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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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[4] and RomaMoMA, who might not have had the access to these institutions for “self-expression and self-representation”[5] 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.[6]

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”?[7] 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,[8] Gerald Raunig proposed that “not only resistive individuals, but also progressive institutions and civil society NGOs operate on the same plane of governmentality”.[9]

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.[10] 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”[11], to abolish them, and to return the appropriated or looted objects of various cultural origin.[12]

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.[13]

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”.[14] 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”.[15] 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).[16]

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.[17] 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.[18].

Suzana Milevska

[1] For more information on the background of the RomaMoMA section of OFF-Biennale Budapest, its concept and title (coined by RomaMoMA Group, 2005, according to Anna Lujza Szász, see note 5) that obviously refers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, see: https://offbiennale.hu/en/2021/projects/romamoma;
Junghaus, Tímea, 2020. “Argument for a Roma Transnational Museum”, https://eriac.org/argument-for-a-roma-transnational-museum/; 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/
[2] Milevska, Suzana, 2021. “Accessibility, Access, and Affordance: The Amplitude of Participatory Art”, 2021/1. https://www.appropriate-journal.art/milevska
[3] Lynch, Bernadette, 2014. “Challenging Ourselves: Uncomfortable Histories and Current Museum Practices”, in: Kidd, J., S. Cairns, A. Drago, A. Ryall, and M. Stearn (eds.), Challenging History in the Museum: International Perspectives, London: Ashgate, 2014, 87-99;
Lynch, Bernadette, 2011. “Collaboration, Contestation, and Creative Conflict: On the Efficacy of Museum/Community Partnerships”, in: Marstine, J., ed., Redefining Museum Ethics, London: Routledge, 2011, 146-163.
[4] Timea Junghaus promoted the strategy of creating various art and cultural institutions, spaces, and formats modelled after existing cultural and contemporary art institutions (or conceptualising new ones), ever since she curated the exhibition, Paradise Lost, The Roma Pavilion, International Exhibition Venice Biennale, 2007. See, e.g., the European Roma Cultural Foundation – ERCF and Gallery8, that she initiated in 2013: http://gallery8.org/gallery8, and directed its programme until the establishment of the ERIAC: https://eriac.org/members/the-european-roma-cultural-foundation-ercf/
[5] See Anna Lujza Szász’s contribution to the RomaMoMA blog: “Some Thoughts on The Museum of Roma Contemporary Art”, https://eriac.org/romamoma-anna-szasz/
[6] See Hélène Cixous’s memorable statement, “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement”, in: Cixous, Hélène, 1997. “The Laugh of the Medusa” [1975], in: Warhol, Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl (eds.), Feminism: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, (Leith Cohen and Paula Cohen, trans.), Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1997, 347.
[7] Here, I refer to Isabelle Stengers’ concept of “paying attention”, by which she calls for including more non-expert voices of criticism in regard to prominent scientific questions (e.g., commoning, climate change, etc.). Savransky, Martin, and Isabelle Stengers, 2018. “Relearning the Art of Paying Attention: A Conversation”, in: SubStance, Vol. 47, No. 1, (Issue 145), 2018, 130-145.
[8] Foucault, Michel, 1997. “The Birth of Biopolitics” [1979], (Robert Hurley, trans.), in: Rabinow, Paul (ed.), Michel Foucault: Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, New York: The New Press, 1997, 74-5.
[9] Gerald Raunig actually distinguishes between the “classical Greek conception of parrhesia” – constituted by those who dare “to tell the truth to other people” – and a new truth game, those “courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself”. According to Raunig, the activity of speaking the truth is much more important than setting up truth in opposition to a lie, or to something “false”. Raunig, Gerald, 2007. “The Double Criticism of Parrhesia: Answering the Question ‘What is a Progressive (Art) Institution?’”, in: eipcp, 18 September 2007, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0504/raunig/en/   (accessed 4 July 2021)
