Owning the Game: Intersectional Self-Representation in the Roma LGBTQ+ Communities

András Jókúti: Owning the Game: Joci, Jana, Ricsi, Gabor, Miki, 2019, digital photo.

Introduction

Representation matters.

The great majority of those who will not feel the weight of this are those who do not suffer its absence. It is truly difficult to explain this type of absence to those who see themselves everywhere – in magazine columns, on the TV, and even in exhibition spaces. Nor is it easy to render palpable just how much harm one-dimensional stereotypes can cause to a minority or marginalised group, whose representation is really multifaceted and moves along a wide spectrum.

A large portion of the intellectual elite in Hungary watch the revolutionary changes occurring within minority representation in the US and Western Europe uncomprehendingly, pushing away the problem with a false sense of self-deception: we Eastern Europeans have nothing to do with this. As a gay Roma person, I cannot believe what I read from Hungarian commentators, who categorise questions of minority representation as something distant, that only touch us as spectators from afar, and see the role of Hungarians in this simply to follow events in the world in order to be informed. However, together with myself, Roma women, transgender people, and people with disabilities, or any number of cross-sections of these groups could be rightfully uncomprehending.

All the while, according to estimates, the country counts one million Roma inhabitants who live under systemic oppression due to the racism that formed and to the present day maintains systemic unequal relations. If I had to describe Roma representation with two attributes, I would say that it is extraordinarily paltry, and that even that little bit is harmful.

The Roma LGBTQ+ intersectional group that I also belong to is downright pitiful.

This is what led me to engage with the visual self-representation of the Roma LGBTQ+ intersectional community, and together with members of the community, we are producing material that is capable of taking public space for ourselves. 

Owning the Game

In my own interpretation, “owning the game” means that we have control of our own representation, in our own hands. The title of my project also refers to the awareness of what characterises it: that in order for a community to truly “own the game”, we need to develop narratives that serve our own interests by utilising our own strengths.

It was essential that the laying of common foundations, with the active participation of the artists, precede the creative work. The aim itself was first and foremost the production of visual material, and not necessarily an exhibition, as we were not aspiring to enter the art space specifically; we had actually aimed at a much wider target: the occupation of public space. Thus, we felt it was just as great a success for our photos to be published in a six-page spread in ELLE Hungary, as it was to be shown in exhibitions in Sofia and Budapest.

We considered art as a tool, and not as our aim itself. Moreover, we wanted to avoid the visualisation of our thinking in a didactic way, and art aided us in assuring that our compositions would not be overly direct.

The Difference between Representation and Self-Representation

One of the most popular independent Hungarian journalists claimed in an article: “Joci Márton has written a radical facebook post, stating that ‘Roma representation should belong to the Roma’“.[1]

It seems obvious that even liberal intellectuals fail to understand the difference between representation and self-representation. I have never written that only Roma people have the right to own Roma representation, because it is impossible. Nobody is seeking the impossible: total control over the representation of our community, but we would like to be a part of our own representation, and we would like to be allowed to criticise any representation that we feel is harmful. I do not think that is radical to ask.

The Owning the Game images demonstrate why it is crucial to provide the opportunity for self-representation. The artists’ school of thought about themselves appears powerfully in these images. Many before me have already expressed that the representation made by someone outside the community reflects not so much about the minority group portrayed, as it does about how the author feels about the group.

I repeat this sentence often to myself when I encounter a stereotypical image, prejudicial of our Roma community. At the same time, I know that this is simply a mantra for myself, which can only influence my inner peace, while I see clearly that outside viewers are convinced that what they see are Roma.

It is not easy to find an example of representation of the Roma LGBTQ+ community that is not a portrayal as a significantly fallen victim – and this does nothing to serve the interest of our community. This means of depiction that evokes pity serves to simply reinforce in the viewer the relations of superiority and inferiority, and it hinders the possibility for the viewer to see us as equals, with the best-case scenario offering the viewer to connect to us as a kind of saviour.

