A Nation Without Art? Some Preliminary Musings on the Possibilities and Modes of Romani Art Historiography

The Visit of the president Vaclav Havel in the Museum of Romani Culture, 1999. Source: www.rommuz.cz/

The Romani art of European countries[i] has been struggling to become institutionalized as a term and to secure institutional foundation for its development—much like Jewish art once did. Although the situation varies across individual countries, there are now several important institutions in place across Europe, operating transnationally to promote and sustain the careers of Roma artists, and to work towards the further development of the institutional, theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of contemporary Roma art.[ii] This institutional network grew out of the cultural labour and political activism of the European Roma cultural movement, whose origins go back to the 1960s.[iii] There are, of course, still quite a few landmarks to reach. Since the inception of the Roma civil rights movement in Hungary, the idea of establishing a transnational museum of Roma art has been on the agenda. In 2020, ERIAC established that some 33,000 works by Roma artists were held in European state collections, ‘yet to date there is not a permanent (or regular temporary) exhibition in these majority institutions, where Roma art can be studied’ (ERIAC 2020). The access to these collections is therefore fundamental to the possibility of writing a Romani art history.[iv] As the project of the transnational museum awaits realization, we can nevertheless make use of the past or current presentations of artworks from these collections to start a discussion on a conception of Roma art history writing, whether in relation to the authoritative Western canon of art historiography or in an alternative framework.

This essay reviews the two most recent and authoritative presentations in the Czech Republic, and, based on their analysis, offers some preliminary thoughts on the viable trajectories and challenges of Roma art historiography. The first project was the exhibition O kosmos hino kalo/The Universe is Black, staged in 2017 at the prestigious Moravian Gallery in Brno, while the second show, Phundrado Drom/The Road is Open, opened in June 2022 at the Ethnographic Museum in Prague. While the former exhibition thematized the very issue of the history of Romani visual art, the curators of the latter consciously disclaimed any ambition to do so, even though such a reading would not be alien to their show. This essay is divided into four parts, which will be published in instalments.

The first part summarizes the history of Romani visual art in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the founding of the only public collection of Romani art in the Czech Republic. The collection is held at the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, which has showcased it on two occasions.

In the second part, I will discuss the curatorial project, O kosmos hino kalo/The Universe is Black.[v] The curatorial intention has been reconstructed from official promotional material, as well as from published interviews with the chief curator, Ladislava Gažiová. The exhibition was critically discussed or referenced in a reflective way only by non-Roma art and culture professionals.[vi] No one who identifies as Romani has reviewed it, and it has received no coverage in English. Therefore, I take the opportunity to engage in a debate with other authors as concerns the understanding, interpretation and evaluation of the project’s mission, and the curatorial strategy of achieving it. The conclusions drawn from this debate should inform my thinking about the historiography of Romani art.

The third part will analyse the exhibition Phundrado Drom/The Road is Open.[vii] So far, it has only been reviewed by Denisa Tomková, in Slovak (Tomková 2022a). Tomková, however, also published an interview with the curators, Emília Rigová and Petra Hanáková, on the RomaMoma blog (Tomková 2022b). I will consider this exhibition in its own right, that is from the perspective of its purported mission, but also reflect on the project’s potential to be perceived and framed as another attempt at writing history by art. Presenting a selection of artworks in a gallery format and entitling it as Great Masters could be read as an institutional gesture towards the creation of a canon that is based not on chronology but an educated taste. After the exhibition O kosmos hino kalo, it was to be expected that at least some part of the audience would be tempted to perceive Phundrado Drom in this historiographical framework and compare it to the previous project (O kosmos hino kalo), despite the curators’ explicit denial of such an intention.

