Berlin is a place renowned for fanning the flames of creativity. Meet two women making their names in the worlds of music and art to find out how the city’s spirit and vibe have fuelled their work so far.
The 34-year-old singer Denitza Todorova, aka DENA, hails from Bulgaria, has lived in the German capital for more than 10 years and writes in English. The result is a genuinely catchy combination of R’n’B, rap and hip-hop inspired by life, love and friendship – and the scene she found in her adopted home.
Why did you choose to live in Berlin?
“I moved here in 2004, when I was 22, from Bulgaria via West Germany. I thought, as a capital, Berlin must be bigger and more liberal and open-minded than other German cities. Also, I got to study here.”
Berlin is probably the most multicultural city in Germany. What was it like for you when you first arrived here after growing up in Bulgaria?
“Socially, Berlin definitely made up for the experience of the two years I spent living in a small place near Frankfurt, where I remember feeling alienated and like I was ‘the other’. I quickly felt at home in Berlin and made a lot of friends from the art and culture scenes.”
Does Berlin feel like home?
“Totally, especially living in Kreuzberg, which is in the middle of the Turkish-German community. In Bulgaria I grew up in a town near the Turkish border that also had a big Turkish community. And, in 2008, I studied in Istanbul for six months. There is a certain vibe in the streets in Kreuzberg and that feels like home.”
Do you feel Berlin has changed much recently?
“Yes. There are a thousand times more people coming and going, which is a beautiful thing, because we are all searching and moving around the world. There has been a boom in tourism lately, especially in my neighbourhood. Sometimes I have to wait a while at the lights when I want to cross the road – that’s how crowded it is now. I’ve noticed something in the euphoric state of so many visitors when I look around that I can’t identify with any more. But I guess I remember the feeling.”
When and how did you start making music?
“When I moved here. I met a girl from Toronto who asked me if I wanted to start a band, and I was like, ‘YES!’ I played the synth and she played the drums. We were called Tschikabumm and lasted for about two years.”
What inspires your music?
“Life, love, friendship.”
Do you have a life motto?
“The future is tomato shaped.”
We love your music videos. Are you the one who comes up with these great ideas?
“Yes, thanks. I also always work with talented friends and we inspire each other.”
You rap about not needing cash or diamonds, so what do you really need in life?
“A house in a sunny place with a swimming pool and family and friends to enjoy it with.”
You just released your new EP, Trust. What’s it about?
“It’s about freezing the moment of heartbreak and observing it from different angles.”
What’s next for you?
“I am playing some shows in Europe and releasing another mini album soon, so stay tuned.”
Trust is out now on Normal Surround; denafromtheblock.com
The route to Berlin and her chosen career was not the most direct for Anne Bengard, 28, but her open-minded approach and unstoppable desire to push boundaries in her work meant settling into both was seamless.
Why did you choose to live in Berlin?
“I lived in Leipzig for the first three years of my life and grew up in Berlin after the fall of the wall. I was nine years old when my family relocated from Berlin to a small coastal town in southwest England. Even though it’s a beautiful place for kids to grow up, moving from a big, multicultural city to a place where I was the only foreign girl at school was quite a culture shock and I always intended to return to Berlin as soon as I’d finished school. That didn’t happen – instead I moved to London at 19 to study at Central Saint Martins, again with the intention of returning to Berlin once I’d finished my studies. That didn’t happen either. I got caught up in fast-paced London life, learning lots along the way, having a lot of fun, working different jobs, probably sleeping way too little and, suddenly, four years had passed. Things got a little difficult for me in London, so I decided to make the best of a bad situation and finally go through with the long-overdue Berlin plan to become a full-time artist.”
What do you like about Berlin?
“Many things, but mainly the space – Berlin has so much space! Compared with England, anyway. My work has developed drastically because of it. I also really appreciate the balance of urban landscapes and nature. It’s amazing that I can just jump on a train and be somewhere like Grunewald in 30 minutes and feel completely removed from city life. Or I can cycle from my studio to Weissensee in 10 minutes to relax under a tree, let little spiders crawl over my legs and put on my mermaid tail to swim in the lake. That’s luxury.”
