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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE MUSEUM OF ROMA CONTEMPORARY ART

Tamás Péli: Születés (Birth) 9m x 4.5m – Courtesy of Sarolta Péli

This text makes an argument for the utmost urgency to mark out and define new spaces for the (re)presentation, performance and practice of Roma cultural heritage (both tangible and intangible). The Museum of Roma Contemporary Art would break off the idealised neutrality of national/transnational space and claim rearrangement, as well as access to self-expression and self-representation. Its transnational character, as Roma identity transcends national borders, would question national narratives and provide alternate forms of belonging, while its contemporary dimension would subvert national, traditional, and mainstream forms of categorisation and knowledge production.

 


Do you remember the times when we gathered in the Hungarian Roma Parliament, listened to lectures or concerts, and in the meantime walked through the permanent exhibition, which was a curated selection of contemporary Roma art? Can you recall any of the outstanding graphics of Tibor Balogh[1] for the cover of Amaro Drom magazine? Do you know that the Roma Press Centre was the first Roma news agency in Hungary, which aimed to challenge the public discourse on the Roma in the media, as well as counter-balancing their negative portrayals? Have you ever seen Tamás Péli’s[2] tableau, entitled Birth, which the artist painted for the orphanage of Tiszadob in the Andrássy Castle?

 

The Hungarian Roma Parliament, an NGO and umbrella organisation established in 1991 that played a pivotal role in the political and cultural emancipation of the Hungarian Roma, was evicted from its building by the municipal authorities in 2016 and thus ceased to exist. Amaro Drom magazine had to abort publishing due to financial difficulties and the changed media landscape, and its photo collection and database were lost due to the closure of the Roma Parliament. Furthermore, due to a lack of resources (both financial and human), the Roma Press Centre can now hardly publish original texts, rather reprinting material from other media agencies. Finally, it is unfortunately no longer possible to visit Péli’s Birth in Tiszadob, since the orphanage was closed, and the artwork is now in four pieces, in the storage room of the Jósa András Museum in Nyíregyháza, eastern Hungary.

 

These are just a few examples of many which represent the current state of affairs in Hungary. What has become visible and suffocating is the realisation of the disappearance of people, knowledge and objects in relation to the Roma, in the last decade. Prior to the past decade, we could experience an era that was rich in grassroots organisations, small initiatives and politically independent, as well as critical knowledge production. Sadly, by today, anything that was small and independent has vanished. One or two recently established institutions have taken monopoly power, and a few individuals have been integrated into the new establishment, but the majority was forced to shift professions or make ends meet, and the whereabouts of the objects, the products of the past, are mostly unknown or falling into decay somewhere.

 

This text is a reflection of this absence, and beyond that, it attempts to argue that there is an utmost urgency to mark out and define new spaces for (re)presentation, performance and practice. There have been various initiatives, starting in 1959, for the establishment of a Roma Museum, which were never realised, or only reached the stage of architectural plans.[3] Ethnographer and linguist Kamill Erdős was first, then later Ágnes Daróczi became the most prominent voice advocating for a museum, while in the 2000s, Tímea Junghaus emphasised the need for an institution that would collect, preserve, protect and present products of the culture(s) of Roma, as well as Roma art. In 2019, OFF-Biennale Budapest[4], in partnership with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), launched the initiative called RomaMoMA.[5] “RomaMoMA is a statement about the necessity of a Roma—non-Roma professional dialogue and collaboration towards the establishment of a Museum of Roma Contemporary Art. It is a collaborative, process-based, trans-disciplinary, transnational, discursive art project that points to the lack and necessity of a Museum of Roma Contemporary Art. It is a platform to imagine and discuss the possible roles and forms of such an institution that will spread in time and space in the course of a series of exhibitions, discussions, and art projects across and beyond Europe between 2019 and 2022”.[6]

 