In the final part of the essay, I will put forward some suggestions for the historiography of Romani art, informed by conclusions from the previous parts as well as by the examination of the lessons from the experiences of other groups that struggled to institutionalize their art and simultaneously gain acceptance in the hegemonic art discourse.[viii]


PART I: The Discovery of the Unlooked-For. The History of Romani Visual Art Production in the Former Czechoslovakia

The ‘discovery’ by art historians of the first Romani visual artist in Hungary in the late 1960s gave rise to the notion of Roma art and made it possible for Roma individuals to identify as artists and claim recognition as collective agents in the framework of the Roma culture movement and in relation to the state.[ix] The visual art output in East-Central Europe had been very uneven and nowhere was it as impressive and consistent as in Hungary. These differences are accounted for by the disparities between the individual socialist countries’ policies towards the Roma. Without claiming that the state socialist regimes in Hungary and Yugoslavia made all-out efforts, these countries nevertheless stand out as proponents of cultural rights for the Roma, which led to the establishment of cultural organizations (Barany 2000, 427; 428).

In Czechoslovakia, during the first decade of the communist rule, the state oscillated between repressive assimilatory and affirmative ethno-emancipatory approaches, but as of 1958, the hardliners prevailed. The situation changed during the Prague Spring, in the context of the global wave of counterculture and national liberation movements, when Roma intellectuals’ efforts at self-organization gained momentum and political endorsement, leading to the establishment of the Union of Gypsies-Roma in 1969. Although the chief mission of the Union[x] was to work towards gaining national minority status for the Roma and securing their cultural rights, this could not be promoted publicly. In the state’s eye, the Union was to facilitate the solution of the Gypsy Question[xi] and therefore it focused on the social and economic betterment of the Roma population.[xii] The Union was nevertheless also active in the fields of culture and scholarship.[xiii] Bartoloměj Daniel, a Romani historian, documented the history and culture of the Roma and laid the foundation for the collection of material culture. Under his expert guidance, the Union organized exhibitions of Roma culture.

The other direction taken in cultural organization and production was literature. Considering the professional orientations and personal  predilections of the major personalities in the Union responsible for culture, i.e., Andrej Pešta, a Romani writer and photographer, Milena Hübschmannová, a non-Romani linguist and Daniel Bartoloměj, a Romani historian, and the predominant status of storytelling,[xiv] and oral culture in general in Roma communities, the only viable cultural organizing project could be a literary movement, not a visual art movement. Hübschammanová encouraged Romani friends and colleagues who were endowed with literary talent to take up writing in Romanes. Andrej Pešta, on the other hand, was active in the editorial board of the Union’s bulletin, Románi ľil. Being both a writer and a photographer, he left a distinct mark on the visual appearance and content of the periodical.[xv]

Although this fortunate development was stunted by the onset of normalization in the early 1970s,[xvi] the members of the Union managed, before it was dissolved in 1973, to conceptualize and lay the foundation to the Museum of Romani Culture with the collection of material culture administered by Bartoloměj. Their dream came true only after the fall of communism, in 1991. While in the larger scheme of things the Union of the Gypsies-Roma and the Museum of Romani Culture are the achievements of the whole Roma civil movement, one family stands out in the Czechoslovak cultural history of Roma. Tomáš Holomek (b. 1911) and his nephew, Miroslav (b. 1925) were the founding members of the Union, while Karel (b. 1927), also active in the Union, is credited with making the Museum a reality. Today, the Museum’s director is Karel’s daughter, historian Jana Horváthová.[xvii]

The development of amateur Romani visual art and the establishment of the visual arts collection at the Museum of Romani Culture

The available scholarship on the phenomenon of Romani visual art, authored mostly by Jana Horváthová, dates its emergence to the early 1990s. This dating does not rule out the existence of visual art practices among the Roma before 1989, but as I suggested above, no activities of the Union that we know of were oriented in this direction. The only exception is the 1977 exhibition of Rudolf Dzurko, curated by Milena Hübschmannová. Apart from a short-lived preoccupation with wood carving, Dzurko made original paintings with ground glass,[xviii] and also earned popularity in folk art circles. Under socialism, folk art was ideologically reframed as the authentic expression of the working class, and Dzurko was a rare real exemplar of folk art defined in these terms. As a consequence, his work within these official cultural structures was perceived and presented as folk art, not as Romani art. The situation changed radically in 1986—a year marked in historiography as another turning point in the state’s attitude towards the Roma—when Dzurko’s work could be presented as Romani art for the first time. The occasion was the annual folk festival, Východná 86, whose dramaturgy that year patently reflected this political turn. The 1986 edition of the festival was entitled Ľudia z rodu Rómov [People of Roma Ancestry] (Mann 2020, 35). As Dzurko constitutes an isolated phenomenon, he does not unsubstantiate Horváthová’s dating.

