb-Uterus corresponds to an evolutionary stage in the psychic structure of every human being, and that is the transpersonal psychic stage of being before the formation of the Ego. Thus, it can be said that the embryonic ego consciousness slumbers in the perfect round, swimming in the ocean of the unborn, thus, the maternal womb. This process highlights the strong matriarchal relationship because the womb is the place of immemorial experience, anything representing the deep, the abyss, the valley, the ground, the sea, the lake, the underworld, the cave, the house. Basically, the womb gives nourishment, pleasure, protection, warmth, comfort, and forgiveness. This place gives the feeling of being contained in the whole, being the refuge of humanity as it always will be.

“Cabin UTROBA” is the Cave itself. The name of the exhibition refers directly to the Womb Cave, the Utrobata in the region of Kardzhali Province, Bulgaria. Entering the Uterus represents the encounter with the Uroboros and the Womb, it’s a comeback to the roots of every being and astarting journey for the transformation. In this cave, different elements, different artworks, textile creatures, and objects are taking over the space allowing us to experience them as guide-objects
in the journey

S: Italy has always been known for its old pagan roots. The famous feminist critic Camille Paglia writes: “Apotropaic charms are common in Italy, where belief in the evil eye is still strong. Gold hands and red or gold horns dangle from necks and hang in kitchens next to chains of garlic to drive away vampires. The Mediterranean has never lost its chthonian cultism.” Do you think your interest in primitive magic and shamanism has anything to do with your Italian heritage?

M: For sure. This sentence of Paglia reminds me of my obsession with horns. I am very attracted to these shapes and it’s a symbol which I work a lot with, both symbolically and materially. The symbol of the horn is very present in Italy, but mostly in the Southern part of the country. It’s very connected with a symbol of fertility with apotropaic power able to protect from the influences of the evil eye, believed to harm nursing mothers and their babies, bearing fruit trees, milking animals, and the sperm of men – the forces of generation.

S: Venus of Willendorf is one of the oldest artefacts in human history. The figure is estimated to have been made around 25,000-30,000 years ago. The figure is blind and masked. Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention of agriculture. She is faceless and eyeless. What do you think about the figure? Do you think it can be seen as an eternal symbol of female power?

M: This image is maybe the most popular starting point used by the spiritual feminist movements when it comes to reflecting ancient, goddess-worshipping times, and the recognition of the female power as a sacred one.

This question reminds me of the neologism “thealogy” used by the feminist and spiritual movements to indicate that they are reflecting on the divine as feminine, substituting the feminine Greek root “thea” for the masculine called “theos”. With their devotion to the divine, spiritual feminists argue that all their feelings cannot or should not be expressed with words alone.

The image that they are trying to communicate, close to the blind and masked image of Venus, is giving a primordial message: there was a time on earth when people worshipped Goddesses in preference of Gods; when the feminine was held to be sacred. This Venus Goddess symbol in this case is giving back the legitimacy to women’s history since it has been buried in our contemporary history. Through this excavation, we are realising how short the patriarchal period in human history has been in comparison with the 30,000 years of matristic history that flourished all over the world, from Europe to the Middle east.

S: What other symbols can be found in your art?

M: There are many symbols that I’m using in my creations. The most used one is probably the cultivated-field symbol in my practice. It’s able to connect all the different aspects and motifs inside of it. This symbol relates to the infinite combination of shapes represented by the uterus and the phallus. Usually, my creations result from the combination of these two shapes. It appears not only in my marks and drawings but is also very connected to the practice of textile art itself. This bucolic-agricultural topic is very important to me. When I open the fibres of an ancient tapestry to put my new threads, I do a similar act as opening the earth with the plough. Fertility and transformation are deep down related to earth.

S: During your residency you’ve been visiting abandoned villages, caves and other sacred places. What did you learn from Bulgarian culture? Did you find anything specific that you didn’t have the chance to see in other places?

M: Recently, I was very guided in my research project here in Bulgaria by the symbols found in the
tradition of the tapestry. Particularly with the tree of Life and the Great Mother symbols when they merged together. Going around different sacred and abandoned places in Bulgaria has given me a lot of inspiration. I’ve found a lot of very interesting symbols and objects. In “Cabin UTROBA”, you can see the objects that guided my journey and exploration of different territories. Among these objects, you can find a pair of old scissors, urns and other savvy human tools. As far as I’m concerned, objects are always the starting point of my research.

S: Born in Italy, currently living in London, residing for a month in Bulgaria and leaving to Mexico in January for another international residency – you seem like a very cross-cultural artist. Tell us more about the life of a travelling artist and the challenges and obstacles that you face?

M: I am based in London but I will keep trying to move often these upcoming years. I’m obsessed with the development of humanity all over the place; the tools that humans were using, their relationship to birth and death, their sacred rituals, and all their craftships. This regular movement helps me to get constant inspiration and reminds me that our journey on earth is linked to everlasting transformation. 

S: How do you see your practice developing after your time at Sarieva / Gallery and Bulgaria in general? Is there something new that changed your way of working?

M: Creating an exhibition and exploring intensely in such a short time was quite ambitious. This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect deeply on my roots as an artist and my values. It gave me the opportunity to create in a very different setting.

The interview was conducted by Stanimir Stoyanov in October 2022.