Argument for a Roma Transnational Museum

First Roma Pavilion`s artists at La Biennale di Venezia, 2007. (c) Nihad Nino Pušija, courtesy of the artist.

RomaMoMA, the aspiring project of imagining a Roma transnational museum, is not merely a theoretical exercise. A Roma transnational museum has been a central desire of the Roma movement since the 1960s. RomaMoMA is the natural evolution towards what is yet to come. This transnational European Museum is inevitable in Europe.

The vision for RomaMoMA is concrete: RomaMoMA shall contribute to the ideals of Europe, by being established in a European capital that has a vivid contemporary cultural life, and an openness for diversity and inclusion in the arts, in a location with a significant Roma population, where the government is supportive of Roma. RomaMoMA has the capacity to re-invent how the contemporary Museum relates to time, space, nature and community, by being born out of Roma heritage and knowledge so utterly connected to the Roma history of survival and resilience, the successful strategies of transgenerational knowledge transfer, and the wise mechanisms of inspiring belonging, building a community while inviting universal participation, offering the respect that is due.


The role of the historical transnational initiative: European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) is to create opportunities within majority spaces, creating permanent traces on history, society and art. Many majority institutions need an education that Roma creativity is not ethnic, intangible, spiritual or naïve, etc., but an integral and constructive part of what we call Europe today. ERIAC must continue to negotiate these opportunities, to assist the process for diversity and inclusion, and reflection in majority cultural institutions, in employment, in programming, in cultural participation, for addressing bias, etc. Most importantly, these create further opportunities for coming generations, and recognition for Roma cultural producers. One of ERIAC’s greatest strengths is that it exists, in real space. It has doors, windows, an entrance and a space for programming. This is important, as many Roma cultural initiatives exist exclusively as virtual programmes, cultural papers, websites, or in the context of a temporary public domain (festivals). ERIAC is perceived as a much larger, more stable and more up-to-date institution because that is the actual need and desire of the European Roma community: actual space(s) built with the purpose, equipment and expert knowledge, with high standards for music recording, talent scouting, art production, public education, printing, concerts, theatre performances, exhibition, etc.

RomaMoMA, the aspiring project of imagining a Roma transnational museum, is not merely a theoretical exercise. A Roma transnational museum has been a central desire of the Roma movement since the 1960s.

In the second half of the twentieth century, creative Roma writers, artists, and film directors creating their own image finally formed a common, transnational platform. After the first World Romani Congress in 1971, Roma writers and artists started to claim recognition as a group. Until this time, Roma productions had been represented not as being the work of individual authors, but rather as collective natural phenomena, which only became concrete representations when they were presented by an art collector or folklorist.[1] Until the late 1970s, the support of the creative activity of Roma in Europe was provided by minority organisations, or admirers of “outsider art” and “naïve painting” – those who essentially considered Roma Art an ethnographic phenomenon – paradoxically maintaining along the way the very peripheral position of such art.[2] An event of historical importance marks the beginning of the Roma cultural movement in Europe: the 1979 First National Exhibition of Self-Taught Roma Artists,[3] organised by activist Ágnes Daróczi and hosted by the Pataky Cultural Centre in Budapest. This exhibition raised international awareness, generated admirers and supporters of Roma culture, and had a long-lasting nurturing effect on European Roma cultural production. Her work on this publication inspired Sandra Jayat, the French poet, writer and painter, who organised Première Mondiale d’Art Tzigane [First World Exhibition of Roma Art] at the Conciergerie in Paris in 1985. The results were discussed at the third World Romani Congress in 1981, in Göttingen, where the Czech Roma activist Karel Holomek, then the lead advocate for the establishment of the Museum of Romani Culture in the Czech Republic,[4] was also present, and with Thomas Acton, Professor of Romani Studies of the University of Greenwich, who curated the first exhibition for Roma artists in the UK.[5]

 

By the early 2000s, the European Roma cultural movement educated active cultural theorists, many of them specialised in the examination of Roma representation and cultural participation. In this decade, Roma artists have successfully participated in several international contemporary art events,[6] and Roma art began appearing in official spaces of contemporary culture.[7] The establishment of the First Roma Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 was a natural culmination of this process. The acceleration of the Roma art field’s activities, and the text produced on Roma arts, culture, heritage and self-determination simultaneously contributed to the institutionalisation of the term: Roma contemporary art. While in 2006 the term was highly questioned by art historians and experts, by 2011 it was possible to organise a comprehensive tour of international Roma contemporary art exhibitions and events. The number of exhibitions continues to grow today, including the activities of the Museum of Romani Boutique in Bucharest, the Roma Museum in Brno and Belgrade, Gallery Khai Dikhas[8] in Berlin, and Gallery8 in Budapest.[9] We can count over 160 art events in Europe between 2007 and 2015.[10] Through these precious moments celebrating Roma creativity, we may construct the notion of Roma Art from a historical perspective. In this sense, we understand Roma art to be an important result of the Roma cultural movement. This connection between Roma cultural production and the cultural movement is circular. Every small product contributes to building the oppressed, untold and still invisible history of Roma belonging, a sense of community spreading throughout history; in other words: the Roma cultural movement.[11]