As was the case with the literary movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the emergence of the Roma artists in the early 1990s was historically determined and can be interpreted as an effect of the post-socialist transition. The Roma lost their jobs in large numbers but gained political freedom and cultural rights. Having plenty of free time on their hands, people took up hobbies, and for some, it was art. The ‘discovery’ of the Roma naive and self-taught artists was an unintended consequence of the ethnographic mapping by workers of the Museum and their search for artefacts of material culture in Slovakia. The Museum understandably expressed interest in these works and began collecting them. The local knowledge of cultural workers in national and ethnographic museums, and cultural organizations, along with the personal contacts with Roma friends and colleagues, proved invaluable and indispensable for finding new artists. The first artists whose works were selected into the collection were found in urban areas where the Roma lived dispersed among the majority population, as well as in segregated rural areas, in Romani settlements. Romani volunteers facilitated contact and acted as translators. Some artists created original art, while others copied images from magazines or famous works of art from publications. The Museum workers encouraged these individuals to develop trust in their own artistic imagination and draw inspiration from their idiosyncratic experiences, thoughts, memories, dreams, etc. The interest of the Museum sustained their practice economically, and even more importantly, kept them motivated. Further, by framing their works as art, the cultural workers aided their self-understanding as artists. The Museum may also have influenced the artists by directing their focus on Romani culture as a source of inspiration, not only for form, but above all for content, encouraging them to draw on their identity, family, history, and memories. The role of the Museum in the development of artistic practice among the Roma is considerable (Horváthová 2001).

However, there were Roma artists who, while they may have collaborated with the museum, shaped their artistic careers independently. The first professional artists came to the fore in the late 1990s, and from 2000 on, several professional artists of Roma origin found considerable success in the Czech and Slovak contemporary art scene. Some of these professionals do not characterize their work as Romani art and may not even identify as Roma.

The history of the collection

As outlined above, the foundation of the collection of visual art was not planned and in the early years the museum did not have a collection concept or policy. The sources do not discuss the criteria that determined the selection of works. The cultural workers in the field most probably relied on their variably educated taste. Gradually, the museum began to work on the concept and employed a curator, though for many years this position was held by non-professionals. While it focused on documentation and collecting, the museum lacked the human resources, as well as expert capacities, to put the collection to use and think about the conceptual and political aspects of presenting it. During its thirty years, the Museum has staged only two exhibitions of this collection, in 1997 and 1998, though they were also shown abroad and were a great success.[xix] Unfortunately, the sources do not reveal more about them, and we do not how they were presented, how much context was provided for the audience, etc. I will discuss the collection in more detail in part III of this essay, apropos of the exhibition, Phundrado Drom, which aims to present three decades of collection work at the Museum.

Barany, Zoltan (2000), ‘Politics and the Roma in State-Socialist Eastern Europe’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 33, 4: 421–437, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48609398.
ERIAC (2020), ‘Argument for a Roma Transnational Museum’, RomaMoMA blog, https://eriac.org/argument-for-a-roma-transnational-museum/.
Horváthová, Jana (2001), ‘Romské výtvarnictví v zemích bývalého Československa (2. část) [Romani visual art in the countries of former Czechoslovakia, Part 2]’, Romano Džaniben. Časopis romistických studií, 8, 1–2: 124–129.
Mann, Arne B. (2020), ‘Zmeny v prístupe k Rómom pred rokom 1989. O programe “Ľudia z rodu Rómov” [A Shift in the Approach Towards the Roma before 1989. On the Programme of the Folk Festival ‘People of Roma Ancestry’]’, in Rómovia 30 rokov po revolúcii [The Roma Thirty Years after the Revolution], ed. Vlado Rafael and Michal Vašečka (Bratislava: eduRoma), 34–39.
Tomková, Denisa (2022a), ‘Open Road/Phundrado Drom: Laying Foundations for the Roma and Sinti Centre in Prague’, RomaMoMA blog, September, https://eriac.org/open-road-phundrado-drom-laying-foundations-for-the-roma-and-sinti-centre-in-prague/, accessed 22 Dec. 2022.
Tomková, Denisa (2022b), ‘Rigová a Hanáková: Z materiálnej kultúry Rómov máme dnes len chabé torzo [Today we have only a poor torso of the material culture of the Roma]’, Artalk.cz, 24 August, https://artalk.cz/2022/08/24/emilia-rigova-a-petra-hanakova-z-materialnej-kultury-romov-mame-dnes-len-chabe-torzo/, accessed 22 Dec. 2022.


