Norbert Oláh: The Anxieties of the ‘Roma Artist’

Anxiety of the Roma Artist, 2021, installation in public space. Photo: Zoltán Dragon / OFF-Biennale Archives

The following text accompanies Norbert Oláh’s installation during OFF-Biennale Budapest (on view 23 April – 30 May) in front of the former building of the Roma Parliament. The bricks of his wall have clearly legible words on them, representing concepts and perceptions that are ingrained and instilled into us. These comprise the wall of anxiety. The choice of venue is an open critique of power. The building was repossessed arbitrarily by the government, justifying this action with their promise of establishing the headquarters of a Roma cultural mega-institute in its place. The text is installed alongside the wall, in which he makes every effort to put into words in an objective and expressive manner, refraining from literary embellishments, the utter confusion felt by an artist, in this case, an artist of Roma roots. He struggles with a plethora of contradictions instilled in him by his own community, by society, the media, life as an artist, the art scene, politics, his school, etc. The text is written in third-person singular, indicating the artist’s desire for keeping a distance and having a broader perspective.

The installation is the emotional manifestation of this anxiety. The wall is the isolation, the inner limitations, the boundaries one so desires to jump or break through, and the authority, the measures deciding over and confining the individual. As a meme, the brick wall is present in public discourse, to some it means keeping out the danger, while to others it means confinement or ruthlessness. The bricks are minuscule elements that are worth nothing in themselves, but sticking together they are strong. The brick wall also represents physical work typically done by Roma, and this wall was built by the artist with his father.

It is not possible to speak of Roma art, in my view – at least, in no way can it be used as a technical term. Nevertheless, the concept, of course, has significance, even if it has no strict boundaries and creates misunderstandings in certain cases. In the simplest sense, we can say that Roma art, or more precisely, Roma fine art, covers fine art activities carried out by people of Roma heritage. It is important to differentiate between fine arts and folk art – although they might overlap. Folk art traditionally is more about the repetition of content and form elements created and accepted by the community, and less about individual creativity and motivation.

Does the above mean that the Roma artist is someone of Roma origin practicing fine arts? Or would it be more precise to say that the Roma artist is an individual who simultaneously has an artistic and a Roma identity? Or is the Roma artist an artist of Roma origin, who moreover focuses on Roma-related themes? Or is the Roma artist one who, alongside their heritage and subject matter, can be recognised by using a rather loosely defined formal framework, like colour palette and certain motifs, along with a romanticism, mysticism and passion? Can Roma artists be identified based on certain ethnographic characteristics to be found in their works?

Moreover, if we talk about Roma artists, we cannot limit our attention to Hungary – and not even to Europe – which makes the definition of the concept increasingly complicated. Focusing narrowly on Hungary, we will immediately find the phrase ‘Roma art’ in association with the so-called Roma Movement – a cultural, civil rights and emancipation movement begun in the seventies – that some would hope still exists today. Central figures of this movement include Károly Bari, József Choli Daróczi, Ágnes Daróczi, Aladár Horváth, Menyhért Lakatos, Tamás Péli, Jenő Zsigó, and many others. Some are still active today. They called for, or rather claimed, a voice and space in culture and politics. It was in the context of this movement, in which an underrepresented and oppressed people are fighting for attention and not to be treated as a minority only, but rather as a people, that the symbolic phrase ‘Roma art’ – imbued with faith, hope and passion – entered the public discourse with enormous strength. The pure ownership of origin bears astonishing force. The concept lives on and gains strength through projects like the Roma Parliament, Romaveritas, Kugler Art Salon, Romano Kher, Amaro Drom, and Cigányfúró, among many others. Numerous schools and study halls have been established by famously committed individuals, who aimed for the development of young Roma people’s knowledge. Since then, volumes of poetry, novels, and feature films have been realised and taken on cultic proportions. The concepts of Roma art, Roma painting, and Roma artist are permanently recurring in exhibitions, catalogues, artistic and curatorial statements and titles.

The anomalies of the concept soon became apparent, though, and great figures of the movement formulated their critiques of its usage right from the outset. Károly Bari, the poet and graphic artist, said, “origin is not an aesthetic issue” – and one can hear anecdotes about how much he steers clear of exhibitions in which the selection of artists was made according to just that. József Choli Daróczi was of the opinion that “it is equally well founded to talk about Roma art and Dutch painting”. Painter Tamás Péli said in Stations, a portrait film about him: “for me to be acknowledged as a Roma artist, one should acknowledge Roma bricklayers, too… and I would very much like to be a Hungarian artist. The time will come for this, too”. About his own painting, he declares: “my painting is political basically due to my origin, to my origin that I have shouldered”.