 

The legitimacy of Roma visual production is also affirmed by the need for Roma images in the fight against Anti-Roma (visual) propaganda: the Roma people today are undeniably subject to physical attacks,[12] forced evictions, mass deportations, economic exploitation, cultural depreciation and political exclusion. Roma art and culture are thus counterculture. Every image created by the Roma makes an intervention for self-determination and counteracts the 600 years of Roma representation without any Roma! Based on research into the Roma image in the history of art, we can conclude that the imagination that compresses the Roma into the iconography of the stranger, pagan, alien, thief, evil and ugly already developed in the late 15th century Northern Renaissance, and continued to impact the eras to follow. In 19th century modernity, the Roma became the equivalent of Western Europe’s African and Asian “primitives”.[13] European artists who could not travel to Aix–en-Provence, Tahiti or other exotic locations, travelled to their closest exotic location to find people of colour: the nearest Roma settlement. We can see how the Roma contribution is untold, and the Roma body is sexualised and feminised – similarly to the “Black body” – in European modernity.[14],[15] European visual production forced Roma into the conceptual ghetto of the “Gypsy outcast”. Roma subalternity, a term from cultural theory, expresses “the burden of being the ‘other’, and the physical, symbolic, epistemic – violence”. The oppression by European majorities of the Roma is most visible and evident in the visual field. Any intervention into this conflicting history and representation operates as a counterculture.

Meanwhile, one can also see the increasing number of paramilitary organisations, racist and neo-Nazi groups and nationalist formations in Europe, and how they use visual propaganda in their campaigns to disseminate and ramp up anti-Roma hatred and violence. Their websites and visual forces include ever newer creative means to humiliate and abjectify[16] Roma. The photos on their propaganda consciously distort and manipulate their Roma subject to elicit the maximum disgust possible. In this oppressive, racist and fearful environment, there is an even higher demand for Roma art that confronts the false “Roma image”.

 

Roma Art practice takes us one step further. The Roma cultural movement and its central notion, Roma contemporary art, has been the most efficient vehicle in the past four decades for the exploration of Roma subjectivities, to speak authentically and legitimately about the Roma experience. African-American feminist critic bell hooks claims: “opposition is not enough”. The development of Roma art demonstrates that opposition and counterculture are not enough. “In the vacant space after one has resisted there is still the necessity to become – to make oneself anew”,[17] and in this hard labour over “making ourselves anew”, Roma art has the most vital and defining role. Roma artists/theorists/researchers seek creative, analytical and practical options – “to confront and delink from […] the colonial matrix of power”.[18] In the past two decades, Roma art has found ways to re-situate both “Roma” and “whiteness” from its unspoken status. It can make whiteness visible by asserting its normalcy and transparency. It dwelled upon the deepest traumas and also the greatest aspirations, desires and hopes to invent what it means to be a Roma in contemporary society. Roma women artists offer models for how to construct new Roma women identities. The works that operate with the power of humour are not simply spontaneous games or theatrical self-exhibitions, but ritual performances, which are formed under the pressure and influence of oppression, deploying the power of taboo, and fleeing from the horror of exclusion. They use the subversive power of parody, the way Judith Butler suggests: “They reject and change the laws, in order to use them against those, who created them”.[19]

The argument for the legitimacy and support of Roma artistic production based on Roma cultural rights is very often disregarded by the art world, while it is perhaps most often debated and advocated by the Roma communities!

 

Against the growing number of Roma cultural events around Europe, the situation of cultural rights has deteriorated significantly: Roma creative production is in worse circumstances than it was in the 1970s, with Roma tangible cultural heritage in actual danger, completely invisible and inaccessible to the public. ERIAC has identified 33,000 artefacts by Roma artists 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. Without the proper infrastructure, the cultural rights of the Roma minority are denied. The production, presentation and interpretation of Roma culture by the Roma themselves is impossible in present-day Europe. Generations to come are deprived of their right to access their own Roma cultural heritage.[20]

 

The notion of Roma art is often challenged. It is challenged as a term coined upon essentialist prominence. Even today, some scientists claim that Roma art does not exist, or shall exist only temporarily. We agree. This temporary existence of Roma art is legitimate only so long as racism, or any form of discrimination, persists. If that moment of perfect equality, inclusion and recognition arrives, the notion of Roma art might no longer be relevant. Until then, it is the most positive discourse: an act of recognition of Roma self-determination, and one of the “terms” of the highest gravity in the European Roma field.

