RomaMoMA: a Roma Transnational Museum – Challenges and Issues

(Left to right) Krzysztof Gil: Ugly Business Past Midnight, 2021, mixed media: oil on canvas, pastel, 160×190 cm Krzysztof Gil: Study from Nature Seemingly So But Not Really, 2021, charcoal on paper, metalwork, 180×150 cm

I have been asked to offer my opinion regarding the concept of RomaMoMA, an institution putting on display contemporary art. Mine is an opinion that comes from a seasoned non-Roma observer of contemporary Roma art scene, a Poland-based critic and curator.

The emergence of an establishment like this poses a number of questions, the first being: is such an institution necessary? To this there can only be one answer: yes. Absolutely so.


Having been active as a curator, critic and cultural theorist for years, I am quite positive that, despite their presence in the majority art world, Roma artists remain to be widely recognised. Their (temporary) visibility results from consensual participation in the world of majority art (e.g., the Venice Biennale or the most recent Berlin Biennale). Professionals of the art world repeatedly find themselves surprised at the activities undertaken by Roma artists and the progressiveness of their artistic statements – in a nutshell, they admit they have never heard of those creators. It would seem that contemporary Roma art is a much better tool for making the history and problems of the Roma diaspora visible than historical or ethnographical expositions put up at museums. However, the short period between 2007 and 2011, when contemporary Roma art attracted attention and found its way into some important institutions of the art world, was followed by Roma art slipping off its radar. I am referring here to collective actions carried out by Roma artists addressing their own situation, as well as the global state of affairs from the Roma viewpoint because particular artists of Roma origin were invited to take part in various events and exhibitions staged by non-Roma curators. The reception of this art presents an even greater problem, as complicated political-historical-social contexts are unintelligible to audiences ignorant of, e.g., Roma history, while the common stereotype of the Roma as a “people without history” is perpetuated.

Burning issues that arise from this state of affairs require systemic solutions. Firstly, the narratives presented in ethnographical and historical museums tend to be developed by majority nations. Even some museums devoted to the Shoah, with smaller expositions focusing on the Roma Genocide, adopt narratives that come under criticism from Roma communities. According to Sławomir Kapralski, these displays show the Roma as exotic figures: “The visual representation of the Roma in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum [in Washington, D.C.] highlights their ‘exoticism’ (specific clothing) and nomadic ‘otherness’ (e.g., the twice-presented motif of wagon (…)). In this way, visitors to the Museum may get the impression that Nazi persecution of the Roma was brought about by the latter’s social maladjustment, rather than racial issues (…). A similarly stereotypical picture of the Roma is painted by the Jasenovac Museum. (…) The section dedicated to the Roma offers very general information on the language or the origins of the term ‘Roma’, suggesting that they are strangers and need to be explained to visitors (there is no such information regarding Jewish victims of the Jasenovac camp). Besides, there is a large degree of folklorisation [and exoticisation – addition by MW] in Jasenovac. (…) For instance, visual materials characterise the Roma as a ‘people of freedom and unlimited movement’ who found ‘the barbed wire at the camp incomprehensible’”.[1]

With their voice unheard for ages, the Roma have been rendered incapable of providing their own account of historical and social experience. They are still denied access to their cultural legacy, or the right to create, present and interpret their culture, which is as good as invisible and inaccessible.[2] David Avalos claims that social dynamics, the discursive value of artworks and their performative properties are the medium of aesthetics. He believes that a public discussion without a tangible object would serve its purpose; however, it would be regrettable if such an object failed to spark off a debate.[3] Nevertheless, Roma artefacts disappear within the museum space as if in a mausoleum, in museum storehouses. They tend not to be put on display, or even made available to Roma artists and curators.

