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Phenix Varbanov: Through art I want to cure myself, and the world, of the heavy burden of wars

The cosmopolitan artist between the exhibitions “Pulsations” and “Swell”

Photo: Diana Tsankova

We find Phenix Varbanov between two exhibitions. The cosmopolitan artist arrived from Paris to present a concept to the Bulgarian audience that was born in the “frozen” world of the pandemic. In his exhibition “Pulsations” he looks for the vibrations of the immense space around and inside us, whereas “Swell” is the inner depth where red-hot emotions pulsate.

“A drop in the ocean” – this is the title Phenix Varbanov gave the large work which will be the centerpiece in his forthcoming exhibition in Sofia. The idea of all works from “Swell” is to instill in the viewers a sense of the infinite, the author says.

But what is he encapsulating in his own drop?

“It is a very small drop in the history of art and of life which I am hoping will make waves and affect people emotionally,” Phenix Varbanov says. “The spirit is very important for this small drop and, as they say – a trickle turns into a stream that could work towards peace in this world.”

Because of the Chinese element in his life, coming from his Chinese mother Song Huai-Kuei, he chose to use paper and drawing ink to create abstract worlds in black and white. But these worlds of contemplation, purity and calm are often broken by dramatics - in red.

“Red symbolizes the blood running in our veins, the blood that is being spilt, but also the pure energy, the volcano spewing lava that is our bond with nature,” explains Phenix Varbanov in an interview with Radio Bulgaria. “Through art we contemplate, we meditate, and I would like to cure myself, and the world, of the heavy burden, most of all, of the wars and the clash between different civilizations. I believe this is one way for people to be drawn closer to one another rather than living in conflict.”

From China, Phenix has taken the technique he uses in his works. “Paper that is very good, made in a traditional way, as well as drawing ink,” the artist says. He combines them with elements of the Western culture he was raised on in his teenage years in Paris. “I find inspiration in modern artists – abstractionists, constructivists, expressionists, and that is the road I have taken.”

But what about the Bulgarian element? “I have Bulgarian blood flowing in my veins very powerfully,” he answers.

“The Bulgarian element – that’s dramatics, a deep Balkan emotion,” the artist says. “I grew up in Bulgaria and I am closely connected with the emotional approach to things. My father is Bulgarian, and he instilled in me a Bulgarian view of things that has depth, beauty, and, yes, dramatics.”

The story of his parents – textile artist Marin Varbanov, who divided his time between Bulgaria, China and France, and successful artist, fashion model and actress Song Huai-Kuei - left a mark on his own life. Leaving behind his childhood in Sofia, when he was only 14 he left for Paris where his father had been invited by the minister of culture to create a workshop for modern tapestries. The family managed to flee the wire fences of communist Bulgaria, and in Paris, the son learnt to speak French and graduated from Lycèe Pilote de Sèvres and Ecole Nationale Supèriore des Beaux-Arts. But before all that came the story of his father, who, as a young man, grabbed the opportunity of going to study art in Beijing (Peking), and of a Chinese art student.

“People have always been interested in that fantastic love story,” Phenix Varbanov says. “In the 1950s my father was sent to study art – textiles – in Beijing, where he met my mother. When they decided to get married they had to write a letter to Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, because marriage between a Chinese person and a foreigner was a precedent. But he gave his consent because of the friendship between the two communist countries, and the two got married in Beijing in 1954. Then they returned to Bulgaria and I was born.”

After moving to Paris, Marin Varbanov met Pierre Cardin who hailed his revolutionary drive to turn tapestries into a modern installation, and bought works of his for a Fifth Avenue art centre in New York. The fashion mogul was enthralled with Song Huai-Kuei – in the 1980s she organized his first fashion show in an Asian country - in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Meanwhile Phenix Varbanov graduated in the French capital and specialized at the Chinese Academy of Art in Hangzhou. In 1992 he had his first solo exhibition at the Beijing art gallery, and then went on to display works of his in Paris, New York, Luxembourg. In 2016 he opened his exhibition “Tracks in the road” which led him back to the town of his childhood.

In his works, Phenix Varbanov does not offer recognizable images, leaving viewers to make their own interpretations. What is the result of these interpretations?

“Anyone expressing any kind of feelings about my works is giving me the support and the energy to continue on my way,” he says.

In this process Phenix Varbanov sometimes uses both hands in his search for harmony and balance.

 “The left hand is often weaker and more sensitive, the right hand is steadier,” the artist adds. “They are like two forces, two energies, like yin and yang which clash with one another, or blend, or embrace.”

We are talking to Phenix Varbanov on the eve of the day that is considered the most Bulgarian day of all – 24 May. His memories of Bulgaria, his bond with the country through art and the fluent Bulgarian he speaks – all this is an indication of what this heritage means to him:

 “It is very a very rich heritage,” the artist says. “Bulgaria has very good artists, writers, musicians whose power and energy is something I draw on and that is why I go back every year. Bulgarian culture gives me so much and I need this poignant and infectious way of looking at the world. It inspires me and I always go back to the studio in Paris with new ideas, a new way of seeing the world.”

Translated and posted by Milena Daynova

Photos courtesy of Phenix Varbanov, Diana Tsankova, Ani Petrova-BNR

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