What inspires your work?
“Shortly after moving to London, I started working for Torture Garden, the world’s largest fetish club, and got involved in the city’s colourful alternative-nightlife scene. It opened my eyes to a world with an abundance of creativity, self-expression and open-minded, tolerant but above all respectful behaviour. It taught me to be a less judgmental person. The friends I’ve met on this journey have become my muses, feature in my paintings and aim to inspire people to question their own preconceptions and adopt a more thoughtful, less judgmental attitude.
“I’m also heavily inspired by Japan and Japanese postwar pop culture, having been influenced by anime such as Sailor Moon and Cat’s Eye, which were aired on German television in the 1990s. I also started collecting manga when I was 12. I think those influences are evident in my work, particularly in my colour palette.”
Does Berlin – not as a city, more as a vibe – influence your work as well?
“Yes, I think so. For example, my brushstrokes have become a lot looser and I’m slowly breaking my perfectionist habits when painting and just going for it. Splashing some colours here and there. Not being afraid of ‘mistakes’ and embracing the unrefined.”
How do you define your work?
“In one sentence – provocative, realistic portraiture in optimistic, bright-yet-soft pastel hues that is designed to make you question your preconceptions.”
When did you realise you wanted to make art?
“When I was three or four years old. I’ve been making art ever since, despite exploring other creative avenues, such as set design, venue styling, art departments. Art was always a hobby, then a sideline and, since 2014, full time. In future I might decide to work in other fields again, but fundamentally I just love being creative – to create, solve problems and learn.”
Who is your favourite artist and what do you like about him/her?
“One particularly notable favourite artist from my vast pool of favourite artists is Takashi Murakami. His style alone already inspires me, but also his entrepreneurial skills and informed yet honest and real approach to the contemporary art world and his own position within it. Despite having a whole company of artists, making pieces that sell for millions and having collaborated with big names like Louis Vuitton and Kanye West, he openly admits to constantly facing bankruptcy in the pursuit of making his artistic visions come to life. His level of dedication is incredibly impressive. I also love how he has championed his assistants and helped them launch their own careers under his company Kaikai Kiki.”
Do you feel like the art world is changing in these times of Instagram, Snapchat and co? If so, do you think that’s a good thing?
“Definitely. Suddenly, everyone with an Instagram, Snapchat or Tumblr account has a space to curate, meaning artists can rely less – or not at all – on galleries to promote their work. However, we need to be aware that algorithms can change at any time, which can also have a negative effect if your audience has been built purely on social media.
“In terms of galleries and museums I feel there’s an increasing demand for time-based and media art simply because a well-photographed painting or sculpture can easily be presented online – though, of course, experiencing it in real life is very different. This is more difficult for performance or installation art, for example, so if you want to experience it, you have to go to the gallery/museum. I wouldn’t label it a good or a bad thing, just interesting. Everything changes.”
You don’t only sell your images, you also sell clothes – why’s that?
“I’m interested in experimenting with the correlation of art and other disciplines, such as design, technology and science. I love to collaborate and see how my work can be applied and I believe in the power of teamwork and combining ideas to create something much greater than you could as an individual. From a consumer’s perspective I also want to offer affordable art and target a wider range of people that way. Not everyone can afford an original painting to hang on their wall and not everyone wants an original painting to hang on their wall, but they might like to wear it. Also, it’s just quite a thrill seeing people actually wearing my art.”
What are your plans for the future? Are there any upcoming exhibitions?
“To continue learning, to continue working hard, to make good art. I plan to live and work in Japan for a while, within the next two years, so I’m currently hatching a Japlan – pun intended!
“In terms of upcoming exhibitions, I’ll be part of the Monster Madness group show from October 15 at SlushBox gallery in Florida. It’ll be my first time showing work in the US. My work will also be presented at the Affordable Art Fair in Hamburg in November. There are some other exciting things being planned, but unfortunately I’m not allowed to talk about them yet. Exciting times.”
annebengard.com; Instagram: @anne_bengard_art
3. Top by Pins & Needles by Urban Outfitters, T-shirt Dena’s own