Raportoru – from the in(DE)finite identity to The Abduction from the Seraglio. The Roma Cultural Resistance: Between Stereotype and Archetype
Eugen Raportoru: Stags 2, 2021, oil on canvas, 190×260 cm. Photo: Ilina Schileru
Painter Eugen Raportoru stands out both through the compositional value of his creations and by the themes addressed, which include significant and subtle references to Roma culture and history, thus endowing meaning to his ethnic belonging, the backbone of the artist’s inner constitution. Raportoru is a Roma painter and a universal painter at the same time, overcoming the boundaries of the heart, twisted with the strength of the resurrected mind from the depths of the great questions of the self-state.
Raportoru has evolved as a philosopher of his own identity’s paintbrush reflected in the mirror of multiple spaces and epochs painted, constantly telling his story and our story from different angles, different levels, different directions – and masterfully making us recognise ourselves in all these perspectives. Raportoru addresses both the feminine and the masculine, flight and collapse, birth and death – in such a way that each emerges from its opposite while containing the germs of its inverse. The feminine contains the masculine; the masculine is the germ of the feminine. Birth generates death; death builds on life and germinates in a new birth. Flight leads to a crash, but the crash looks up at the flight.
From the infinite to Urban Relation, Subjective Landscapes and Roma Lives Matter, the self-proclaimed “painter of the suburbs” approaches landscape (especially the urban), still life and portraiture – with the faces of Roma women and men, children and elders – occupying a special place. The urban landscape is composed primarily in black and white, with subtle touches of colour, predominantly in dark blues or purple, blood red and various shades of brown and dark yellow, as if invited to take part in a construction that is, apparently, extraneous to them. The landscape is squeezed into the patterns imposed by the enormous sensitivity of the artist, as in a trap in which the soul collapses as after a cataclysm, as in a pit with lions between the bars of which we see, without being able to touch or remove the boundaries that limit our perspective. Most often, because the houses are huge, the sky is narrow in Raportoru’s painting, compressed into an upper corner, striving to breathe in a suffocating environment.
A favourite leitmotif is the wall – the obstructive, choking, oppressive wall – the forever grey wall, the even frightening wall, but also the majestic and the wall that aspires to heights difficult to even hope to scale. Raportoru’s walls obstruct the viewer’s gaze, simultaneously opening the imagination of something behind those walls – a feeling that there has to be something there. The viewer need only open her/his inner eye to see – or rather feel – what is there. There is a world that is actually accessible and real – but made inaccessible exactly by those stifling, crushing and isolating walls. Raportoru’s metaphor of a sad monumentality possesses the retina of the Roma who, crushed by a society that still questions his humanity, takes refuge either in the dignity of the touches of grey and the sobriety of the touches of black, or in the cold expression of the walls.
Linked with the symbol of the wall, windows are another leitmotif: his windows are small or narrow, often grey, sometimes even blind, opening onto the sadness and fear of the unknown. Also linked is the gate: most often closed or half-closed, either enormous or extremely small, almost invisible, sometimes behind bars; rather than giving a feeling of hope and curiosity, prompting the eye to ask what might be behind those gates, on the contrary, it brings a feeling of loss and obstruction, and the deep sensation of an end: as if behind those gates, there is nothing but the wall itself.
Yet another important leitmotif is the road: the narrow, twisting, winding road – almost as a path from a certain hell to an uncertain heaven and back to an even more certain hell; the road painted mostly in grey, that sad and unsafe grey covering the symbolism of the insecure, the unanswered, the exhausted silence. Even when the landscapes remind us of spaces painted by the great Impressionist painters, the streets, the walls, the roofs, the fences, the gates lead us into an Expressionist universe deeply marked by the philosophy of the periphery that becomes the centre, of the obstacle that becomes a passage, of closure which becomes the aspiration, of the road which becomes the path to something long sought-after.
Most often, the human face is missing from the landscape, and when it exists, it is difficult to identify, appearing as an imagistic pretext framed so well in the non-human composition of the walls that it merges and morphs, everything melding into a strange, cold, almost frightening space, with old buildings that seem ruins, perhaps deserted, with long, narrow windows, sinewy streets, gangways, imposing gates barricading inner courtyards dominated by the unknown, suggestions of bolted padlocks, endless bars over the windows, fences, gated balconies. There is no ray of sunshine from anywhere – it is eternally winter in the world of Raportoru’s paintings. Black absorbing light. No sky or earth, but only walls that catch our eye and then, in an eternal flash, collide with our orbits emptied of the iris. The atmosphere is oppressive, underscoring the feeling of imprisonment: the individual shut within the walls of a society seen as a prison for the spirit. Despair of Expressionist origin predominates, and it seems that nothing can save us from alienation. We suffocate between bars and walls.
