‘Kukeri’, a rhythmic kind of word, is the name of an ancient Bulgarian Winter folk festival for which men dress up as monsters in hand made-masks, embroidered and beaded clothing and heavy belts of bells to dance along the streets and ward away evil spirits.
For this limited edition book, photographer Charlotte Wales travelled with Chopova Lowena to Pernik, Bulgaria, in January 2018 to document this year’s festival. The result is Kukeri, the book – part fashion catalogue, part documentary, part exploration of wild identity mash-up, character swaps, costume traditions and fantastical athletic personae.
Could you tell us about the book
The book - Kukeri is a collaborative project between Chopova Lowena and Charlotte Wales. We traveled to Bulgaria to the Kukeri festival in late January to document the costumes and shot the collection in both Bulgaria and at a London studio in a wrestling ring. We decided to shoot the collection in the snowscape inspired by imagery we found documenting the Kukeri in an old book, almost making the collection look ritualistic in the environment. The opposing side of the book was shot partly in a caged wrestling ring, where we had the freedom to really capture the energy of the 80’s spectacle of the sport. All these images were split into tops and bottoms to create alternating personas between all of the characters we captured.
could you tell us about Kukeri folk festival?
The festival was so full of energy and of tradition with the modern world creeping in, creating an almost mesmerising atmosphere. We witnessed the jangling of thousands of bells in harmonic rhythm, dozens of men dressed up as sexy nurses, and a man who had handmade a suit out of 5L plastic bottles, all in an attempt to ward off evil spirits for the following year. It was freezing and the festival was held in Pernik, surrounded by billowing mountains and a dreary city landscape, as archaic as these traditions may be, there was a cleansing, mystifying feeling when in the midst of the dancing and music.
How did this collaboration come about?
We connected through a mutual friend and from there we discussed working together and creating a project which was creatively free for both of us. The way the collection was created, by pairing research in opposing pairs but finding a line of communication between the different characters, became the inspiration for the format of the book.
What was the most surprising element of the project?
The project was exciting because we didn’t exactly know what we would find and how the festival would be this year. We were prepared for anything and the festival surpassed all of our expectations on what kind of characters we would find. We even ended up finding one of the most beautiful shoot locations by stopping at a mountainside petrol station by chance.
What do you want the readers to take away from it?
The book and the work highlight the unlikely overlaps in different themes and times in history, it's about reimagining these beautiful parts of tradition by displacing them within the context. Kukeri and wrestling belong together in our eyes, they form a perfectly mirroring and opposing pair, out of which something new is born.
Can you tell us about some of the people you met: particular people within local communities you spent time with?
We met whole schools and dance ensembles dressed up from their particular region, groups of men who drank all night and day in their hundred-year-old yak fursuits, WWE wrestlers, and a pair of twin Romani beauty queens. Even though most of us couldn’t communicate with the people at the festival, the way they reacted to having their pictures taken was amazing, rather than the typical shying away; the ceremony gave them a way to become performers.
What were the important messages?
Emma and Laura - For us the book is very personal and completely visually portrays the world which is in our heads. Our work is all about a clash of identities, between the two of us there are so many cultures and places we call home, we are fascinated with understanding where we come from, our work is the way we choose to untangle these strands of identity.
What’s next for both Charlotte Wales and Chopova Lowena?