The great majority of images of Roma appearing in public space are documents of photojournalism. These photos are taken spontaneously, and their subjects are completely passive, not taking part in the process at all. Generally, a crew will unexpectedly appear at the home of a Roma family, and not even the most minute segment of their domicile will remain their own private space. The lens will unabashedly capture their unmade beds on a weekend morning, the coffee that has dripped on the stove, and even their underwear drying on the line. These Roma, who live in segregation, receive with friendship these white people into their homes – which already reveals so much about the social exclusion of the Roma, and how hungry they are for a connection, when simply in exchange for a kind word, they will allow just about anyone into their most intimate of living spaces. To my mind, those who rather than facilitating self-representation, simply visualise their own approach to the Roma, are completely taking advantage of and abusing this openness.

And so it was incredibly important to me to make clear to the participants in my photo project, prior to any common work, that they should only show as much of themselves as they would like to, and in the accompanying written materials they should also only speak of what was in their own best interest, as well as that of the community; and not anything that would cause any kind of mental hardship or negative consequences.

Self-representation cannot serve to satisfy the curiosity of the majority society. We cannot subjugate our own aims for representation in the interest of offering them a glimpse into the life of an unusual and exciting community, where they do not have access. We need to make people aware that an authentic view can only be proffered by self-representation; anything else is a false illusion.

My project did not aim to mask the difficulties confronted by the Roma LGBTQ+ community; to the contrary, in the case of every oppressed group, an important fundamental aim is to bring these to the surface. But it is by no means besides the point just how these ordeals are visualised. The portrait of one of the participants, Jana Danielová, a Roma transgender woman living in the Czech Republic, recaptures one of the most difficult nights of her life. When Jana was just at the beginning of her social transition, she took her leave from her friends and went on her way home alone late one night – when a band of six men stood in her way and began to berate her. They beat her so badly that she needed to be hospitalised. Jana could have chosen to visualise her story with a portrait in which she looked into the camera with tormented tragic eyes, but she decided to appear as a Greek goddess holding a baseball bat. Jana’s strength cannot be compared to the strength of the abusive men; despite the fact that that night, they had proved to be physically stronger, not only six of them – but even several dozen attackers driven by cowardly hatred could not be stronger than this transgender woman. Jana’s story can bring tears to one’s eyes, but they are not brought by pity, as it is clear that Jana needs no saviour: Jana needs only responsible communication that provides no basis to anyone to feel entitled to abuse her.

András Jókúti: Owning the Game: Jana 2, 2019, digital photo.

 

One of the criticisms that Owning the Game received was that the individuals appearing in the images are “too beautiful”, whatever that might mean, since we don’t know what they are being compared to. When I selected the young people to take part, I did not choose specifically physically beautiful people as subjects. In any case, I’m pleased with this sort of critique, as it demonstrates clearly just how negative the image in their mind is of us, if they are incapable of associating beauty with us. But this critique also speaks to the fact that Hungarian society is simply still not ready for self-representation, but would still like to continue to see their own conception.

We know that no one likes to see images of themselves as vulnerable and weak. There are some extraordinarily interesting projects from around the world on the self-representation of people living on the street, in which homeless people have taken photos of themselves and each other through various methods. One such successful project is related to Australian photographer living in England, Anthony Luvera, who calls the photos made by the subjects themselves “Assisted Self-Portraits”.[2]

I don’t think that the problematic representation of the homeless population needs any special explanation; self-representation, however, of such a vulnerable group also leads to a solution, which is thanks to the following:

Luvera’s role in this process is to provide technical tuition and support, while the participant determines when and where the photograph will be taken, and how they, the subject, will be framed. This unique approach upends the traditional photography process by enabling the participant to take an active role in decisions made about how they are represented.