Alongside the forthright engagement of the activist, then, there appears the feeling and fear of being pigeonholed – the question of how the artist would enter the canon. Is an artist of Roma origin important only if a Roma artist is needed, or every time a Hungarian artist is needed? Are they sought after even if a non-Roma related topic needs to be reflected upon? This question manifests a legitimate and understandable desire, and further, semantically carries an interpretation that ‘Hungarian art’, ‘Hungarian artist’, ‘Hungarian culture’ represent a higher ranking in the canon than ‘Roma art’. At the same time, however, an autonomous Roma artist with a healthy ego, with self-respect, tries to avoid all kinds of compliance constraints – like the ambition to become good enough to be a Hungarian artist. This frustration can be further exacerbated with a hypothetical assumption: what if the Roma artist whose artistic power is comparable to that of the greatest Hungarian artists has not yet been born, or has not yet begun their artistic career? Naturally, even if this assumption is true (and I am not arguing for or against), it does not mean that Roma art is less prestigious, considering that in other areas – like music, be it Roma or Hungarian folk music, Hungarian jazz – you find Roma artists in significant numbers, stemming from musical traditions. We might consider Edvard Munch as an example, before whom there was no Norwegian artist of the same standing represented on the European or the world map. On the same basis, we could also compare the value of Hungarian art and culture with those of Western Europe. In 2019, the Tate Modern in London organised an exhibition of Dóra Maurer. This was the first time a Hungarian had a solo exhibition there, which everyone is very proud of – but we still cannot talk about world-famous Hungarian artists yet.

What then is the solution to the questions raised above? Is the ‘Roma artist’ label acceptable? One possible answer, though quite distasteful, is total denial, or less severely, ignoring the question completely. Those whose origin is not visible in external characteristics, like skin colour, who lack a strong Roma identity, who were not socialised with any kind of cultural attachment, or who are capable of overcoming resentment, and assimilate to deny their origins – have the possibility of full denial. Those who do not want to deny, or cannot do so due to racial characteristics, might try to ignore the issue. This means withdrawal from all exhibitions, interviews, and public appearances that have anything to do with the concept of Roma art. Although this, too, is a paradoxical situation: such strong and determined rejection seems to direct intense and irrevocable attention to the subject itself. The artist’s major problem with the ‘Roma artist’ label might also be the result of not having Roma artist role models, or not being moved by the works of these artists. Understandably, they do not want to be on a common platform with individuals whose approach is fundamentally different to their own, and thus, not received wholeheartedly. In any case, ignoring the issue is an adequate attempt to avoid the label, and it can even be useful for the artist to determinedly fight for their work to be the only thing considered. Nonetheless, since the artist is not omnipotent, they regularly end up in situations where they have to keep explaining or withdrawing. Questions related to the artist’s origins are regularly the first, compulsory themes in interview situations. Even good journalists assume that their subject is a naïve artist, while others – socially sensitive members of the intelligentsia – will turn the conversation to other Roma artists unprompted. Or they may ask straight out whether the artist considers István Szentandrássy or Tamás Péli as an influence. To avoid the ‘Roma art’ pigeonhole takes an enormous amount of attention and energy – unfortunately often at the expense of creative work. Access to publicity, exhibition opportunities, and eventually also to potential earnings is not a negligible problem either. Getting trapped within the walls of a cultural ghetto is a real danger for a committed programmatic Roma artist. Should this happen, the artist might have an audience, but most probably will not become part of the mainstream contemporary art scene. Their audience might consist of amateurs – intellectuals with explicit social sensitivity – who acknowledge and value the artist’s work, but one suspects that their attention was caught first by the artist’s social situation, and not by the real artistic merit. This artist will achieve results and acknowledgement almost exclusively in this rather limited space. The worst-case scenario is that the artist, as a ‘Roma artist’, becomes a political pawn. In turn, considered ignorant, they will be left out of those valuable situations where there might be a chance to raise meaningful questions with the aim of broadening discussions and strengthening critical voices. For instance, if an artist does not engage – even tangentially – with problems of Roma art, does not touch any Roma-related socio-cultural or political issues, should they accept an invitation to a prestigious art event where they are required to speak about these topics? Such a dilemma hurts the artist’s ego, since they feel that their Roma origin is a more important factor than their works and accomplishments – although the latter make the artist and are the reason for the invitation. The artist might often feel that ‘scholarly whites’ use them to illustrate and legitimise their studies. At the same time, they might see a chance that by not being so stubborn, they could make a contribution that would justify that stubborn distancing.

Alongside issues of art and artistic existence, there is a tormenting feeling from inside: taking social or political responsibility. Does an artist have duties? Where should they situate themselves in this incomprehensible world? Should they be an activist? Politician? Fighter, hero of their people? Whom to trust? Who might be allies? Were they not betrayed a thousand times by power-hungry white people fighting for power? Should they trust their own people? Are all the great elders unsullied? Should they listen to the call and immerse themselves in dirty games? Infect their art and daily thoughts with abstract speculation? And if they do want to act, do they feel the weight of it? Or should they run frightened back to their comfortable studios? Do the Roma or Hungarians, or people in general, deserve any sacrifice on their part? Should they deserve it, does sacrifice make any sense? Would it not be wiser to observe silently how the world changes?

What should the artist do, then, to avoid labels, prejudice, cultural segregation, and yet not deny the issue? What should they do to be part of really valuable discussion? What to do if the possibility of cultural assimilation is unacceptable or unethical? All these contradictory thoughts and feelings create awful anxieties in all creative individuals with the minimal critical sensibility.

Although I have talked about the artist in the third person, I have to admit that most of the time I was talking about myself and my own dilemmas in the last ten years, since I was admitted to the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, to the Department of Painting. Ten years of self-contradictory agony has led me to these thoughts; as for solutions, I still have none.

The artist’s essay was published in Hungarian [A cigány művész Szorongása] in online contemporary art and culture magazine, artPortal; see:
English translation: Éva Várnai, proofreading: Márk Baczoni, Adèle Eisenstein

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