 

Roma arts and culture – this notion as point of departure in the progress towards RomaMoma – continues to serve as a term for multiple ambitions: it celebrates Roma creativity, and the precious moments of the Roma cultural movement, and builds a Roma cultural genealogy; it aims for a productive intervention, a counterculture, in the depiction and presentation of Roma, and it works against racist forces and anti-gypsyism; it has been one of the most efficient means to speak from within Roma subjectivities. The Roma do not need to argue for the legitimacy of the notion of Roma arts and culture. It is a basic right to have access to one’s own culture and means of cultural production.

 

Art can, and has, many times in history catalysed or illuminated social change. Transformative art is fundamental and integral to the mechanisms of great political movements. If we closely observe movement histories, we will see that cultural strategies are integral to most of them.

Founding an Institute for Roma arts and culture (such as ERIAC) would not have been possible without the Roma being present at the Venice Biennale (2007, 2011, 2019). This most prestigious art event of Europe opened its gates in 1895, and for 112 years it did not have any contributors from the largest minority of Europe. These events started to illuminate a change in the art world. Roma artists became part of the art market, and in general, the circulation of contemporary art. Since the three Roma Pavilions, a programme connected to European identity without a Roma contribution is considered incomplete or discriminatory, and the term has entered the official discourse of contemporary cultural theory.

 

Democratic nation-states do not control the agendas and themes of cultural institutions. The museums, concert halls, exhibition spaces, and theatres that work with contemporary art are undergoing an identity crisis, and reflect on how to address the elitism in art – which has excluded non-Christian and non-white contributors up until the present day, based on aesthetic elitism – a norm set by white, patriarchal, colonial and western, Christian traditions. These progressive institutions are reviewing their strategies for inclusion, diversity and equity. They are looking to address the colonial past, and all political oppressions. The moment for quotas, affirmative action and radical diversity has arrived for the institutions of culture. The restitution process of cultural goods has begun, the narrative of western art is contested, and this inevitable time of reflection, evaluation and reinvention will eternally change how museums operate: ICOM has not been able to release a single definition in the past two years on what the Museum is (ERIAC, for example, qualified as one).

 

Where governments are not democratic, or where right or far-right forces gain access to shaping cultural policy and institutions, institutions are controlled or censored with a specific state agenda to create homogeneous national narratives. They establish national philharmonics, art academies, national art education institutes versus autonomous ones, to create a nest of state-supported cultural producers, whose visibility is promoted – while actual, critical, political, independent, contemporary art is deprived of infrastructure, funding and audience. The far right is unfortunately efficient in its strategy of cultural transformation, cultural patronage, visibility and infrastructure to influence public perception.

 

Roma arts and culture is now a field recognised by the art world, and ERIAC was built on the recognition of this term. This is already a huge achievement. Roma individuals around Europe make a tremendous effort to keep the record of a Roma cultural history archived, with events remembered, and through Roma-led activities and assemblies, the Roma continue to build a genealogy of Roma arts and culture. The countercultural machinery is active through individual self-representations, self-determinations and through Roma politics calling out political-, economic- and racial oppressions.

 

RomaMoMA is the natural evolution towards what is yet to come. RomaMoMA, a transnational European Museum, is inevitable in Europe. The vision for RomaMoMA is concrete: RomaMoMA shall contribute to the ideals of Europe, by being established in a European capital that has a vivid contemporary cultural life, and an openness for diversity and inclusion in the arts, in a location with a significant Roma population, where the government is supportive of Roma, and will not use the museum’s establishment to neutralise an otherwise oppressive, segregationist and discriminative Roma policy.

 

RomaMoMA is also a radical imagination: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change”.[21] RomaMoMA has the capacity to re-invent how the contemporary Museum (currently in crisis mode) relates to time, space, nature and community, by being born out of Roma heritage and knowledge so utterly connected to the Roma history of survival and resilience, the successful strategies of transgenerational knowledge transfer, and the wise mechanisms of inspiring belonging, building a community while inviting universal participation. RomaMoMA has the capacity to embody an ideal inherent connection with nature, and with its human planetary entanglement, offering the respect that is due.


Timea Junghaus is an art historian, contemporary art curator and Executive Director of the Berlin-based ERIAC: European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture. She has researched and published extensively on the conjunctions of modern and contemporary art with critical theory, with particular reference to issues of cultural difference, colonialism, and minority representation.


