Picture a tribe of monsters from your childhood nightmares, laden with cowbells and crowned with beastly horns, running amuck through the countryside with mischief on their minds. Dancing, leaping, enacting bawdy pantomimes, these scary hairies make for a retina-melting sight. No, your drink hasn’t been spiked: this is Kukeri, an ancient Bulgarian purification ritual performed by costumed men to ward off evil spirits and usher in a new season of health, happiness and abundance for all. Dating back thousands of years, it was once widely practised across the Balkans. But like so many old customs in this relentlessly forward-focused world of ours, it’s gradually dying off.
Well, except in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria – as photographer Aron Klein recently discovered – remains a proud 21st-century Kukeri stronghold. While covering a music festival in the Rhodope Mountains, the London-based Klein happened upon a local museum, where he came face to face with some Kukeri exhibits. He was hooked.
When he learned the tradition was still alive and kicking, his Kukeri project was born. This unforgettable series of photos captures these demon-chasing monsters in all their surreal glory. Like visitors from a mystical netherworld or fairytale creatures come to life, they loom large against vast snowy horizons, bleak scrubland and ramshackle huts. Undeniably fearsome yet strangely charming, they’re almost too much for the eye to process.
Spanning villages around the country, the photos reveal some distinct regional similarities and differences. Giant bells (some weighing as much as 100kg) are de rigeur, their deafening clang believed to frighten even the dastardliest of demons. Participants are also invariably masked: indeed, the word kukeri derives from the Latin cuculla, meaning 'hood'.
But the, ahem, devil is in the detail. Depending on the village, kukeri might wear elaborate ensembles of feathers, tassles, embroidery and beadwork, or opt for the woolly-bully look in top-to-toe goat skin. Masks can be made of wood or cloth, with human, animal or ghoulish features. It all boils down to what different communities think will terrorise any malevolent forces in the vicinity.
Whether you view Klein’s Kukeri portraits as anthropological studies or trippy works of art, one thing’s for sure: you won’t forget them.
Photography: Aron Klein