In these photos, it is not the usual people stripped of their dignity who look back at us, but strong individuals toughened by life. When some viewers claim that the substance of reality in these pictures is low, I would like to ask them: why would you think that this stands far from reality? Setting aside any kind of sentimentality, I would ask the question: who are the strongest people in our society, if not those who are excluded, the homeless among them, who in every hour of every day are confronted with so many trials and tribulations.

And why would the visualisation of strength in the depiction of minority or oppressed groups disturb us?

Self-representation can only be realised when we don’t think with the mind of the majority, and even then, it is not so easy, even when they are not physically present. It is essential that we do not engage with the stereotypes the majority associates with us, and that we don’t feel compelled to prove the opposite to them.

If I choose the path of “reactionary communication”, contradicting them, then where are we once again in this whole narrative? Once again, we will not be the subject at hand, but rather those prejudices standing in opposition to us – which have a significant platform, while we ourselves do not.

The Importance of Public Space

Appearance in public space is an essential requisite for a minority to legitimise its presence in a society. Physical reality and public space are two parallel dimensions, and the two barely intersect. I grew up on a housing estate in the countryside, where at least half of the people around me were Roma, while on TV, in newspapers, on billboards, and in books, I saw only white people.

Representation of a society is just like a group photo: those who appear in it are those who count. It is just like when at an event, someone calls out, “Let’s take a group photo!”, and you just helplessly stand to the side, wondering if the invitation included you or not. When a group portrait is made of Hungarian society, no one beckons to the Roma to come and join them in front of the camera.

To grow up without representation means that you don’t count, that you are not a part of the whole. It is not by chance that when the Hungarian government ratifies laws against the LGBTQ+ community, that community’s right to representation is diminished, and as the visibility of those minority groups is lessened, we cannot see them in the dimension of public space; they then become much more vulnerable, as they can no longer count on the solidarity of the majority. 

András Jókúti: Owning the Game: Joci, 2019, digital photo.

 

The Intersectional Approach and its Opposers

Intersectionality is an analytical framework conceptualised and coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. It infiltrated Hungary quite late, becoming recognised only in the past four-five years. Intersectionality arrived simultaneously with its criticism. According to Eszter Kováts and Gergely Csányi,[3] the political approach to intersectionality cannot be the Leftist path. The sections of Oppression evoke a special situation in which neither the mainstream LGBTQ+ community, nor the Roma movement, demand political changes. This is why I believe the visibility of the cross-section of communities is incredibly important, as those who are not visible also have problems that remain invisible.

I very consciously refer to the material of my project as a community photo exhibition, as one of the most frequent accusations on the left of intersectionality is that it has become individualised, and all we need to do is add up our experiences of oppression in a chart. My own experience, however, is wildly different, as the majority of participants in my project have never been a part of activism, since mainstream movements were incapable of addressing them.

When we speak of a cross-section of groups, we are not referring to the formation of an identity that is independent and isolated from the new and existing identity; the Roma LGBTQ+ youth who have taken part in my project have not stopped being Roma, gay, lesbian, transgender, or perhaps a woman. The fundamental interest and aim of the intersectional movement is to channel the people who were not addressed by the larger movement. As a gay Roma activist, my goal is for both the Roma and LGBTQ+ movements to become more inclusive, but the Roma LGBTQ+ community cannot just sit and wait: if the intention does not come from above, then we have to take the first steps from below.

Eszter Kováts and Gergely Csányi ask who would be able to say whether it is the disabled transgender or rather the pansexual refugees who are more oppressed?

My main problem with this is that it is only possible to interpret the competition of oppression of the intersectional approach from a white middle-class viewpoint, since it is necessary to have a superior position from which to judge these. The oppressed groups are in competition not with each other, but rather with the oppressive mechanisms of society, and this is why those white academics can rest assured with no burden to encumber them with respect to any sort of hierarchy that they should raise.