[10] I find it particularly relevant to continue the discussion about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s earlier concept of “strategic essentialism”. Spivak had actually “upgraded” her early concept into “affirmative sabotage”, exactly because she realised that given the strong patriarchal context, the strategy based on any kind of essentialism would not work according to the original context in which she conceptualised the original concept (the Subaltern group of Ranajit Guha). Lecture: Prof. Dr. Gayatri Spivak on Affirmative Sabotage, 26 February 2018. https://eriac.org/lecture-prof-dr-gayatri-spivak-on-affirmative-sabotage/?fbclid=IwAR2F6Rk-7PRuGIv9C5VMmAjvdeXX3EvpeUOlUnUdmwH6_K6lASXCyLhgLq8   (accessed 8 July 2021)
[11] Mirzoeff, Nicholas, 2017. “Empty the museum, decolonize the curriculum, open theory”, in: The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 25/(53). DOI: 10.7146/nja.v25i53.26403;
Steinhauer, Jillian, 2013. Interview with Bill Di Paola,Building a Museum of Activism”, in: Hyperallergic, 15 August 2013,   https://hyperallergic.com/79087/building-a-museum-of-activism/   (accessed 4 July 2021)
[12] In their 2018 report, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, the authors, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, and the French historian Bénédicte Savoy, recommend the permanent return of tens of thousands of cultural artefacts forcibly removed from colonised African countries. In response, Mr Macron cited other possibilities for more than 90,000 African objects in France’s museums (loans, exchanges, and joint exhibitions). See: Sarr, Felwine, and Bénédicte Savoy, 2018. “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics”, Restitution Report, http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf   (accessed 4 July 2021);
Hunt, Tristram, Hartmut Dorgerloh, and Nicholas Thomas, 2018. “Restitution Report: Museum Directors Respond” (The French academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr urge President Macron to return African artefacts. But does the report go too far, or not far enough?), in: The Art Newspaper, 27 November 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/restitution-report-museums-directors-respond   (accessed 4 July 2021)
[13] See: Coombes, Annie E.. 1992. “Inventing the ‘Postcolonial’: Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating”, in: New Formations, 18, 1992, 39-52, 42;
Coombes, Annie E., 1988. “Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities”, in: Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1988, 57-68.
[14] Rogoff, Irit, 2015. “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality” [2003], in: eipcp, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/rogoff1/en   (accessed 4 July 2021)
[15] Appadurai, Arjun, 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 7, 295-310.
[16] The work is a 4-part sound installation (total running time 25:07 min.) that archived and juxtaposed various found and created sounds. The “whispering” voices convey the poetic transpositions of the promised imaginary land, Canada, starting from different subjective experiences of memories, cultural and ethnic displacement, precariousness, family celebrations, and testimonies of shame. It was commissioned for the exhibition, Call the Witness, 2011, BAK Utrecht, curated by Suzana Milevska, and was presented at Call the Witness-Roma Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011.
See: Beyond the Roma Caravan (2) / Suzana Milevska’s Testimony: Meet Lynn Hutchinson Lee and Hedina Sijerčić, 2018. https://genderassignment.tumblr.com/post/177624490590/beyond-the-roma-caravan-2-suzana-milevskas    (accessed 4 July 2021)
More: https://chiriklicollective.com
[17] I was inspired for this idea by artist Dan Perjovschi’s comment, following my 2014 talk at the ME Collectors’ Room in Berlin (during Art Collection Telekom’s show, Fragile Sense of Hope). Perjovschi’s argument was that the Western foundations that acquired the best works by Eastern European artists and showed them in their spaces and art fairs, had not only positive impacts, but also disabled the local museums in creating decent local collections.
[18] Most museums in North Macedonia have in their collection a painting by the celebrated national expressionist artist Nikola Martinoski (1903-1973), and they present them with awe and completely uncritically. Martinoski’s paintings have never been contested for the sexualised and racialised representations of young Romani women, often depicted while breastfeeding or in other rare provocative poses (unlike some other nudes at the time).
For example, his painting, Young Gypsy with a Rose, is a nude depicting a young, almost certainly under-age Romani girl. It was created and widely circulated as a (Yugoslav) stamp in 1969. https://mk.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9D%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0_%D0%9C%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8#/media/%D0%9F%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BA%D0%B0:Young_Gypsy_with_a_Rose_by_Nikola_Martinoski_1969_Yugoslavia_stamp.jpg   (accessed 4 July 2021)

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