Art and Culture Matter More than Ever- Roma Biennale 2021
The Roma Biennale, an authentic festival that celebrates art, as well as its creators, was held for the second time last year. Although it was postponed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, its realisation in 2021 symbolically coincided with the 50th anniversary of the First World Roma Congress, an event at which Roma internationally began to create their own policies and visibility. In this spirit, at this edition of the Roma Biennale, fifty Roma and non-Roma artists analysed and questioned the themes of Self-Confession, Resistance and Resilience, Survival, Commemoration and, finally, the very fact of Existence. These five chapters were the backbone of this most recent Roma Biennale and the definition of BEING HERE (and now), creating and presenting content in the public and digital space.
The first edition of the Roma Biennale was held in 2018, based on the idea of the artist and activist Damian Le Bas. He was one of the artists to realise the project, Paradise Lost, the first Roma pavilion, as part of the Venice Biennale in 2007. He considered it important that the idea of the Roma Biennale could be changed and adapted to both time and place, thus making our reality fluid. This somewhat visionary concept was voiced even before the second edition of the Biennale was indeed faced with a foreseen need for adjustment. The Covid-19 pandemic has only further heightened inequality, especially among those who have previously found themselves in a subordinate position. Deep-rooted systemic discrimination has prevented many communities from accessing basic health and social services. Roma communities, especially those in ghettos, are even more isolated, often out of reach of social and political assistance, left to fend for themselves. Apart from the impact on human rights, also at risk are cultural rights and artistic freedom of expression, that affects the existence of minority artists and others active in the cultural sector. Many cultural institutions and spaces have been forced to close their doors or limit their activities. Social adaptation was inevitable, and it required a move to the digital space, in order to continue to offer content to everyone, without any necessary travel. Despite the recognised importance of minority artists and cultural workers being fully involved and acknowledged when we talk about cultural losses, the Roma community did not wait for an invitation to a cultural event. For the second time, the community created a unique festival, this time inviting others to join. The first edition was organised around the message COME OUT NOW! – and the second says WE ARE HERE! – aware of the importance of the contemporary art of Roma communities to be included in current public discourses in Europe. Thus, the Roma Biennale showed that they are here, as they stated, despite colonialism and its continuation in so-called race studies, despite National Socialism and genocides, and despite today’s anti-gypsyism, anti-Semitism and racism. In this context, BEING HERE has never been more important – with artists and organisers bringing new perspectives, from the position of the oppressed and the marginalised. Consequently, the urban space became a museum, as did the digital one, underlining that art should not be a luxury, but accessible to all.
In this way, art that is available to everyone, in digital – but especially in public space, by participatory methods, engages an individual in the creative process by discussing the meaning of the democratic public as a social and political phenomenon. Thus, all people – Roma and non-Roma alike – are exposed to this practice that requires constant discussions without limiting the necessary public space to physical space, but including public discourse, and also the media space. The models of active community participation in these processes are found by forming/integrating marginalised environments into inclusive fields of culture.
Creating a space for the presentation and discourse of this art is RomaMoMA in itself, approaching particular topics in multiple layers.
The Roma Biennale thus represents a hybrid, prefigurative space, as a museum between the digital (as well as imaginative) and the real. In addition to the wide availability of museum content that was moved to digital communication channels by necessity, the indispensable experience of museum space, content and interaction was achieved through the hybridity of the festival.
Art and Reality
The second edition of the Roma Biennale was launched on 8 April 2021, International Roma Day, opening with the theme of self-confession. On this day, 50 years earlier, important decisions were made in London for the Roma community, regarding its identity and identification. Nevertheless, many Roma are still questioned and do not dare to publicly declare their identity, out of a well-founded fear of discrimination and rejection in various forms. This was followed by the theme of resistance and resilience, beginning on 16 May, the anniversary of the uprising of the Roma people in the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. That uprising was defined by strength and resistance against the Nazi regime and systemic oppression. The biennale artists explored different perspectives of resistance and resilience, recalling this significant event, but also in solidarity with other oppressed and minority groups in society – such as the black and Muslim communities, and women who show courage in the fight against intersectional discrimination and self-representation. Survival is always and inevitably linked to resistance, also highlighted in the Biennale’s programme on 20 June, World Refugee Day. Roma life is often marked by exile, but also by migrations, which have accompanied them for a thousand years. Due to discrimination that often escalates into racism, large numbers of Roma from the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe emigrate to Western Europe in search of a better life, where they are once again greeted by discrimination and the stigma of being “economic migrants”. August is marked by International Roma Remembrance Day, with biennale artists memorialising 2 August, when about 4,200 Roma children, women and elderly were killed in Auschwitz. As the Roma Biennale expands transnationally, the memory is also reflected in the suffering in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Namibia, and other sites. As life is cyclically connected, the last phase is when the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under National Socialism was inaugurated on 24 October 2012 in Berlin.
Returning to past events, the Biennale remembers, but also creates a genealogy of art and culture of the Roma community led by its own members. Through self-presentation and self-determination, it creates a (European) society in which critical self-reflection is possible, and so necessary. Through this process, artists moderate reality inextricably linked to their history of survival and resilience, using art as a tool to overcome, but also to create a sense of belonging to the community. Artists, who themselves face a lack of preconditions to be invited to many art residencies, address the most significant events from (their common) history in this fluid festival. In this way, self-taught artists and those who have not completed art programmes at elite institutions or have powerful advocates also have the opportunity to present their work. As a consequence, this allows the artists to position themselves and find inroads to other festivals and biennials. Thus, the Roma Biennale WE ARE HERE! is anti-institutional, anti-elitist and participatory.