The problem is rather that these voices opposing intersectionality on a theoretical level do not stand within the academic framework, and in practice they also increasingly raise their head. The wonderful artist, Omara née Oláh Mara (1945-2020), who made an international name for herself from her naïve Roma paintings, had an exhibition open this May within the RomaMoMA framework, entitled Omara Occupies the Sound – Space.[4]

For those who have not yet heard of Omara, it is important to know that she was an artist whose positions occupied in society had an enormous impact on her artworks. In her works, the vicissitudinous condition of women, Roma, and the poor appears; thus, the curator’s decision to emphasise Omara’s role as a catalyst is understandable.

At the opening of the exhibition – and this is not what should be exclusively emphasised – Roma women read their own writings in which they expressed the impact that Omara’s artwork has had on them. A single review of the exhibition was published, in the pages of Dajer online women’s magazine,[5] which however lodged a grievance against precisely this. According to cultural researcher, Zsófia Nagy, who made the critique, the “sound-occupation” mentioned in the title did not actually occur, as in fact it was the voices of others that suppressed the voice of the artist. In this critique, this unreflective and almost dogmatic New Left phrase emerges from out of left field, disabling minority activism.

The contemporary New Left first and foremost sees the key to the problem in that the liberal intelligentsia following the regime-shift presumed to discover the key to eliminating inequality in identity politics, but did not deal with the class theory that appears to be iniquitous socialist legacy, i.e., subjection to economic embeddedness. What could have been if this went differently? We cannot know, but it is now obvious that the defeat of this liberal turn led to the regional invigoration of illiberalism; and the downtrodden could not be emancipated from their oppression, either by critical theory, or by identity politics. The well-intentioned texts written on the emancipation and decolonisation of these subjects have reached their limits, becoming the imprints of the failures of these attempts.

It is hard for me to understand exactly what it was in Omara’s exhibition that was forced and detrimental identity politics; I can only imagine that Omara was thematised as a Roma woman. But it is clear that Omara’s identity was the key to interpreting her work. Omara characteristically painted entire sentences into her paintings, precisely in an attempt to prevent the misinterpretation of her artwork. She herself thematised the condition of Roma women in her paintings, into which she inscribed GYPSY WOMEN or GYPSY MOTHERS in capital letters.

Intersectionalism is present in Omara’s artwork, but it seems that in the eyes of some, this mere presence represents in itself, adverse identity politics.

I find it extremely interesting that this critique appeared in a feminist space, and I cannot help but remark that I have never encountered any similar criticism following the exhibition of a white woman, in which identity politics played such a great role. I can only conclude that those who are the most oppressed do not have the right to the thematization of their own position. It is exasperating that in the spirit of emancipating the downtrodden, it is precisely those who have finally gotten the opportunity to have their voice heard for the first time, thanks to intersectional movements, who are instantly silenced. 

Eastern Europeans and their Disconnect with Decolonialisation

A bizarre binary – and contradictory – approach characterises the Hungarian intelligentsia in their response to the decolonial processes taking place around the world. On the one hand, they identify themselves as “white”, but they don’t wish to share in the colonial crimes of the past. It would be too great a detour here to circumnavigate the question of whether we Central European Hungarians were the beneficiaries of Western European exploitations of peoples living on other continents.

What interests me much more here is how the Hungarian intellectual elite interprets the decolonial movements occurring around the world. Right-wing independent newspapers and online portals typically cast representational endeavours of BIPOC communities as harmful and ridiculously extreme.

Sites of decolonialisation are not only the countries of colonialism. It is obvious that here in Central Europe, the racism that legitimises colonialism influenced our own thinking. It seems apparent to me that we Hungarians need to decolonialise our minds.

Hungarian Roma painter, Norbert Oláh, received his degree from the Painting Faculty at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, yet one of the largest Hungarian news portals showed his paintings and reported on his exhibition as naïve art.[6] In no way can this be ascribed to a simple typo; it is clear that these works are made by a trained painter. Nevertheless, this journalist who is an expert in the field of visual art, rather than believing his own eyes, followed his conditioning to conceive of art by Roma as naïve, folk art, self-taught. (A correction now appears at the end of the article.)

