Oto Hudec and Emília Rigová: a dialogue
Oto Hudec, Invisible Museum, project (2017)
This conversation between visual artists Oto Hudec and Emília Rigová took place in November 2017 as a part of the Nadikhuno Muzeumos / Invisible Museum exhibition project at Tranzit.sk. It addresses the absence of Roma representation in arts and culture spaces and challenges the idea of the traditional ethnographic role of museums, where “othering” through the observation, documentation and mapping of the essentialised subject is deeply embedded.
I would be interested in hearing your opinion on the romanticisation of Roma folklore and history. Many Roma intellectuals are critical of Roma stereotyping, regardless of whether negative or positive. The colonial, exotic view of researchers is often limited to a selection of certain attractive, incorrect, or incomplete aspects of the Roma lifestyle, such as the nomadic life, music, independence, or magic. It seems to me that when Roma intellectuals, many of whom grew up in practically the same households as the majority population in Slovakia, search for their (lost Roma) identity – they are looking for something original and elemental. Perhaps something that sets them apart from the majority. You have gone through this process yourself. How would you characterise Roma cultural identity based on your own experience? Does it correspond to the aforementioned stereotypes to some extent?
Encapsulating Roma cultural identity into some kind of uniform description, or instructions on how to recognise a Roma person is extremely complicated. A long list of circumstances contributed to the formation of the Roma identity, and every Roma has a double identity comprised of their citizenship and ethnicity: it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. This is why I am critical of the term “Roma art”. It takes away the artist’s national identity (e.g. Slovak), despite the fact that s/he defines herself as a citizen of Slovakia or another country. When we were putting together a thematic issue of Enter magazine, we looked for a way to determine how political or social dimensions motivate an artist to classify their own work as “Roma”, and the results of doing so. The criticism voiced by the Roma intelligentsia aims to tear down the dominant stereotypical attitudes and negative media depiction of the Roma. Today, we are involved in a very important joint discourse on who we are and what exactly constitutes Roma cultural identity. It is impossible to answer these questions in a simple way. How should I declare my Roma identity? At this stage, we are trying to debunk stereotypes. This is an extremely necessary phase, which could have healing effects for both sides. It is necessary not only to debunk the stereotypes held by the majority population, but also those held by the Roma people themselves. As a result of assimilation, we will be able to examine the process of erasing – or to put it more dramatically, the theft of our cultural identity. A huge generation of Roma living in the territory of former Czechoslovakia “chose” not to use their Roma mother language based on the belief embedded in the assimilation programme connected with the “common working class”. Most Roma believed they were securing a better life for their family this way. What comprises the cultural construct of the Roma identity? Answering that question would be like gathering together the pieces of a shattered mirror and trying to put them back together to form the image that appeared in the mirror before it shattered.
It is interesting that you use the symbolism of the shattered mirror. It is truly an appropriate metaphor for the story of the Roma, who divided into different groups on their journey from India, and each of these groups received a piece of the shattered mirror representing their common origin. The goal is to put those pieces back together again. When I try to understand the Roma in different communities, I sometimes feel that instead of unity, fragmentation is the common feature they all share. And this reflects not only in the fact that the Roma have not been able to form a universal political representation supported by them all; it is also true for the historical and cultural spheres, as well as relations between individual communities here in Slovakia. The classic example is the cultural differentiation between the Vlachi Roma and Romungro. Cultural identity, like national identity, is a construct, which makes me wonder whether it is actually possible to put the mirror back together. Are the terms “national identity” and “(unified) cultural identity” applicable to the Roma community? How does a Roma individual perceive the idea of a museum dealing with the history of their people? Is a museum, as a concept arising from the European cultural and colonial principles, applicable to Roma needs?
