George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 19 January 2007
Owen Powell – 19th January 2007
Right. Strap yourselves in. Here comes the whirlwind. It’s Milena Stamboliyska from Bulgaria.
Before we begin, let’s look at that name. As far as Milena knows, only one other family in Bulgaria have the same surname, and the most famous member of that family, Aleksandar, was Prime Minister after the First World War. (Technically, it wasn’t quite the same name – his ended “-ski” and not “-ska”, as in Bulgaria you change your name depending on your gender. So Milena’s brother, for example, has the same name as the Prime Minister man, but not the same name as Milena.) The name was initially a nickname her great-great-grandfather had – it means “Istanbuller”, or “Someone From Istanbul”, as he was a trader there. The wanderlust, as we can see, is a long-standing part of Milena’s heritage.
It’s kind of difficult to know where to start. The Mexican musician she found in a Mayan temple? Pouring champagne for Madonna the night she said “Motherfucker” on live television? The two MAs? The exhibition of her art in the West End? DJing with the percussionist from Basement Jaxx?
Possibly the first place to start is how we got to meet Milena. She’s a friend of Ligia, from Colombia (see no.18), and met her while they worked together as designers on The Voice newspaper. Alex had got her email address, contacted her and arranged to meet one lunchtime in Kensington. I had had a busy and hungry morning, so found just enough time to wolf down an old-fashioned English breakfast in a café nearby while Alex watched with a look of vague disgust on his face. I couldn’t quite finish it, pushed my plate away, and the look of disgust turned to one of hope as he reached over and dipped a half-eaten sausage in some bean juice. Sometimes, I wonder what all our foreign visitors make of meals like the English breakfast. I can’t believe that many of them are impressed.
Feeling a little bit bloated, we waited at South Kensington station and Alex sent a text to try to identify us to Milena: “Great, we’re there, I’ve got blue shoes, Owen’s holding a coffee”. (I’m not really sure about his shoes. I think they’re made of rubber). A few minutes later, his phone pinged and Milena’s reply flashed up: “Shorty blonde in black :)”. The tension mounted as the time ticked on, a few shorty blondes came and went, and another text arrived from Milena disparaging the bus routes of south west London. My coffee cup had been empty for a while, but as my only identifying mark I didn’t want to throw it away. Why couldn’t I have worn something more distinctive? Then, as we were scouting out the north exit, we heard a bustle at the south and in dashed a shorty blonde, in black, looking very closely at everyone’s shoes.
We went to a nearby café – there were no Bulgarian restaurants in the vicinity – and took a table out on the pavement. Milena’s life story began tumbling out of her almost as soon as the coffee and chocolate arrived, and hasn’t really stopped even now – we’re still getting the odd email and text message filling us in on things she missed out. To take it chronologically, the tale begins in the year 2000, when Milena (then aged 25) completes her MA at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, and decides to go for a second one, this time in Textiles, at Goldsmith’s, London. (We’ve met Goldsmith’s before – see numbers 16 and 17.) Whilst there, she began working for the Tate art gallery – interesting work, you might think, for a post-post-graduate art student. Except that this was for the Tate Special Events team, which essentially boils down to catering work. Hence the champagne for Madonna, poured on the night of the Turner Prize ceremony in 2001. Milena worked for the Tate for three years, and made a serious proposal that the gallery should consider devoting a room to the work of its staff (most of whom, it seems, are active artists). Unfortunately, this proposal came to nothing, but it typifies Milena’s attitude to getting things done in London. (It also typifies, the cynic might say, the attitude of the Tate towards artists who aren’t international superstars).
During this time, Milena was showing her work elsewhere, at various art fairs, but in April 2004 she hit the West End with her first full show. She had applied for a grant from the National Campaign for the Arts, and they had given her not only some funding but also a space to exhibit, at Kingly Court in Soho. Her exhibition, “Uncontrolled Unresolved”, opened in April 2004 (details can be found at www.artatkinglycourt.co.uk/Milena%20Stamboliyska.html). It was a mixture of painting, photography and video, exploring ideas connected to Alice (as in Wonderland) and the looking glass. Another shorty blonde experiencing weird events in a different world, you might think …
This exhibition appears to have been a bit of a crossroads for Milena. She sold a painting, but I get the impression that she decided to put her artistic career on hold while she looked at other options. A few months later, she’s in Sevilla, Spain, taking part in an archaeological dig. And why ever not? The flights and the course were all paid for, and they got to examine an interesting part of the town prior to it being redeveloped. Milena herself didn’t find much of interest, but, as she said, “A girl from Manchester found a sculpture of a Phoenician scarab beetle” – which is a phrase I might start using instead of “You win some, you lose some.”
When she got back to London, Milena decided to turn her artistic talents to more practical ends, and got a job (after some work experience) as a designer at Vogue House, home of the posh magazines publishing empire. For a while, she was at World of Interiors, but found it a little boring, and moved on to Country Living (again, didn’t really get on with it), then, finally, out of Vogue completely at The Voice. This sounded like a lot of fun – it’s where she met our Colombian, Ligia – although after a change in management the atmosphere also changed, and she decided to move on again.
Milena has now set herself up as a self-employed designer, although like many self-employed people (myself included) she has a part-time day job to keep those London rent payments ticking over. It’s quite a zeitgeisty job, she’s a team leader for a promotional company who work for Associated News, handing out the free paper London Lite to commuters at the end of the day.
Her attitude to London seems to have gone through the usual ups and downs that most Londoners face: “Ah … sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I just want to escape.” She’s certainly managed that, on a number of occasions. Every summer, she goes back to Bulgaria (“I miss the nature there”) to help her old art tutor produce a music festival. In the summer of 2005, this involved her DJing with Jorge Batista, the Brazilian percussionist who performed live with Basement Jaxx for four years. She has also been to the States, for three months in 2001 (flying back a week after 9-11), and again last summer to visit her brother in LA. However, LA turned out to be a bit too dull, so instead she went backpacking around Mexico, where she found Alejandro “in some ruins” and took him straight off to Bulgaria to perform with his guitar in that summer’s music festival. At the risk of sounding like I am making all this up, I have to report that whilst there, he had to have his appendix removed. It didn’t put him off, they now live (and work) together in Battersea, producing music, videos and artwork. Her London base has gradually moved across the south, from New Cross in the Goldsmith’s years, through Peckham, and now to SW11. Travel plans this year include Egypt, for a chance to compare and contrast the ancient civilisations there with the culture of the Mayans she saw in Mexico.
I think it was at about this point that I asked if there was anything she hadn’t done. Without a pause for breath, she answered, “I haven’t jumped in a parachute. Anyway, I have now registered my own design company – here is a draft for a flyer I am making for Alejandro’s next gig – and I have also acted as Art Director for an independent short film called CoLondoNbia, about Latin American emigrants in London, and in fact I appeared as an extra in the movie Stoned, which was filmed in Brixton Academy …”
When we got from the table and said goodbye, I realised I hadn’t even let go of my empty coffee cup. Milena went to work. Alex went to get his car. I stood, a bit bewildered, in the middle of Kensington for a few moments, blinking in the January sunshine.