The third problem is apparent in the priority that is given to the category of nationality over themes featured at exhibitions or problematisation of works. I shall illustrate this. I have once viewed a show prepared by a non-Roma curator that included a room marked with the caption “contemporary Roma art”. What it contained was beyond belief: some pieces awarded in a children’s competition, school exercises of future artists, artworks sold at church fairs, very poor amateur painting. An unprepared visitor had every reason to leave that exposition with the notion that visual art created by artists of Roma origin is, first of all, technically deficient and relies on self-folklorisation. Describing the phenomenon of “Roma museums”, or rather displays dedicated to the Roma in majority museums, Sławomir Kapralski analyses how these institutions attempt to deal with the “original sin” of the contemporary museum including, for instance, the continuity of historical interpretations supported from governmental subsidies and entangled in political games.[4] Indeed, an examination of diverse expositions raises doubts as to whether we should rejoice at their emergence after years of Roma invisibility at museums, or feel concern – as Roma or non-Roma viewers – about presented narratives. What I mean is not conscious creation with a political dimension. This is what Tímea Junghaus did with great success. The curator of Paradise Lost opened the Roma Pavilion in Venice to professional artists, as well as to older ones who had had no opportunity to receive an art education due to the social and political conditions of the post-war era. It was her intention to demonstrate that such divisions are pointless and imposed by external categories related to art: what is accepted as art or rejected on the grounds of its going against the definition; what is explored by ethnographers, and what by art historians, etc. Art created by the Roma remained outside the majority art world due to the lack of professional education among artists, brought about by their economic and social situation. That was the reason why blunt and intriguing artist statements were ignored. Tímea Junghaus points out that the typical motives behind racial and gender discrimination are also at work in the art world, manifesting as aesthetic discrimination that claims to seek perfection while causing, as a result, social injustice”.[5]


(Left to right)
Krzysztof Gil: Panorama, 2020, charcoal, ink, graphite on paper, 120×900 cm
Michał Gorstkin-Wywiórski, Tihamér Margitay, Tadeusz Popiel, Zygmunt Rozwadowski, Leopold Schönchen, Béla K. Spányi, Jan Styka, Pál Vágó: Transylvanian Panorama (also known as the Battle of SegesvárBem in Transylvania or Bem and Petöfi), fragment: Gypsy Band, 1897, oil on canvas

To sum up – the RomaMoMA project is meaningful in terms of the visibility of Roma artists and the audibility of their voices, the accessibility of the Roma cultural legacy to the Roma themselves, and their right to create their own curatorial narratives. It is worth pointing out that the idea of such an institution appeared in Romania as early as the 1930s, in the General Association of Gypsies, which aimed to establish a place for presenting Roma folklore, as well as for the emancipation and rebirth of the Roma – a ‘national museum’ – but this was never fulfilled. The quest for a museum of their own was only successful in the Czech Republic, decades later. There is only one museum of Roma culture in Europe founded by the Roma – in Brno. The assimilation scheme run in Czechoslovakia from 1958 on disapproved of the cultivation of Roma culture and language. At the time, Jaroslav Sus opted against the construction of a socialist or national Roma culture in relation to their folklore, which he viewed as a sign of backwardness in terms of content and form; rather than an ideological background, he described their lifestyle as unrefined, undeveloped and lacking any progressive tendencies.[6] Such circumstances made the idea of founding a museum of their own look next to impossible for almost half a century. It took little less than heroic struggles led by the Roma activist Karl Holomek to make it happen; after years of striving for the Museum of Roma Culture in Bohemia, the Museum was launched in Brno in 1991 as a non-governmental organisation, and became a state institution in 2005. Karl Holomek recounts: “I found the building (…) in 1997 by a miracle as, in previous years, the municipal authorities in Brno had insisted: ‘We are not going to bring Gypsies to our city.’ The Museum of Roma Culture meant ‘Gypsies’ to them (…). Against all the odds, we managed to carry through a project that lacked general support; on the contrary – it met with rather substantial resistance. (…) Some people saw it as a mission because, with all the obstacles and defeats, it was actually a battle of attrition. So really, we were able to succeed because we were tenacious and had a vision for the future”.[7] The Museum staff (more than 23 people) consists mostly of Roma persons, including those working at the café and museum shop, as volunteers guiding exhibition tours and keeping an eye on expositions, as curators of exhibitions and the collection. Its current director, Jana Horváthová, is Karl Holomek’s daughter. The main permanent exposition, The Story of the Roma, has been open since 2011. The Museum in Brno stages temporary exhibitions, devoted, for instance, to Roma crafts, such as jewellery, or shows of contemporary art.[8] Since 2008, it has been focussing on sculpture, organising symposia on Roma sculptors (five editions every two years). The Museum releases many books, audio and video recordings, runs educational programmes and conducts field research (e.g., dedicated to the Roma Genocide); it also has a library and reading room. Since 2019, the memorial site in Lety has been in its care.

Determining the form of RomaMoMA is a major challenge. The question is not whether an institution should be founded, but what it should be like.