[i] I am not being Eurocentric here, but I simply am not familiar with the situation overseas.
[ii] Along with ERIAC, which was established in 2017, this institutional network also comprises the Galerie Kai Dikhas, opened in Berlin 2011, and the Gallery8 – Roma Contemporary Art Space in Budapest.
[iii] See more in Junghaus, Tímea, ‘Roma Art: Theory and Practice’, Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 59, 1 (2014): 25–42. Junghaus outlines the social and institutional history of Romani art in East-Central Europe, which has seen considerable activity in Romani art practice and self-organizing since the late 1960s. The author further discusses theoretical and ideological frameworks that underpin and legitimize Romani art and its inherently activist mission.
[iv] These collections also constitute an invaluable source for the writing of a more horizontal art history. Cf. Junghaus, Timea, ‘Towards a New Art History. The Image of the Roma in Western Art’, RomArchive, n.d., https://www.romarchive.eu/en/visual-arts/roma-in-art-history/towards-a-new-art-history/, accessed 19 Dec. 2022; and Junghaus, Timea, ‘Towards a Horizontal Art History: Three Case Studies for Writing Roma Women into the History of Art’, RomArchive, 3 April 2017, https://www.romarchive.eu/en/collection/lecture-by-timea-junghaus-towards-a-horizontal-art-history-three-case-studies-for-writing-roma-women-into-the-history-of-art/, accessed 19 Dec. 2022.
[v] Vesmír je černý (O kosmos hino kalo) – Moravská galerie (moravska-galerie.cz)
[vi] One review was co-authored by a social and cultural anthropologist, but it is not possible to distinguish his voice in the text, with the two authors coalescing into one entity.
[vii] The exhibition will be on view until May 2024. See the promotion of the exhibition by the Museum of Ethnography: Otevřená cesta / Phundrado Drom – Národní muzeum (nm.cz)
[viii] Useful lessons may be drawn especially from the institutional history of Jewish art, women’s art, Native American, African and Afro-American art.
[ix] For the cultural history of the Roma civil rights movement in Hungary and activities in the field of Romani visual art, see Junghaus, Timea, ‘Roma Art: Theory and Practice’, Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 59, 1 (2014): 25–42.
[x] The organization had a Czech and a Slovak branch.
[xi] The Union was a member of the National Front!
[xii] The Union also sought recognition for the Roma as victims of the Holocaust, engaged in memory work and initiated the annual memorial gathering at the site of the former concentration camp in Hodonín u Kunštátu.
[xiii] The Union’s members included several non-Roma scholars, among them Milena Hübschmannová, an Indologist and a major figure in the history of knowledge production on the Roma under state socialism. Her efforts led to the establishment in 1991 of the Romani Studies programme at Charles University.
[xiv] Romani language, art of storytelling and the oral culture of the Roma in general were among the chief research interests of Hübschmannová.
[xv] In addition to their obvious historical, documentary value, Pešta’s photos are unique as they offer a rare portrayal of the Roma from an insider perspective. His are the earliest photographs created by a Romani.
[xvi] A major negative consequence of this general political hardening was the adoption of the sterilization law in 1971. Although not explicitly targeting the Roma, the legislation was designed to covertly control the reproduction of the Roma population.
[xvii] Tomáš Holomek earned a university degree in law already in the early 1930s. The Holomeks are an extensively researched family in the history of the Czech and Moravian Roma, a historiographical term that denotes the pre-war Roma population of the Czech Lands. Only around six hundred individuals of this group survived the Holocaust.
[xviii] A technique he invented.
[xix] In the USA, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Text: Nikola Ludlová


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