The institutional and discursive policies have largely influenced the formation of the Roma identity, and from this point of view, the museum of Roma culture as a concept is very important. I imagine the museum of Roma culture as an institution that presents the collective identity of Roma in a visual form. I understand this identity as based on the common origin, which can be found in the roots of the Roma language, geographically localised as Indo-European. The shattered mirror metaphor perfectly illustrates the foundation of our common story. It is like looking for the original image. The specific socio-cultural status of the Roma scattered throughout Europe (Vlachi, Romungro, Sinti, Bergitka, Serbika, etc.) is closely related to the fact that the majority and the Roma have not been able to mutually accept certain cultural differences. From this point of view, the representation of specific cultural differences and their possible imprints in European culture are just as important. A good example is Roma dance: in certain European locations, it merged with the majority folk culture (e.g. Spanish flamenco). Another factor that distorts Roma culture and its interpretation is that original customs are only anchored in the oral tradition. I do not believe that the museum of Roma culture should be viewed as an institution for the Roma. Yes, by creating and presenting a united cultural identity, we can help the Roma feel proud again. I feel that the inferiority complex is something that unites Roma people. The simple question, “Who am I?”, referring to one’s cultural self-identification results in a long list of problems that currently trouble the Roma. As for the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the last ten years, the local Roma are finally beginning to feel the difference between the Slovak/Czech words “Róm” and “Cigán”. Many still do not understand that “Cigán” and its English equivalent “Gypsy” are used as derogatory terms by the majority. This leads to bizarre situations in which the Roma themselves identify with derogatory terms. What does it mean? To me, it means that it is extremely important for the Roma to begin writing their own history. The current generation of Roma intellectuals has been productive in all areas of art: literature, film, drama. And this is a huge difference in comparison with the past.
The fact that the current generation of Roma intellectuals is active in all fields of culture, including art theory and history, is a positive sign. In the last decade, the growth of the Roma intelligentsia has been significant, and this growth occurred without any outside assistance: it resulted from these people’s own effort and activity. Even in the neglected communities, the wheels of change are turning, albeit slowly. What is the difference between the attitudes of Roma intellectuals and the Roma living in excluded communities with regard to the words, “Róm” and “Cigán”? It seems that the latter group of the Roma tends to identify with the negative stereotypes imposed on them by the non-Roma population. How can Roma intellectuals help people from these communities escape isolation and develop pride in their heritage? Do you think that successful Roma individuals should return to their communities, become activists, and inspire others?
To be honest, I think that it is more important to change the attitudes of the majority population to the Roma. Change must come from deep within. Cosmetic adjustments will not help at this stage. Just look at the generally accepted image of the Roma today. How are the Roma valued in this society? Are they considered equal? I cannot think of any other ethnic group that has been as hated and banished to the absolute margins of society for so long as the Roma. If we want to bring about real change, the entire system will have to be changed. The growing tensions within society result mainly from the increasing poverty and the poor economic situation within the majority population. However, Roma have been in this complicated situation for centuries. Naturally, this has to be reflected somewhere. If we want the Roma to emerge from isolation and become proud of their heritage, several things must change. For example, we need to take the opportunity to learn about our own history and origins, and to emphasise positive role models. This is not a small thing. Take, for example, the fact that the Roma participated in the Slovak National Uprising: not many people are aware of that. Becoming familiar with Roma personalities and important historical events is as important for building a positive Roma identity as changing the general attitude of the majority towards the Roma. For me, it makes sense to become familiar with studies addressing traditional forms of Roma expression, especially the examples I picked up as a kid at home. Only now am I able to understand what they actually meant and to re-interpret certain connections that I didn’t really understand as a child. On the other hand, I would be interested in hearing what you think of the emancipation of Roma art and culture. How do you, as a non-Roma, explain why the real emancipation is yet to come? When I discuss similar topics with (non-Roma) people, they are often incredulous. When we presented Enter at the LIKE festival in Košice, no one could believe that it was the first publication focused on Roma art that was published not by a Roma organisation or experts in ethnic studies, but by a publisher dedicated to contemporary art forms. Still, I do not like the term “Roma art”. What kind of picture related to this term should come to mind? I am beginning to understand that it is necessary to work with this term, although I believe that the day will come when we don’t need it anymore, and Roma artists will simply make art: without labels. I wish they participated in the discourse simply as artists interested in the topic, free to comment on the issue whenever and however they want. How do you, as a non-Roma person, see your contribution to this emancipation? In my opinion, it will not work unless we enter an active dialogue.