The idea provokes ambivalent feelings in me for complex reasons. Achille Mbembe writes: “The slave must continue to haunt the museum such as it exists today but do so by its absence. It ought to be everywhere and nowhere, its apparitions always occurring in the mode of breaking and entering and never of the institution. (…) For, despite appearances, the museum has historically not always been an unconditional place of reception for the multiple faces of humanity taken in its unity. On the contrary, since the modern age the museum has been a powerful device of separation. The exhibiting of subjugated or humiliated humanities has always adhered to certain elementary rules of injury and violation. And, for starters, these humanities have never had the right in the museum to the same treatment, status, or dignity as the conquering humanities. They have always been subjected to other rules of classification and other logics of presentation. (…) The primary conviction is that because different forms of humanities have produced different objects and different forms of culture, these objects and forms of culture ought to be placed and exhibited in distinct places and assigned different and unequal symbolic statuses. The slave’s entry into such a museum would doubly hallow the spirit of apartheid that lies at the source of this cult of difference, hierarchy, and inequality”.[9]

Perhaps a network of hybrid institutions absorbing complex local relations would be more appropriate? The point would be to act within the Roma community that preceded the Roma political movement. But this sort of community must allow for queer surplus and hybrid identities, while questioning the politics of ethnic identity based on the difference between “them” and “us” – demonstrating that “we” is never a constant and needs each time to be negotiated. Thus, it places difference not only outside a given community, but also inside it, providing emancipation from a binary relation and uncovering, as a matter of fact, more tensions resulting from a colonial relation. Seyla Benhabib draws attention to the “standpoint of the concrete other”, or radical self-determination of individuals as a way of discrediting difference: in this way the difference between “us” and “them” can be made fluid and negotiable.[10] Depressurisation of the unifying and totalising identity project may render easier a discussion of whatever was so far repressed, including, for instance, the fact that political agency is limited not only by a majority framework, but also by internal conflicts, the difficulties in complying with the idealised common denominator of legitimising identity, developed politically in the 1970s, and most of all the fact that the framework of representation imposed on the subaltern as part of consensual visibility can and must be opposed. As Sandra Selimovic put it, Europe has never had a “Roma problem”; there has rather been a “gadjo problem”.[11] Now, the Roma should be analysing the “white” and influence the mentality of majority societies because slavery, the Roma Genocide, antiziganism and racism have not been created by the Roma, but by “gadjos”. And so, the exposed part of society that remained invisible for so long has the right and intention to talk about its problems: the problems of majority society, shared problems, problems within communities. Some intellectuals are critical of an unambiguous definition of Roma identity, stressing its hybrid nature and fragmentation, which defy simple categorisation.[12]

I am afraid that the idea of RomaMoMA could prove an easy one to officials and lead them to create a central institution, which – in my opinion – would be a very dangerous thing to happen. The doubts I harbour are related to the threat of centralisation a transnational museum may come under. Centralised institutions do have advantages, but they also have serious drawbacks. I have no intention, however, to elaborate on this problem in detail here. Still, my anxiety always grows at centralisation, and it would probably be easily implemented in the EU. The foundation of a central institution could mean that the question of Roma culture would be seen as “dealt with” at the European level: the institution would become a fig leaf intended to cover insufficient support for Roma-related projects in many countries. An argument that tends to be put forward against supporting contemporary art created by the Roma at state level is that it is “not enough Romani”. This question was addressed, amongst others, by Joanna Kwiatkowska-Talewicz at the Congress of Polish Culture in 2016. For instance, the Dialog-Pheniben quarterly was considered non-Roma, and the relevant ministry removed its subsidy because it presented contemporary issues from the Roma perspective, e.g., the 25th anniversary of the first free election in Poland, or the migration crisis.[13] Here the mechanism denying a minority the right to talk about the whole community becomes evident. Folkloric projects are given priority, festivals confirming the Roma position in society as strangers and exotic figures. Current minority cultures rarely receive adequate support. Besides, a central institution could have a tendency to maintain a national (pan-Roma) narrative, overlooking local and collective historical contexts, as well as the whole spectrum of interactions with majority nations – including those outside the oppressor-victim relation; the whole spectrum of relations between various Roma groups in history; the whole spectrum of intragroup relations; the whole spectrum of individual choices, etc. Terry Eagleton points out: “Like all radical politics, identity politics are self-abolishing: one is free when one no longer needs to bother oneself too much about who one is. In this sense, the end is at odds with the means (…) Any authentic affirmation of difference thus has a universal dimension”.[14] In her famous text on the subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak warned against such an approach: “When a line of communication is established between a member of subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenship or institutionality, the subaltern has been inserted into the long road to hegemony. Unless we want to be romantic purists or primitivists about “preserving subalternity” – a contradiction in terms – this is absolutely to be desired. (It goes without saying that museumized or curricularized access to ethnic origin – another battle that must be fought – is not identical with preserving subalternity.) Remembering this allows us to take pride in our work without making missionaryclaims”.[15] A false consensus has appeared, de facto neutralising the other in Europe. In this sense, the Roma failed to become fully visible, but rather half visible or half invisible. A minority community can in some respects be a function of domination, oppression, regulation and discipline – Iris Marion Young claims that the ideal of community puts unity before difference, immediacy before mediation, and shared feelings before the acceptance of one’s incapability of understanding others from their point of view. It comes as no surprise that community is expected to rely on mutually intelligible selves, reciprocal identification and social proximity, but as such, it may turn out to be politically turbulent, as individuals may be likely to suppress any differences between them or exclude those they do not identify with from their political groups in an attempt to achieve the desired end. “The ideal of community, finally, totalizes and detemporalizes its conception of social life by setting up an opposition between authentic and inauthentic social relations. It also detemporalizes its understanding of social change by positing the desired society as the complete negation of existing society. It thus provides no understanding of the move from here to there that would be rooted in an understanding of the contradictions and possibilities of existing society”.[16]


