The things of life: Alex Dabi Zhevi

1 February 2018 text and photo Sevda Semer
In how many syllables do you articulate the answer to the question "where are you from"? For him, it’s probably a little more complicated. His parents are of Bulgarian descent, but he’s lived only in Australia and was last here as a small kid. A photographer, an independent publisher, an experimenter with language and text, Alex is here for the World of Co. residency. Studio and living arrangements aside, an important chance it gives him is to meet the city, its’ people and past.

Such as the borsa – the black market for cassettes during communism, where people used specific phrases that said everything about them from fear ("beware the hooks" – the police), to riot ("free time is ours" – in a country that denounced leisure, this was indeed a bold statement). Phrases which, in his hands, transform into artistic works precisely because they manage to say so much with so little. This project however is just a tiny part of a bigger whole, so right before a meet-the-artist event with him at Aether on February 3rd at 19:00, we meet up for a first round of dialogue. In which we manage to see Sofia from a fresh perspective, notice what he likes about the city, and listen to his favorite romantic story.


When I was a teenager, I was set on becoming an artist. My parents have always provided me with materials and encouragement in conversation, and since a young age we’ve traveled between Australia and Bulgaria so I had a chance to see a lot of things other than my small town, and I wanted to show this different point of view. I had a particularly good teacher at school – she was this strange Serbian woman, unbelievably hard and demanding. She had a lot of advice and criticism for my work, and as a teenager, I wanted to rebel against it all, but even today I can still hear her advice in my head. She always encouraged us to go deeper – you know, as a teenager you want to be done with it as quickly as possible, and you’re looking for a way to rip off the system and don’t really think about it a lot. But today, when I’m working, I just have her voice in my head, telling me to try harder, look behind things. Sometimes, I would start looking for an image in an image, or I look at all the details in my photos – just seeing if there is something new behind it all, and there always is.


The way I started my residency project was just going out and meeting people, going to bars and music events and exhibition openings. It sounds strange, but what I needed to know was what is happening in Sofia – what is this place about. And I might have rose colored glasses on – because I do know that a lot of things are wrong here, with politics, with the wages, with the city as a whole – but it’s just amazing what’s happening. One thing I’ve discovered is people are really engaged and very humble – they’re really good at what they’re doing, and while they can acknowledge and recognize the bad things that are happening, they still just keep on doing their work. And with me – because I’m Australian-Bulgarian, so what am I actually, even here I’m an outsider – I can just notice all the different things between here and there. One of the major ones is that people are far less self-obsessed here, they just do the work. A lot of young people say they’d like to leave the country, and when I tell them I want to come back, everyone asks me the same question – "are you out of your mind?". But I think something wonderful is happening here.

I might be the only person in Melbourne who’s not in a band. So I take photos for lots of bands instead. But anyway, the thing people don’t usually realize about this city is that a lot is happening there in a lot of musical genres. People are sometimes playing in multiple bands at the same time, and if you want to, you can go to three good shows on a single night. I love classic things, things from the 70s, and I’ve listened to a lot of different genres, but I can honestly say Australian music right now is the best in the world. And it’s definitely not what everyone expects, it’s very different, so much stranger that what you’d think (Just a couple of bands I’d recommend are Exek, Bitchratch, Jannah Quill). I’m just incredibly lucky to be able to experience all of this, so I try to pay it forward in a way – I collaborate with two friends in Sydney on a journal about underground music, or I sometimes publish books with photos of musicians. I think this is for sure what the city will be known for in the future.

It was my mothers’ parents that moved to Australia, during the communist era. One of the big reasons they found the regime unbearable I think was because they used to live in a small village in the Rodope mountain, where the society was pretty much self-regulated to the point where they didn’t even need any money – except for petrol. They produced everything they needed. My grandfather in particular didn’t agree with the whole political situation, and he was quite vocal about it and was frequently jailed because of it. He tried escaping once, got caught, and the officials made him a deal – he didn’t have to go to prison if he went into the army. He said okay, but let me just get married before going. That same night, he went to my grandmother’s window and started throwing little rocks at it. He was 22, she was 19 – and was meant to marry someone else. He told her that if she wanted to leave, it needs to be that night. She stole her father’s pistol and they left. Most romantic story I know. They walked to the border, for eight days with no food, in the freezing cold, and made it to Greece. They spent some time there, before being offered to leave. They chose Australia on the single basis that it was the furthest away.

The thing that keeps me sane is when I’m busy – when there’s just too many things to do. But when I really need to restart, I like walking. Even here I’ve been walking everywhere to understand the city. But back at home, I’ve got two dogs and I like to leave my phone at home and take those really long walks with them. Another thing I enjoy is film. For the visual part of it – yes, but also just for the dialogue. One of my favorite directors is Eric Rohmer. Everyone is just talking about everything and nothing much ever happens. The conversations are just absurd and somehow refreshing to me.


I know very confused Macedonians, nationalistic Serbians, Croatian, Bosnians – and we all have different degrees of how disconnected we feel to our countries’ traditions. One connection that still goes strong for me is the food. I grew up with my grandma’s shopska salad and kebapcheta, all of the best possible things. It’s just coded so deep in me. But then, if that’s true, how did I forget to speak Bulgarian? It’s weird and I don’t have an easy answer. I’m set on learning Bulgarian – I even started going to classes, I’ve put a big pressure on myself to learn the language.


What I’d like to do for my project for the residency is to interview many different people from the Balkans – in many different areas. I’d like to understand what their position in society is. It’s a project I’d like to take back to Australia, because people there just don’t understand the Balkans – they have all those stereotypes in their heads, they can only talk how loud we are, what short temper we have, how much we gesticulate. They don’t understand anything political that’s happened here. People just generally don’t know history, and don’t see the bigger picture. I don’t want to educate people necessarily – I’d just like to show a different perspective. Before coming here, some friends asked why not go to Berlin, which I find so boring – everyone goes there, I’d like to go in the exact opposite direction. So that’s why I’ll travel around in different countries. The same desire for a dialogue is what brings me to the event at Aether as well.

Alex Dabi Zhevi is at
More about the residency – at
Meet the artist at Aether (Sofia, Knyaz Boris I 39), February 3rd, 19:00


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