This is especially evident in comparison with other biennials where many artists have limited access. This year, Roma artists take part in their exhibition in the Venice Biennale, where presence and visibility are essential, and it is natural and logical to participate (and strive for participation) in such a great event. On the other hand, however, such exhibitions are often limited in accommodating Roma voices meaningfully; thus, Roma Biennale has provided a space of openness, accessibility and self-determination.
It is also essential to mention minority within minority: the gender dimension, in which women still have fewer opportunities to exhibit at large biennials. And so, this second edition of the Roma Biennale paid special attention to gender representation among the artists. Through the visual arts, as well as performance and music, the women artists seek to build an affirmative iconography of the Roma community from a feminist perspective by questioning the patriarchy that is stereotypically embedded in Roma culture. Through feminist epistemology, their themes intertwine through the perception of gender, racial, class, ethnic and other freedoms; they thus present themselves through their true identities – not those imposed on them by others throughout history.
The questioning of the intersection of sexism and racism, very present in society, has become visible not only in scientific papers and public gatherings, but also in the field of art, underscoring that to some extent, each of us belongs to minorities. The Roma Biennale represents a kind of turning point for Roma art because it came to life as an independent festival, organised by Roma themselves, creating their own spaces in the society they are a part of. For the first time, this opened up a space for appearance and expression created by the Roma themselves, while at the same time providing an opportunity for Roma and non-Roma artists from all over the world to present the diverse Roma culture.
In the globalised world of contemporary art, many events, including biennials, are the pride of the local community and cultural tourism. The Roma Biennale is designed to exhibit works of art on an impressively large transnational scale that serves as a new model of the institutional framework for Roma art, that tells stories with its form and structure, connecting them to historical contexts.
It is influential not only for those who have the opportunity to exhibit their works, for their life and opus, but also for the (artistic and social) life of those who appreciate them and who are active in art, as observers and visitors. Serving as a place of encounter and change, it connects artists in the field of visual arts, but also curators, cultural workers and art critics, presenting trends in contemporary art. In the creation of such a space, all relevant actors on the international scene, which is not foreign to the Roma community, are connected. In her work, Romani Embassy, presented at the First Roma Biennale, Delaine Le Bas, an artist and one of the co-curators of the Roma Biennale together with Hamze Bytyçi, also dealt with this topic. Le Bas asserted that the Roma community does not have one homeland, nor a (national) state, and thus no embassy to which it could turn for help in case of trouble. Furthermore, last year’s edition of the Roma Biennale offered an experimental format with an online exhibition, which provided the freedom to present the latest relevant works, regardless of the art market and the interest of the art establishment. Social media and online platforms provide a meaningful tool for engaging in important issues, including correcting false information and images about specific communities and cultures. Minorities employ the media as a space in which they can increasingly communicate their interests, make claims and mobilise identities, and artists are often expected to navigate digital platforms and have a strong digital presence. The Roma Biennale focuses attention on the social function of art, in which pleasure and critical thinking are intertwined, and in which art reaches homes through the digital format. Over a period of eight months, content was made available (and still is!) in the gallery on the website of the Roma Biennale, which presents the works of artists in the form of posters, as well as video works, songs and texts, together with other online events. The visitor to the online gallery finds works by artists from Europe and beyond that are arranged thematically – from artists including Valérie Leray, Roland Korponovics, Sead Kazanxhiu, Krzysztof Gil, Emilia Rigová, Danyang Zhao, and Roma Jam Session Art Collective.
What kinds of artworks are presented by the digital gallery of the Roma Biennale? Within the Self-Confession section, Delaine Le Bas is represented with, among others, her already mentioned work, Romani Embassy, and Gabi Jimenez joins her with his works, including Futuroma, in which he questions social injustice. Furthermore, the theme Resistance and Resilience offers strong messages on posters, like Nothing about us without us / Nichts ueber uns ohne uns / Khanchi Amender Bi Amengo by Roma Jam Session Art Collective, as well as the message that we are more powerful when we work together. Within the Survival section, Dan Turner’s artworks seek space within the shared territory and daily interaction with non-Roma that would allow him to create as a part of his own heritage and tradition.
Survival complements Commemoration, which includes the works of Moshtari Hilal with the symbolic titles, Child in Their Arms and Remember, as well as the works of George M. Vasilescu, in which he portrays two young men who experienced police brutality: Gabriel-Daniel Dumitrache and Stanislav Tomáš. Under the final theme, illustrating Existence, the artworks are full of symbols, including those of Durmish Kjazim, showing the motifs of life, asylum, nostalgia, and realism with symbolism, in an unusual and provocative manner.
Alongside the digital format of the Roma Biennale gallery, public space is also an essential site for exhibition. Contemporary artists find it gratifying to show their works and perform outside the four walls of the museum, on a wider stage, including public space. Art posters displayed on billboards, and also in shop windows and urban space in Berlin, have shaped an authentic (and accessible) public museum of engaged art. Artists can reflect on the broader socio-political reality of their position, and the permeation of the social and cultural field of action in the contemporary social context and the exchange of knowledge. This can be seen in the Planting Resistance online manifesto and protest performance within the 2nd Roma Biennale. Encouraging the inclusive and educational role of art production, sometimes in areas where formal education does not offer content, is a powerful tool for transforming society and taking responsibility. Art itself, at its best, is progressive and subversive when it challenges reality, but it also offers a critical approach to understanding certain social phenomena.
Text by Selma Pezerović
More about the Roma Biennale.