Why museum? To answer this question, one first has to be aware of the ways in which spatial segregation operates within a nation-state, in relation to groups who subvert the dominant “art-culture game”[7] and how their art is repatriated from national museums or just simply from the site of museums to ahistorical art galleries, temporary exhibitions or anthropological institutions. The establishment of a Museum of Roma Contemporary Art is not only a cultural act (i.e. the recognition of the basic right to the representation of culture), but also a political and discursive act. A museum defines and preserves “things” which are recognised by the community and considered as important, meaningful and valuable. These “things” need to be gathered and for a better understanding, sorted, in order to create a narrative, as well as reflect on or enter the official discourse and help produce a unified narrative. A museum detaches objects from their origins and makes them present, representing them in an altered, unquestionable and therefore sacred connection with a collectivity’s existence. Hence, the institution of the museum is powerful. It divides space into the sacred and the profane, separates objects into the desired and the abhorred, and finally reflects deeper judgments of power and authority, which can be considered as claims to what a nation/community is, or ought to look like, as well as how citizens/people should relate to one another.

 

The Museum of Roma Contemporary Art would break off the idealised neutrality of national/transnational space and claim rearrangement, as well as access, to self-expression and self- representation. Its transnational character, as Roma identity transcends national borders, would question national narratives and provide alternate forms of belonging, while its contemporary dimension would subvert national, traditional, mainstream forms of categorisations and knowledge production. If I could choose one “thing” from the above-mentioned pantheon of lost things to place under the auspices of the future Museum of Roma Contemporary Art, my choice would be Tamás Péli’s Birth tableau.

 

Following his graduation from the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam, Tamás Péli visited the Roma community house and orphanage in Tiszadob in 1983, and then created his 41m2 painting for it. At its heart there is the Goddess Kali, who is lifting her new-born child, Manus, offering him to a man sitting on his horse, naked. The eye rests on the baby-woman-man triangle, while the creatures around them are in perpetual motion: “there are scenes of wandering, participation in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and the protection of our shared home, Thököly, the Rákóczi uprising, soldier musicians, Gypsy and otherwise, crafts and trades, and then the world wars, the tragedy of Auschwitz, and faces of his writer, painter, and poet friends. József Choli Daróczi[8] is represented as a nomad monarch”.[9]

 

Birth is a work of art with multiple layers of meaning. First, the artist attributed to culture, and more specifically, to fine art, a “mortar-like” role: hence, he considered it as a medium which connects generations and forms a community based on shared ideas of the future. This idea holds not only the key dilemmas, questions of the content and boundaries of Roma identity, but also the assurance of a peaceful coexistence of Roma and non-Roma, as well as the formation of a world based on shared memories. Second, Péli was determined to establish the grounds for a so-called Roma fine art to provide a tool for the coming generations to nurture and find pleasure in their own culture. Birth is the starting point of this creation. Third, the artist wished to embed Roma fine art in the international art scene: “as long as the writers, painters, artists, and historians fail to write the story of their people, to paint and phrase it in poems, novels, and epochs, those people cannot be part of the communities of Europe and the world”.[10] Hence, he was committed to providing a historical narrative for the Roma, to placing them within a long journey, to outline the continuity of the community and also to emphasise the shared history of Roma and non-Roma. The choice of location was also a conscious decision. The orphanage in Tiszadob was crowded with lonely, abandoned children, for whom the notion of birth might be regarded as cursed, and who could not, or would not, remember the experience of belonging. Péli explains: “I was able to create this myth of birth among people who did not even consider their own birth a part of their identity”.[11]

 