The still life with vases of flowers responds to the waiting horizon of the name that anticipates non-existence, transcending the classic denomination of such paintings. The flowers look broken, crushed, plucked, torn, killed, often bleeding, arousing anxiety, even fear – sinking the viewer into the same murky depths of Expressionism. The portraits continue the same discourse of controlled fear: Raportoru’s figures stare blankly, their eyes half-open or closed, as if they refuse the world around them. They almost never look at us, sometimes even seeming to be blind. Human faces suggest at least two identities – either overlapping or diametrically opposed, either hidden from – or protected from – each other, either prevailing through – or dominating each other.
Raportoru’s Roma are shadows: images without faces, faces without eyes. They are sad, they seem to grit their teeth, their children’s chins tremble to cry, the elderly are waiting to die or rather to be killed, their hands clasped, looking only inside, from a past that crushes them, to a future that has no chance but to repeat the past. Far from being a decorative element, but obviously an element of ethnic identification, the traditional Roma dress looks more like a shirt of death, in which the individual awaits her/his execution.
Raportoru re-evaluates the expressiveness of the concrete in the symbolism of his paintings’ contours and colours: the reality of the tragic history of the Roma essentialised in their faces, suggested traditional costumes and houses of mahala that exceed the boundaries of the artistic denotative in a world of symbols of identity search. His compositions are distinguished by the apparent disharmony of the forms that embody a deep harmony of content, and of the message proposed by the artist. The latter is subsumed by the need to understand the destiny of a nation in particular, and the destiny of mankind universally.
Like the king who weeps with one eye and laughs with the other, the painter with one hand nervously and painfully draws the contour of things impossible to be drawn, like the soul itself, and with the other hand calmly and gently colours things that cannot be coloured – because their hues come from another world. Metal bars imprison the heart of the wood, while the wooden trunk closes, in its core, the seed of the metal awaiting its fire. In Raportoru’s oeuvre, nothing seems to be directly linked with the Roma ethnic identity, but everything builds its roots there, within it.
Without ostentation, without excess of artistic means, avoiding in any way (but mainly with discretion that comes from repeated reflection) the temptation to amaze through the theme or compositional solutions employed, always elegant and often subliminal, the plastic metaphor of painter Raportoru evokes the tragic destiny of a people crushed by history – though never truly collapsed: a people of survivors shaped by the eternal rebirth of eternal death and eternal life.
His images are distinguished by sharp draughtsmanship and the sense of compositional direction, as well as by the sometimes nostalgic, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nervous, but always self-reflective touch, and by the authenticity of a world with a bitter, sad taste, impregnated by an unanswered silence. In this key interpretation, the human being is only a dilemma in the shadow of the contorted parliaments prone to collapse in the ruin of their own falsehood.
The eyes of the mind turned inward imagine what is only suggested in Raportoru’s painting: impressions of closed windows, half-closed gates, mangled bars, unlockable locks, keys twisted in gates. All of these symbolise imprisonment, submission, closure, lack of perspective, the individual kneeling by an oppressive society. Raportoru’s painting is tortuous, broken, roiled, twisted by an inexpressible torment and demonstrates a rare artistic sensibility, thoroughly served by the performance of a long and deeply studied craft.
In The Abduction from the Seraglio, even if the painting techniques and the deep vision of his artistic background are still recognisable, we encounter a spiritual surprise: a new Raportoru appears – a different eye with the same hands; his view seems to be different, and his colours also seem to be different – or simply the fact that there are colours instead of his usual dominating grey and black. The painter seems to somehow return to his deep ethnic identity, which sits somewhere in between the tolerated stereotype and the ancestrally dreamed archetype – an identity that was, so far, more or less hidden behind the grey walls of an oppressive, obstructive and suffocating society.