Amanda Gorman: Whose Place Is It to Translate Who?

For months, a central subject of Hungarian cultural news was the scandal that erupted around the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb, into foreign languages. The world became acquainted with Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, where she recited the poem. This choice of the Democratic Cabinet was a political gesture toward the BLM movement. The publisher insisted that this model continue globally, with other BIPOC women translating the poem in other countries. Hungarian translators were divided on the subject, and the discourse was shifted to the question of competence. Within the fierce debate came the argument that race, gender, and sexual orientation present no obstacles to understanding and interpreting the work. I will not get into the argument here of whether or not anyone can translate anyone, but I wonder why we do not generally see black women translators translating the books of white men. On the other hand, this book enjoying heightened attention could offer the opportunity to introduce BIPOC translators, who as of yet have not been able to break through.

In Hungary, ultimately translator Lídia Nádori shifted the debate toward the activism behind the case, and it is Kriszta Bódis, Director of Van helyed Alapítvány [You Belong! Foundation], who will produce the translation together with disadvantaged Roma youth from Ózd (northeastern Hungary). The original goal of the publisher, for an educated woman from an oppressed ethnic community to receive the opportunity for introduction onto the literary scene, is not being realised, as Kriszta Bódis is a white woman who works with Roma children. This example proves that it is still not possible to completely bypass white intellectuals; nevertheless, I must say that the book is now in good hands in a literary workshop with Roma youth, with professional translators aiding their work, and this will not only ensure practice for them, but also new tools. The message and impact of this poem points beyond literature, presenting positive identity. 

Conclusion(s)

Representation is of extreme importance to minorities and marginalised groups living in Hungary, and the liberal intellectual elite cannot share the Orbán position, according to which, as opposed to the West, we are a monoculture. And yet, when we push these themes to a safe distance from us, that is precisely what we are asserting. The representation of oppressed groups is not just the whim of a new wave, but the more we hear this from the liberal elite in their own moderate way, we take it on as our own. A friend recently commented to me, “Is it not counterproductive to always have a character in every film and series from the LGBTQ+ community?” On the one hand, this still does not happen in every single film or series, but because previously there was virtually no representation whatsoever, now anything more than zero may seem to be a lot. Moreover, I don’t find it farfetched or over-represented if there are one or two LGBTQ+ characters in a series taking place in a high school, since just on the basis of mathematics, it would be impossible for a high school anywhere in the world not to have at least one gay, lesbian, or even transgender girl or boy (or genderfluid).

It has nothing to do with reality that previously they did not appear in the US film industry, similarly to how there are no visual materials about Roma LGBTQ+ people in public spaces.

The intersectional approach has no past in Hungary – neither political, nor administrative, neither in the civil or art field; thus, I cannot comprehend the criticism that declares these a priori a dead-end.

Owning the Game – the exhibition of the Roma LGBTQ+ community, and every other project addressing intersectionality could be the initiatives in Hungary that could close the enormous gaping holes in the larger movements, perhaps even the anti-capitalist Leftist movement, too.

The attitude of the Hungarian New Left resembles an ostrich: we might pretend that we are colour-and-gender-blind, but society sees them, and the largest fault lines develop along them.

Closing Thoughts on RomaMoMA: Art and Healing

I find it extremely expressive how RomaMoMA, as a contemporary art project, defines itself with two words: Art and Healing.