(Left to right)
Krzysztof Gil: A Cannibal Doesn’t Mind Catching a Human, 2021, oil on canvas, 160×190 cm
Krzysztof Gil: Panorama, 2020, charcoal, ink, graphite on paper, 120×900 cm
Krzysztof Gil: Ugly Business Past Midnight, 2021, mixed media: oil on canvas, pastel, 160×190 cm
All photos:
Exhibition of Krzysztof Gil: Tristes Tropiques All Over Again. On view 15.05 – 29.08.2021; Curator: Monika Weychert.
Photo: Przemysław Sroka / BWA Tarnów Archive; Courtesy of the Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, Tarnów.

 


It would perhaps be a good idea to create a network of institutions spanning various European countries, allowing Roma intellectuals to explore the histories of local relations and significantly expanding the view of Roma history, culture and art, amongst others, in a contemporary perspective. They would promote the development of local communities of Roma artists and audiences, which cannot be overestimated. Apart from displaying art, these institutions could provide support for local Roma artists producing contemporary art and form a platform for their functioning in the majority art world. Also, like most exhibiting institutions, they would carry out educational projects directed at the Roma community – sensitising them to contemporary art, as well as at majority communities, familiarising them with contexts of particular works and exhibitions. An intense exchange of artists from various countries within the network would keep the programme alive. Local cultural institutions also have the potential for expanding their activities and forming strategic alliances, like the Museum in Brno, which organises exhibitions at other venues, including such important places as the Moravian Gallery; also, a branch of the Museum is built in Lety in collaboration with public administration. The network of local RomaMoMAs should be financed by particular countries to avoid shifting responsibility for their maintenance onto Roma NGOs, to ensure the continuity and certitude of funding.

This then begs another question: Would a RomaMoMA network be easier to establish than a central RomaMoMA institution? Without a doubt, this is a much greater challenge. Should a network like this take the form of a regular local museum (like the one in Brno), or should it involve the “haunting of existing institutions” and exerting a political impact on them?

ERIAC announces:

A long-term goal is to form an Alliance of Institutions for European Roma Cultural Inclusion, in order to conduct policy change. ERIAC and OFF Biennale (Budapest) invite all public institutions in Europe working within arts and culture – museums, concert halls, academic institutions, cultural decision-makers – to reshape museum protocols and join the Alliance of Institutions for European Roma Cultural Inclusion! Start the change within your own institution/organisation! [17]

 This is an idea that constitutes a giant leap in the right direction, most certainly! Especially at a time when the museum as an institution undergoes critical reflection, a revision of canons, decolonisation, examination of the process of exclusion and excluding, institutional and extra-institutional conditions of building collections, reflection on transforming communication models and everyday life in a digital era, blurring the border between artistic practices and life; local establishments have ceased to act as satellites of the centre. Marcia Tucker, the founder and long-time director of the New Museum, would often say that a museum ought to change its entire collection every ten years – to avoid petrifying the canon. To paraphrase Mbembe: The Roma must continue to haunt the museum such as it exists today but do so by their absence. They ought to be everywhere and nowhere, their apparitions always occurring in the mode of breaking and entering and never of the institution.