Why the famous oriental wall carpet, The Abduction from the Seraglio? Is it about an artefact more or less culturally linked with the East and typically exoticized by a chronic lack of knowledge and understanding of Otherness? If so, what is the standpoint of the painter, and why does he choose to paint the wall carpet surrounded by installations reproducing rural rooms versus flats in urban blocs from yesterday and today, as well as by other paintings echoing well-known themes of the kitsch paintings that are so much present and appreciated in the households of socialist countries: still life with exotic fruits and expensive wines, fruit baskets, vases with flowers, idyllic pastoral scenes with shepherds, peacocks, stags and deer?
What message is the painter trying to send to the viewer and, in general, to society? We might assume that the message stands somewhere between a reflection on history that infinitely repeats itself by selling illusions to people striving to find individual happiness through collective ecstasy, and the emotion of the lost paradise of the painter’s – and of everyone’s – childhood. And what is happiness in this context? It could be an emotional escape into the past, where memory might mean the old TV set, the old table, the old seat, the old tablecloth, the old toys, the old frills evoking ladies, ballerinas – and even fish, doggies and birds – the colourful wall carpets – everything that might remind you of the only golden age of your life: childhood, when, naïve and pure, you loved what shines, is colourful, luxurious, seems beautiful – in the roughest sense.
But it could also be a strong political statement of the painter, who is as deeply disappointed in the current society as he was in the past society, because both lie to the people, and try to sell the illusion of beautiful dreams that can never be achieved, and, above all, they both ignore and despise the real Roma identity, replacing it with a false iconography, mistakenly overlapped with the most exotic oriental culture, wrongly interpreted as radically different.
And what is the standpoint of the viewer? It might be related to emotional solidarity with her/his own memory of a past seen as nice at least because it is a reminder of youth. It might also be linked with a kind of curiosity about survival strategies during times that seem to be the past, but too closely resemble present society.
Keeping all this in our minds and souls, we should not forget another very important entry point of The Abduction from the Seraglio: the image of the woman, which is objectified, exoticized and eroticized both in paintings and installations with frills and wall carpets, represented in a collective form, such as fairies in the woods, exotic dancers in the harem, or even courtesans – or in an individual form, like the shepherdess, the ballerina, the lady, and, above all, the “Gypsy” woman – all of them highly exotic, passionate, mysteriously beautiful and esoteric. Following this key of interpretation, the artist uses the clichés and abuses of the stereotypes to combat them, but also to try to understand them from within, in order to denounce them and unmask them, aiming to reveal the reality behind the walls.
Suddenly, the intimate, sometimes even hidden space of the home becomes the public space of exhibition, where everything takes on different meanings. How else could we interpret the seemingly impossible joining, in the same room, in the same installation, of two diametric opposites: the wall carpet, The Abduction from the Seraglio – symbolising the exotic and savage East; and the reproduction, The Last Supper – representing one of the fundamental symbols of the Christian religion? We ask ourselves how these two opposites can sit together on the same wall. But the possible answer comes to our souls before it can come to our minds: both are legends, myths, fairy-tales, dream-like worlds, untouchable for the secluded ego, retreating from a society that betrays it every day of its life.
This is not about kitsch! It is about desperately striving to find the beauty inside, because outside there is only ugliness. It is about desperately striving to recognise yourself somewhere in a society that excludes you, stigmatizes you, and sees you exclusively under the sky of the stereotype, mainly negative or slightly positive. It is about cultural appropriation and about cultural exclusion of the most emotionally vulnerable. But it is also about feminine cultural resistance between the stereotype and archetype. Who am I, the Roma woman both in the socialist and in the capitalist regimes? I am a working woman, I am a mother, a girl, I am an incomplete citizen… never a Roma woman outdoors, but always a Roma woman indoors… I cannot say I really love The Abduction from the Seraglio, but the gadje say this is me, the Gypsy woman. I know this is not true, but the gadje say this is something beautiful and they like it. And I want to be beautiful and liked, especially by the gadje, who usually despise me. And if I am not asking too much, I even want to be loved and respected, if not for what I really am, at least for what the gadje believe I am… I will buy this lie, and I will buy the wall carpet and the frill with the Gypsy dancer. And I put them in a visible place on the wall and on the supper table of my clean room, the dining room. And I carefully clean them every day of my life because everything should be very, very clean… Just in case some gadjo might visit us…
In lieu of a conclusion, we might reflect on the vault key of a possible ethnic interpretation of Raportoru’s art: it is about the long road from the in(de)finite twisted identity to the value of the cultural memory standing between stereotype and archetype in the context of pursuing rebuilding identity through regaining dignity.
Text: Delia Grigore