Indeed, as it was argued earlier, the Museum of Roma Contemporary Art could introduce the tableau in a contemporary art context, and as a forum which reflects on the existence of a future museum, RomaMoMa – in the framework of the 3rd edition of OFF-Biennale Budapest – will introduce this piece of art. The tableau will be exhibited in the building of the Budapest History Museum, located in the Castle district. With this act of entering into the (discursive) space of the majority, the institution will regard it as an intellectual piece of art, understand, appreciate and unfold its artistic dimensions in this matrix, and at the same time could overcome and question existing ethnographic approaches related to the artwork. As a side note, it might be useful to emphasise that although ethnography and ethnographic museological discourses tend to reify the majority’s superiority and dominant ideologies, still ethnicity and contemporary art can enhance and support each other in a way that ethnicity becomes a resource, a source of power and pride in the contemporary art scene. Beyond all of that, the museum conveys in itself a spatial dimension: the tension between closeness and distance that is dialectical and brings into play “us” and “them”, individual and collective, politics and art, etc. The display of Birth (the four pieces together, in its full size that is approx. 41m2), to bring it as “close” as possible to the audience, would be a source of pride, a symbolically and politically significant gesture, and a statement to nurture Péli’s legacy.


Anna Lujza Szász is a sociologist, who currently teaches at Budapest Corvinus University. She is also the project manager of the OFF-Biennale Budapest’s RomaMoMA section.

[1] Tibor Balogh was born in 1975 and raised in the orphanage of Tiszadob, in northeastern Hungary.  He was accepted to the University of Fine Arts, Budapest, in 1998 as the first so-called Roma artist. After graduation, the first significant exhibition to show his work was The Hidden Holocaust, at the Kunsthalle Budapest, in 2004.
[2] Tamás Péli (1948-1994) graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. His tableau entitled Birth is considered his most significant work, created in 1983 for the orphanage located in the Andrássy Castle, Tiszadob, Hungary. Péli established a school where, amongst others, Tibor Balogh, Kálmán Káli-Horváth, Zsolt Vári and Sándor Kiss, contemporary fine artists of Roma origin, were raised and mastered the foundations of painting.
[3] See: http://gallery8.org/en/news/2/31/the-natural-history-of-non-existence
[4] OFF-Biennale Budapest is a grassroots initiative that was established in 2015; today it is the largest independent, contemporary art project in the Central European region, realised without any State support. OFF aims to strengthen the independent art scene in Hungary and to influence the public discourse on urgent issues. With this project, OFF-Biennale strives to acknowledge the contribution of the Roma people to the contemporary arts and cultures of their respective home countries, as well as to a European identity; and their right to due cultural representation in the form of a permanent institution. OFF-Biennale will use its visibility in the Hungarian majority population, as well as in the international art communities, towards raising awareness of contemporary Roma culture and art across and beyond Europe, as well as to fight prejudice and stereotypes concerning the Roma. OFF will start this work in the country of its founding, Hungary, where Roma people still have to endure prejudice, exploitation, segregation, structural inequality, and racism, tolerated and even promoted by governmental bodies. During the 3-year program, OFF’s role will be to conceive, organise and communicate the various stages of the project in collaboration with ERIAC, with a special emphasis placed on presenting the project, and art by and about the Roma in renowned art institutions.
For more on OFF-Biennale Budapest: https://offbiennale.hu
[5] Playful acronym of the Roma Museum, resembling the name and concept of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. RomaMoMA Group came into existence in 2005 in order to foster the establishment of a Roma Museum for contemporary Roma art.
[6] Excerpt from the project’s official statement. See: https://offbiennale.hu/en/2021/projects/romamoma
[7] James Clifford: “On Collecting Art and Culture”, in: The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
[8] Poet and pedagogue, 1939-2018. Daróczi was one of the first and most important developers of the Lovari dialect of Romani language in Hungary. He greatly contributed to the preservation and also the modernisation of Lovari through both his poetry and a number of linguistic books and dictionaries. In 1996, he was the first to translate the New Testament of the Bible into Lovari.
[9] István Gábor Molnár: Interjú Kerékgyártó Istvánnal [Interview with István Kerékgyártó]. (2004) Formerly found on the Eötvös Társaság [József Eötvös Society] website, but no longer online
[10] Ibid.
[11] Taken from the Hungarian documentary film, Kései Születés [Late Birth], directed by Edit Kőszegi, Péter Szuhay, 2002. Minutes 55:32-55:34. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDz0omxNBiQ

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