Petya Ilieva: Art is the surest way for “soft power” in diplomacy

The bus stop on the Blvd. Tsarigradsko shose bus stop in the area of Kv. Yavorov, transformed within the Art4Diplomacy project, shows the Military Club in Bucharest (source.)

The Bulgarian visual artist talks to The Bridge of Friendship blog about her Art4Diplomacy project and the two Sofia public transport bus stations, which she transformed with images from Bucharest

Vladimir Mitev

In August and September 2022, two public transport stops in Sofia were “dressed up” with photos of buildings from Bucharest. Their refreshment is part of Art4Diplomacy, a Bulgarian cultural diplomacy project implemented by visual artist Petya Ilieva.

She holds a PhD from New Bulgarian University with the dissertation “Bulgarian Art and Folklore as International Bridges and Cultural Diplomacy”, and an MA in Painting and Aesthetics from the University of Veliko Tarnovo. Her exhibitions have been shown in a number of galleries in Bulgaria and abroad – for example at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London, at the Bulgarian Embassies in Paris and Delhi, at various venues in New York, Washington, Chicago, Japan, Lebanon, Qatar, etc. Petya Ilieva is also a restorer of murals, as well as an author of scientific publications in the field of cultural heritage and art. She is the founder of an annual festival of cultures of nations called Art4Diplomacy and works with all foreign diplomatic missions in Bulgaria.

The interview was accomplished on 10 October 2022. 

Ms. Ilieva, what is the concept of the Art4Diplomacy project? How does it contribute to Bulgaria’s better relations with the world through cultural diplomacy?

The Art4Diplomacy project (art for diplomacy) aims to introduce people to the art, culture and cultural and historical heritage of different countries and peoples around the world. The initiatives of this project (8 so far) are in the public space, free and accessible to all. In this way a part of the world comes to us and Bulgarians can get to know it. Each time I provide interesting, curious and little known facts about different countries, related to folklore, music, clothing, traditions and customs, architecture, historical, political or economic events in different places on all continents. The information is absolutely authentic because it comes directly from the source. The embassies and diplomatic missions accredited in our country are the intermediaries who provide the information and materials. They also bear the costs of implementing the initiatives. It is their duty to show their countries in the most attractive way possible, close to the host country’s population. It is my idea how to bring together, in one place, people and cultures with different, often opposing, political systems, religions, traditions and lifestyles and to reveal to people where, in what they can look for closeness and how to see the charm in the differences rather than seeing them as contradictions. 

The Art4Diplomacy project is a shining example of public diplomacy, the foundation on which actual diplomacy emerged historically and has been built over the centuries. Traditional art is the surest, flawlessly working and only positive tool of diplomacy. Nowadays it is an often neglected method because it is ‘soft power’, acting slowly over time, through accumulation, whereas now quick action is sought that leads to instant reactions. Soft power can never lead to conflict or aggression and has therefore been used for millennia to subdue peoples through familiarity and attachment. Besides the informational or educational element, the aesthetic part is very important to me. The Art4Diplomacy objects contribute to the aestheticization of the street space.

Within the framework of the project, photos of the Military Club in Bucharest and the Atheneum concert hall in the Romanian capital were placed at stops along the Tsarigradsko Shose boulevard and next to the Rector’s Office of the Sofia University on ul. Shipka. What events accompanied their placement and how were they received by the Romanian Embassy and the people in both countries?

I was provided by the Romanian side with two photos with a wish to install them at two stops with different locations. Both of them, besides the architecture of the buildings on them, impress with their bright saturated colours. Both have night landscapes. On Blvd. “Tsarigradsko Shose” can be seen in all its glory, bathed in orange lights in the center of Bucharest and the Military Club. On Shipka Street, at the bus stop of Sofia University, is the image of the Romanian Athenaeum.

The Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest is a building opened in 1888 as the home of the Philharmonic Orchestra. It is also the most prestigious concert hall in Romania. Built with funds from popular donations, there was a campaign in which citizens donated one leu each. An interesting fact (which is the reason we put the image in this particular place) is that a large sum for the construction of the architectural jewel was donated by the brothers Evlogy and Hristo Georgiev, donors of the land and the funds for the construction of the SU. We had a modest ceremony to inaugurate the renewed look of the bus stop, where I and H.E. Brăndusă Predescu, the Ambassador of Romania in Bulgaria, told Mr. Arseni Valchinov, the Deputy Mayor of the Oborishte district where the bus stop is located and Mr. Georgi Iliev, the Mayor of the Slatina district where the Embassy of Romania is located, as well as journalists from BTA about the project and the building that is the subject of this particular image.

What is your own experience with Romania? How did you come to realize the #Art4Diplomacy project, having had a career as a visual artist for a long time?

I have experience with Romania, as a participant in an international art festival in Medgidia in 2019. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about their culture in 10 days.

To your question, how did I come to realize the Art4Diplomacy project after having a long career as a visual artist, I can answer quite naturally. This project is a logical continuation of my ten years of presenting Bulgarian culture around the world, on six continents. The time has come for me to start presenting foreign culture here in Bulgaria, to broaden the horizons of my compatriots and to bring new elements into the public space. In addition to my Master’s degree in Painting and Aesthetics, I have a PhD in Cultural Diplomacy. In all my activities (for me work and private life overlap almost 100%) I purposefully use art and cultural heritage as a diplomatic tool and a form of international communication.

Photo: H.E. Ambassador Brândușa Predescu (gesturing), Petya Ilieva, Arseneni Valchinov, Deputy Mayor of Oborishte District and Georgi Iliev, Mayor of Slatina District in Sofia (source: Petya Ilieva, Facebook)

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

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