It does not gloss over, but clearly refers to the current, real condition of the artistic representation of the Roma. The role of RomaMoMA is to provide space for reflections that generate discourse, which facilitate and accelerate the healing process. Art professionals do no more than determine a diagnosis when they ascertain in relation to an artwork representing Roma that is conceived from a majority perspective, that it is not credible and moreover a harmful stereotype. The time has finally come for us to go forward and pronounce that the reason artistic representation of the Roma is so damaged by each harmful depiction is because our immune system is so weak. If the proportion of self-representational compositions to Roma portrayals by other groups outside the community would approach a healthy balance, we would have less reason for concern and apprehension. If we could see on the horizon of Hungarian art, alongside the one book or play each decade about Roma women penned by a white man, many creations authored by Roma women themselves, then the weight of an adverse portrayal would not be so significant. The responsibility of the decisionmakers of the art scene must be identified; otherwise, collaboration cannot begin, and the gates will still not be opened to Roma artists.

Just as with anyone who is infirm, fresh and free air must be ensured for the artistic representation of the Roma. The work of Roma artists cannot remain in “ghettos”, or even worse, in dust-gathering cellars in Hungary. The nearly 41-square-metre masterpiece of painter Tamás Péli, the panel painting entitled Birth, is currently on view at the Budapest Historical Museum (BTM), within the framework of the OFF-Biennale Budapest, and thanks to the RomaMoMA project. By all accounts, this is a symbolic part of the healing process. This grandiose artwork, which merely by its dimensions demands respect, has finally been liberated from its decade-long concealed imprisonment, and has been reintroduced in a dignified venue it is worthy of. Nevertheless, the panel painting has not yet found its permanent home, but its sheer presence in “public space” raises many questions. This discourse, however, extends far beyond the ultimate placement of the artwork in a concrete physical space: together with the panel painting (which portrays the legend of the Roma), Hungarian Roma Art also seeks its place, and the questions push against existing social structures.

András Jókúti: Owning the Game: Intersectional Face Collage, 2019, digital photo.
All photos: András Jókúti, with stylists: Anett Gálvölgyi & Márton Miovác, hair: Márk Károlyi, make-up: Tímea Vozák, 2019 Budapest.

 

[1] See: https://dunszt.sk/2021/03/08/a-koncon-valo-marakodastol-az-antirasszizmusig/
[2] See: https://impactfestival.homelessnessimpact.org/2020/anthony-luvera
[3] See: https://merce.hu/2020/09/02/excelszemleletu-baloldal-mi-az-az-interszekcionalitas-es-mi-a-baj-vele/
[4] See: https://offbiennale.hu/en/2021/program/1-program-romamoma
[5] See: https://dajer.hu/csak-masok-altal-lehet-meghallani-az-egyszemlato-omara-hangjat
[6] See: https://index.hu/mindekozben/poszt/2018/05/16/remek_festmenyek_adjak_vissza_a_tokeletes_jozsefvarosi_hangulatot/

 

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2 responses to “Owning the Game: Intersectional Self-Representation in the Roma LGBTQ+ Communities”

  1. […] From the concept note by Tímea Junghaus: Roma individuals throughout Europe make a tremendous effort to keep the record of a Roma cultural history archived, and events remembered. Through Roma-led activities and assemblies, the Roma continue to build a genealogy of Roma arts and culture. The countercultural machinery remains active through Roma self-representations, self-determinations, and through Roma politics calling out political, economic, and racial oppression. Roma artists imagine a Europe where unveiling truths, beginning with self-remedy, and healing together becomes possible. The artists share their resources to configure visions for a peaceful and whole Europe. They mitigate the notions of time, space, nature, and community, taking inspiration from their experiences born out of Roma heritage and knowledge, all 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 and building a community, while inviting universal participation.   Installation view from the current exhibition: Art and Healing – A Roma Contribution for Europe, at Schafhof: the European Center for Art Upper Bavaria, on view 24.07 – 26.09.2021. Photo: Marco Einfeldt.   With special thanks to Schafhof Director, Eike Berg, and all staff at Schafhof: the European Center for Art Upper Bavaria.   Previous Blog Entry Next Blog Entry […]

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