RomaMoMA: An Opportunity for Differencing the Museum Canons
Chirikli Collective: Canada Without Shadows / Kanada Bizo Uchalipe (2010-2011), Birdsong, the fourth component of the installation, represents hope. See: https://chiriklicollective.com
It is a great privilege to have been approached to share my thoughts on the RomaMoMA blog. Nevertheless, my initial reaction was very personal and hesitant. I had to ask myself: who am I to be given this great opportunity to suggest, propose, advise, or simply share my personal scepticism, discomfort, and disenchantment about the historic and current colonial concept of European and US Museums with the Romani and non-Romani colleagues who have initiated this project so enthusiastically?
The fact is, I have always found all museums problematic, not only the ones dedicated to art by Roma and/or about Roma. Their hierarchisation, lack of access, exclusiveness, problematic provenance of the collections, and the national and sexist conceptualisation of patrimony/cultural heritage (even the terminology is still not gender-sensitised) have been often at the focus of my criticism. In my experience, it is usually the national museums of modern and contemporary art that are particularly elitist and inaccessible. Therefore, I have dedicated my career, both in theoretical/academic and practical/curatorial terms, mostly to projects of institutional critique, ephemeral performative events, and participatory art as a means – if not for entirely dismantling the concepts of these contentious institutions, at least for their deconstruction and critical revelations of their “uncomfortable histories” – and old and new imperial and colonial “clothes”, that are not often shared with the communities to which they are dedicated.
To return to my initial discomfort and paradoxes: from where I stand, it felt awkward to rally and lobby for any kind of museum. But again, who am I to “contaminate” with my disillusionment, and even ironic take on museums (that is often paralysing), the artists and colleagues from ERIAC and RomaMoMA, who might not have had the access to these institutions for “self-expression and self-representation” in the first place? They thus created their own, initiating this project in an attempt to constructively compensate, self-inserting the Roma into grand art history and museum narratives.
It is an immense responsibility, and even a burden, to be honest and critical, but the question is: how could one address such urgent questions without sounding patronising, or simply being a kind of smug killjoy – a very real threat that is often concealed when one accepts and uses the label “expert”? Setting out from the Foucauldian concept of the “art of government”, that for Michel Foucault was actually something not entailing any universalised distinction between different governing systems, Gerald Raunig proposed that “not only resistive individuals, but also progressive institutions and civil society NGOs operate on the same plane of governmentality”.
Thus, from my safe and privileged position of non-Romani curator and academic, it would have felt very problematic and irresponsible not to issue any warning in support and solidarity with colleagues who decided to start anew, but in this very same world of socio-political and economic inconsistences and inequalities. I still wanted to emphasise some traps that became inevitable, and some issues that became difficult to be avoided in some more recently established museums. However, reading the blog’s content, it has been both comforting and eye-opening to go through each contribution. I realised that I didn’t have to do anything: it’s almost all already there – such a relief! I share the opinion with many of my colleagues and artists – contributors to the blog, and my theoretical arguments and research questions completely or partially overlap with some of the already addressed and exhausted issues in the published texts. Unfortunately, I do not have the necessary answers, or any prescriptions for most of the questions already shared on this blog, on how to circumvent the most puzzling conundrums, with regard to some still disputed terms, such as: “Roma art”, “Roma Museum”, or methodology with respect to collecting art about Roma, and how to avoid the danger of perpetuation and redistribution of many existing stereotypes in such collections. The relevant references from postcolonial critique of identity essentialisation, critical pedagogy of the oppressed, decolonial aesthetics, and many others have already been applied (G. C. Spivak, A. Mbembe, S. Banhabib, P. Freire, W. Mignolo, etc.). The blog’s published texts are already abundant with condensed and critical knowledge about troubled history, invisible art history, the culture and the art of the Roma, the current dominant politics of exclusion, as well as the cultural and racial discrimination of Roma that could easily get internalised in the politics and strategy of the future museum or other exhibiting and collecting institution to be dedicated to art by Roma communities and artists.
