A Museum of Connections
Dan Turner: Flowers, 2021, site-specific installation (wood, metal, ultraviolet lighting, glass, soil, green roof substrate and capillary matting, wildflowers, printed voiles). Photo: Marco Einfeldt.
In my consideration for RomaMoMA, I have chosen an entire exhibition, Art and Healing – A Roma Contribution for Europe, currently on view at Schafhof: the European Center for Art Upper Bavaria. To choose a singular artwork would not fairly represent the wide range of works homogenised by the term ‘Roma Art’.
This exhibition is important because it is a snapshot, a cross section of Roma Art. The exhibition brings together the work of four artists – Valérie Leray, Selma Selman, Dan Turner and Alfred Ullrich – from widely different backgrounds and ages. The exhibition hints at the enormous range and depth of Roma contemporary art.
Throughout this blog, and on the wider art scene, there is an ongoing debate as to whether heritage should affect our perception of art. There are calls to ‘shred the culture card’ in order to regain meaning and substance in individual artworks, to be recognised purely for the merit of our work, rather than for our cultural heritage firstly, and our art afterwards. Race, ethnicity, and visual culture are inextricably linked, and visual art presents a rich site for artists to actively overturn racist imagery.
As the exhibition title suggests, does the involvement of Roma with the artistic inheritance of Europe bring healing by recognition of our past and acknowledgement of our future?
My own artistic practice focuses on making art that celebrates my heritage. My practice considers how Roma artists can find a space to work in a shared territory with non-Roma, and deals with the non-Roma fascination with, and sometimes fetishisation of, Romani cultural heritage. My artworks can be seen as stopping places, encampments, limited by duration and place.
In her 2003 book, Vampire in the Text: Narratives of Contemporary Art, Professor Jean Fisher discusses the complexity of critical relation to works that do not comply with Western aesthetic expectations: “the emphasis would not be on the ethnic subject but on the dynamics of the transaction”. While the works in Art and Healing – A Roma Contribution for Europe comply with the Western aesthetic, they are not outside of this transaction.
In a previous post on this blog, Dr Daniel Baker described the art object “as a site where artist, subject and audience meet, and therefore where meaning is shaped and exchanged”. If we consider the exhibition in this way, we must address a concept that Romani know well, a concept that is familiar to all migrant communities, and something that Rodrigo Lazo expresses perfectly in Migrant Archives – “political power rests on the control of the memories of others”.
When considered in this way, art objects in exhibition spaces become invitations to look at the world differently, to think about how images and ideas are linked and controlled by those who make them. Art objects are a catalyst for changing an audience’s worldview.
As Dr Ethel Brooks wrote in her 2019 Frieze article, “across centuries, the survival of Romani culture in Europe has depended upon a range of artistic forms – including oral history, storytelling, music, dance, theatre, metalwork, woodwork and painting – as well as everyday labour practices that perform intelligible Romani identities and narratives for both the community itself as well as for non-Roma”. Art and making has always been a very Romani occupation.
This is reflected by Selma Selman’s performance work in the exhibition. It links Roma culture to a broader pop-culture through reference: she and her family dissembling a Mercedes, dressed as if they stepped out from The Matrix. Of the work, Selman says: “[…] labor is recycled back into the domain of art, it gains value as an artwork, and shows art’s potential to transmute value just as my family transmuted the value of scrap metal as a method of commerce, proving the equal potential for transformative actions in any body”. By changing their actions into another form of transaction, the art object, they have a perceived higher value, both monetary and culturally, than without this context. Selman confronts a reality based on historical narratives of Roma worth.
Selma Selman: Mercedes Matrix, 2019, documented performance (Krass Festival, Hamburg), printed photos 150x100cm, 70x50cm. Photo: Mario Ilic.
Museums have a duty to be repositories of a society’s collective memory. They should examine and explain relationships both inside and outside that society, using physical sites and exhibits. A RomaMoMA can preserve what fact-based historical records cannot: how it felt for individuals to exist in a particular place at a particular time, away from hierarchies and the dominant historical narrative. This ability to capture and connect different narratives should be at the centre of a Roma Museum of Modern Art. RomaMoMA should be a celebration of the vibrancy and transnational nature of our culture.
This cultural connection through art is represented by Alfred Ullrich’s work, Barking Curtain. The work based on curtains brings the domestic into the public, connecting the private with the popular. The black negative of the white curtain – printed on transparent film and applied to the window – aims to disrupt the idyllic view to the beautiful garden. When a visitor approaches the window, a frightening barking is heard. As Ullrich put it in an interview, “art can talk without putting the problem first”.
In Barking Curtain, he takes this idea of art first, but by using a curtain that barks, he creates a menacing vision which disrupts the idyllic and reflects on past and present social conditions that affect Roma communities. The ‘problem’ then becomes evident via the artwork.
Alfred Ullrich: Barking Curtain, 2020, printed transparent film. Photo: Marco Einfeldt.
The main challenge facing a RomaMoMA will be the examination of the duality of being home and at the same time other, that has always structured Romani identity and unity. We are all Roma, and at the same time we belong to the landscape. We belong to the territories and countries we live in. With our transnational status, we have not inhabited a separate space or geographic location for centuries. As Roma art and culture become more integrated within the European context, this duality can only be fully addressed if Romani cultural creation aims to challenge mainstream cultural views of identity and its control of representation.
Valérie Leray: Place with No Name: Castle “De la Pierre”, Coudrecieux, France, 2006 / Internment Camp for Gypsies (Roma), 1940-46 (detail), digital print on aluminium, 100×100 cm.
Valérie Leray’s work, Nomads, Place with No Name, reflects this duality. A series of images of internment sites where Roma were held, informed by her own family history, the work addresses the conflicted Roma relationship between home and other. Of the work, critic and curator Peter Krilles states, “the photographs themselves turn into traces: they are documents that close the gaps of the individual and collective memory and whose aesthetic presence points out the absence of an appropriate critical discussion of the history of the Romani people in Europe”.
Too often, the notion of heritage suggests a backward‐looking and therefore marginalised vision. However, culture has the ability to shape the environment for both deeper understanding and policymaking by changing perceptions and expectations.
Art can help to overcome those barriers by bringing a counter-discourse and contesting privileged narratives and perspectives. In this way, a ‘Museum of Connection’, a Roma Modern Art Museum, through all its variety of entanglement, can represent the complexity of our culture.
It is therefore necessary for individuals and organisations alike to create environments, physical locations and situations, where culture can be exhibited, as well as exchanged. We must promote currently emerging art that is transnational and representative of the broader European cultural landscape.