[1] During the 1960s, a number of Roma organisations were established in France and the United Kingdom. As their numbers grew, there was increased interest in the creation of an international Roma organisation. After years of expanded effort, Roma from a number of European countries met in Orpington, near London, in April 1971 for the first World Romani Congress. This congress, considered the first truly international meeting of Roma, brought a number of successes. The International Roma Union was founded, the Roma flag was accepted, and the song Gelem, Gelem, composed by Jarko Jovanović, was adopted as an anthem. As well, the delegates unanimously declared 8 April as International Roma Day. The congress also concluded that the politically correct term for all Roma, Gypsies, travellers, Gitani, Manoush, Kalle, Kalderash, and other Roma groups shall be “Rom,” meaning man/human in the Romani language.
[2] It was only in 2004 that Roma artists appeared on the official contemporary art scene in the exhibition Elhallgatott Holokauszt [Hidden Holocaust], Kunsthalle Budapest.
[3] For more information, please see the catalogues, in Hungarian only, of the three iterations of the exhibition: Ágnes Daróczi, Autodidakta Cigány Képzőművészek Országos Kiállítása [National Exhibition of Self-Taught Roma Artists], ed. Zsigmond Karsai (Budapest: MMI [Hungarian Institute for Public Education], 1979); Ágnes Daróczi, Autodidakta Cigány Képzőművészek II Országos Kiállítása [II National Exhibition of Self-Taught Roma Artists], ed. István Kerékgyártó (Budapest: MMI [Hungarian Institute for Public Education], 1989); Ágnes Daróczi, Roma képzőművészek III Országos Kiállítása, [III National Exhibition of Roma Artists], ed. Éva Kalla and István Kerékgyártó (Budapest: MMI [Hungarian Institute for Public Education], 2000).
[4] The Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time) was established in 1991.
[5] For more information, see Grace Acton and Thomas Acton, eds., Second Site, An exhibition by four artists from Roma/Gypsy/Traveller communities (London: University of Greenwich, 2006).
[6] These exhibitions include, for example: Second Site, Stephen Lawrence Gallery London, UK, 2006; Hidden Holocaust, Kunsthalle Budapest, Budapest, 2004; and We are what we are: Aspects of Roma Life in Contemporary Art, a touring exhibition: Galeria Nouâ, Bucharest (RO), 2006; Galerija ŠKUC, Ljubljana (SI), 2005; Ján Koniarek Gallery, Trnava (SK), 2005; City Museum Ústí nad Labem, Ústí nad Labem(CZ), 2005; and Minoriten Galerien, Graz (A), 2004.
[7] The 2004 exhibition Hidden Holocaust was the first in Hungary to open the gates of the Kunsthalle Budapest, this “bastion of contemporary art”, to Roma artists. This was, in effect, the first time that Roma artists (11 in all) could exhibit in an official space of contemporary art, and could use the infrastructure of the institution to realise their works. A glimpse at the artworks at Second Site, held in London in March 2006, also convinces us that the way we are invited and allowed to think about Roma visual art has changed irreversibly: a paradigm shift has occurred.
[8] Galery Khai Dikhas is a Roma commercial art gallery in Berlin: www.khaidikhas.com
[9] Gallery8 is a contemporary art space in Budapest’s 8th district, the area populated most by Roma inhabitants: www.gallery8.org
[10] A period of time set by my own research: counting and exploring the contemporary art events following the 2007 Roma Pavilion in Venice.
[11] The movement started with single events of cultural recognition and success in the late 1960s, such as, for instance, the “discovery” of artist János Balázs, Hungarian poet and painter, in 1968.
[12] In June 2008, the paramilitary formation – the Hungarian Guard – marched through Galgagyörk, Hungary (for the first time) to threaten its Roma residents. This was the first location in a series of attacks, where shots were fired at Roma residents, one month after the march. The violent attacks against Roma resulted in the death of six Roma victims, including one five-year-old boy, five Roma victims were severely injured, including an 11-year-old girl, 55 people were injured, 78 shots were fired at Roma targets, and 11 molotov cocktails were thrown at Roma families. Across Europe, the situation is just as devastating.
[13] Kovács, Éva: “Fekete testek, fehér testek” [Black Bodies, White Bodies], in: Beszélő [Speaker], Vol. 14., no. 1, January 2009.
[14] Ibid., pp.74–90. See: http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/fekete-testek-feher-testek (downloaded 12 October 2013), p.77.
[15] Ibid., p.79.
[16] Kristeva, Julia: Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
[17] hooks, bell: Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990, p.15.
[18] Mignolo, Walter: The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, xxvii.
[19] This is not a direct quote, but is largely inspired by: Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990, p.164.
[20] Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. Cultural rights are, therefore, inseparable from human rights, as recognised in Article 5 of the 2001 UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and can be defined as the right of access to, participation in, and enjoyment of culture. This includes the right of individuals and communities to know, understand, visit, make use of, maintain, exchange and develop cultural heritage and cultural expressions, as well as to benefit from the cultural heritage and cultural expressions of others. Other human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to information, and the right to education, are key to the realisation of cultural rights.
[21] Lorde, Audre: “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, 1984, p.2, in: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007, pp.110-114.

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