There are, of course, still some additional questions, and the major inner contradiction remains: that of calling for inclusion and integration of Roma by establishing an ethnic-based Museum of Modern or Contemporary Art, or both. Yet, the contradictions between different Romani traditions and cultures, the unevenly publicised artistic practices related to the local cultures of various Romani groups, the rather difficult historicisation and comparison between the use of different aesthetic forms, modern or postmodern and contemporary styles, interpretation of certain materials, styles and media as more or less ethnic – are only some of the issues stemming from the gathering under the roof of one single ethnic museum. While some of these issues have already been discussed, they could be addressed in more detail and depth in future. The interpretation of historic expulsions of Roma as proof of their nomadic culture (in contrast to historic facts about sedentary Roma communities), the danger of stereotyping, self-exoticising, and essentialising of Romani heritage, while lobbying for the inclusion of the subaltern, overlooking of the undermined Roma Holocaust and more recent refugee crises, the tensions between traditional and progressive communities’ artistic values, and the lack of sensitivity towards gender and LGBTQ+ rights in both camps, and other similar contradictions that might be methodological obstacles to the realisation of a future successful concept – are either already addressed in different texts, with more or less success, or will be developed in the near future. Even the more recent calls for decolonisation, restitution, repatriation and the return of art objects are analysed and incorporated in the discussion.
It is, however, exactly this last point that brings me to the most important issue and motivation to point out a few actions that could perhaps turn the potentials of a new institution into a vehicle and means of critical pedagogy, and even an example for other similar museums, despite the recent radical calls to “empty all museums”, to abolish them, and to return the appropriated or looted objects of various cultural origin.
The rest of my text is not imagined as a kind of to-do list, or “not-to-do” list. It is rather a proposal that, at least in my view, will reconcile the major danger of establishing yet another ethnic museum, and yet another centralised monopoly.
In this context, the concept of criticality introduced by British theorist Irit Rogoff can be helpful. As coined by Rogoff, “criticality” is a term that places “an emphasis on the present, of living out a situation, of understanding culture as a series of effects rather than of causes, of the possibilities of actualizing some of its potential rather than revealing its faults”. Contrary to the assumption that meaning is immanent, Rogoff believes that we could move away from immanent notions, and that one should acknowledge the performative nature of culture, that meaning takes place as events unfold. In other words, for Rogoff, meaning is never produced in isolation, but rather through intricate webs of connectedness between participants: various audiences, artists, curators, students, or researchers in different countries and regions.
In his essay, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”, Arjun Appadurai popularised the idea of “global cultural flows”. He argued that the current flows of people (e.g., of diasporic communities and refugees), images and capital are “disjunctive” and “chaotic”, in contrast to the situatedness of different kinds of traditional actors in nation-states. With respect to these ephemeral and shifting flows, where static national units are the opposite of flows, Roma communities and artists may understand better the processual geography and the differentiated rights and treatments of expulsed and mobile populations. One of the examples for “global Roma flows” is the artwork, Canada Without Shadows / Kanada Bizo Uchalipe (2010-2011) by Lynn Hutchinson Lee (Romani traveller artist based in Canada) & Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić (Romani artist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, based in Germany and Canada at the time of the collaboration with Lee as chirikli [birds] collective).
My proposal is simple, obvious and urgent. It relates to the idea of a dispersed museum and is highly inspired by Appadurai’s five “scapes”: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, financescapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes. Rather than collecting artworks in one central space or place (even if virtual), the “dispersed museum” would offer, donate and exchange artworks with existing museums. These could even be purchased or commissioned artworks by local Romani artists who have been denied entry/shows in the local contemporary art museums, in order to create a certain counterpart to the still prevalent folkloric and difficult to justify images of exoticised, essentialised, and sexualised Roma women, men, and children. To conclude, there is no lack of images representing Roma by non-Roma artists, but such images are still lacking any critical captions or contextualising wall-texts. If my idea seems too radical (and expensive), perhaps the first step and action of the future Roma institution could be to offer some long-overdue revised captions..