 


Monika Weychert is an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of Journalism and Social Communication SAN Warsaw (collaborating with the university since 2015). Since 2016, she has also cooperated with the Institute of Public Space Research of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In Torun she ran, among others, “independent flying gallery” and “a gallery for…”; she was associated with the Foksal Gallery and the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture in Królikarnia – a branch of the National Museum in Warsaw. She has curated several dozen exhibitions. Long-time collaborator of TVP Kultura; author of articles published in several scientific and critical magazines and exhibition catalogues, book editor, member of AICA.


[1] S. Kapralski: “Romowie i muzealny grzech pierworodny” [The Roma and Museum’s Original Sin], Studia Romologica, 11/2018, pp.13-30.
[2] T. Junghaus: “Obraz i podobieństwo. Rozważania o Romach w sztuce i sztuce Romów” [Image and Likeness: Reflection on the Roma in Art and Roma Art], translated from the English by M. Kołaczek, Dialog-Pheniben 12/2013; cf. D. Le Bas. T. Junghaus: “Europe’s Roma Struggle to Reclaim Their Arts Scene”, OSI [online], https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/europe-s-roma-struggle-reclaim-their-arts-scene, uploaded 31 July 2015, viewed 13 July 2017.
[3] Public audit, a conversation between Cylena Simonds, Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock and David Avalos, Afterimage, 22(1), pp.8-11. Statement by David Avalos. David Avalos was born in San Diego in 1947. A fierce critic of social mechanisms and provocateur using confrontational gesture, poetic metaphor, philosophical inquiry, public interaction and classical works of video, sculpture, photography, etc., in the creation of public art. Involved in the Chicano Art Movement. Lecturer at the California State University in San Marcos.
[4] S. Kapralski: Op. cit.
[5] T. Junghaus: Op. cit., pp.8-25.
[6] J. Sus: “Cikánská otázka w ČSSR” [The Gypsy Question in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic], Prague 1961, p. 71, quoted in: Arne Mann: “Rómovia, rómska kultúra, rómske museum” [Roma People, Roma Culture, Roma Museum], Zborník SNM v Martine [at Slovak National Museum, Martine (SK)], vol. XCIX, 2005, Etnografia 46, pp.28-36 (the English version of the article).
[7] S. Kapralski, M. Kołaczek, J. Talewicz-Kwiatkowska: Kierunek: przyszłość. 25 lat wolności a Romowie, [Destination: Future. 25 Years of Freedom (in Poland – MW) and the Roma], Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego [Jagiellonian University Publishing House], Cracow, 2015, p.108.
[8] J. Horváthová: “Muzeum Romskiej kultury w Brnie” [Museum of Romani Culture (MRC), a state subsidised organisation in the Czech Republic], Studia Romologica, 11/2018, pp.115-132.
[9] A. Mbembe: Necropolitics, translated from the French by S. Corcoran, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2019, pp.171-172.
[10] S. Benhabib: Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, Psychology Press, Sydney – London, 1992, pp.160-161.
[11] Interview with Sandra Selimovic (Roma Armee im Volkstheater) [online], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAaJvaxIISQ, viewed 6 March 2021.
[12] All Change! Romani Studies Through Romani Eyes, D. Le Bas, T. Acton, eds., University of Herfordshire, Hatfield 2010.
[13] Debate: “Samoorganizacja w kulturze” [Self-Organisation in Culture], 8 October 2016, [online]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO18LCJVbBY&feature=youtu.be, viewed 2 September 2019.
[14] T. Eagleton: The Idea of Culture, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2000, p.65.
[15] G. Chakravorty Spivak: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Rosalind C. Morris, ed.: Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, Columbia University Press, New York, 2010, p.65.
[16] I. M. Young: “The Idea of Community and the Politics of Difference”, Social Theory and Practice, 12(1)/1986, p.2.
[17] RomaMoMA – A European Manifesto for Roma Cultural Inclusion: Alliance of Institutions for European Roma Cultural Inclusion, see: https://eriac.org/join-romamoma-to-fight-institutional-racism/  and also: https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/375913/romamoma-the-digital-roma-museum/

 

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