I would not dare to comment on anything more than our region. I think that for a really long time, Roma culture has operated on the folklore level. Many talented musicians, dancers, painters, storytellers, actors, and other artists remained uneducated and completely outside the world of academic and cultural institutions. That culture was lived. In my opinion, the world of cultural norms and organisations has been accessible only for the elite for a long time, and the Roma have perceived it as the non-Roma world. It wasn’t until after the war that the Roma intelligentsia developed. Since Roma people often come from a very difficult social environment, I think it was quite natural that the activity of the educated Roma, who felt the need to help the community from which they came, was directed toward the social sphere. The codification of the Roma language was perhaps the first step to be taken in terms of culture and emancipation. The next step was the establishment of a Roma newspaper. The fact that this process took so long can probably be attributed to racism and discriminatory policies. The Roma people were instilled with feelings of inferiority and forced to adapt to the non-Roma lifestyle; the idea that the Roma are untrustworthy crystallised in the world beyond their own community.
Roma culture remained marginalised and was considered inferior to that of the majority. Milena Hübschmannová used the term ethnocide to describe cultural assimilation during socialism: “As I said, I had a feeling before I knew it for sure, that the loss of language to which all of the day to day verbal creation was linked, and the retention of these human values, and the collapse of the community that watched over it to ensure respect and adherence to ethics, would drive the Roma into a cultural and ethical vacuum, from which the road could only lead to prison. The removal of one set of values does not lead to the automatic acceptance of another as the socialist ideologues imagined. Over time, Ilona [Elena Lacková, Roma writer, ed. Oto Hudec] and I saw and understood that the ignorance of the non-Roma people regarding Roma culture was not a question of individual unawareness, but the ideological goal of the system – the socialist programme. It was a planned ethnocide regulated by public, as well as secret directives”.1 I don’t think that this ethnocide ended with the socialist era. Sometimes it is more hidden, sometimes more visible, but it is always there. The change in the social system took place on the economic level. Even without hidden racism, those who grow up in poverty and neglect do not have the same starting point in life as the majority, and it is much more difficult for them to reach financial security and establish themselves. “Equality of opportunities” is just the illusory mantra of the upper and middle classes. Escaping poverty and neglect takes an unbelievable amount of strength. I do not think it is a coincidence that many educated Roma come from families who live in an urban environment among the majority. The second or third generations of the integrated Roma families are the ones who began to take an interest in their own cultural identity and emancipation. You mentioned the need for a dialogue between the majority and the Roma. I like the word dialogue because it suggests equal communication, in which both sides listen to each other respectfully without insinuating that they have different positions in a hierarchy. How do you imagine this dialogue can look in the spheres of culture and art? What kind of dialogue will help Roma cultural emancipation?
That question really hit me. I imagine it as a mutual act of two activists – two equal participants creating synergy.
This question relates to exhibiting contemporary Roma artists’ work in institutions oriented exclusively on Roma culture. I know that you spoke about this with other artists in Enter. However, I am interested in your opinion. I completely understand Roma artists who object to the Roma “label” they must carry, as it forces them into a specific box, a specific subcategory of art, even though they often deal with much broader topics, not just as Roma, but as citizens of their respective country. On the other hand, the institutions that map Roma culture tend to leave out contemporary art and celebrate the past. How can you deal with the image of the world today without contemporary art? How can you talk about problems young Roma are dealing with? How can a cultural institution that ignores contemporary artists (from all fields) and presents the stereotypical view of the Roma as socially excluded and working in low paying professions contribute to a change?
The stereotypical image is not created by any cultural institution: it is created by an individual authority which interprets the content that an institution creates. This happens in all directions with equal contributions of curators and the artists themselves. Even cultural institutions that combine sociological, anthropological and ethnic studies sometimes produce misinterpretations. This very thing happens to artists – contemporary visual artists – who enter this dialogue through their perspectives and works. To employ a dramatic image, it is like a land mine. At the beginning of the summer, the Volkskunde Museum in Vienna presented the exhibition entitled Millionaires of Time, a photographic essay by Anja Schäfer and Elisabeth Putz. Part of this exhibition became an independent exhibition, entitled Glücksmuster by Robert Gabris and curated by Amelie Brandstetter. Despite the fact that the exhibitions were clearly separated and everything was clearly marked, some reviews completely ignored Robert as an exhibiting artist or mistakenly mentioned him as part of the Millionaires of Time project: not as an author or artist, but as an example of a work representing the “local colour” of Luník IX and its residents. This type of misinterpretation and suppression of the artist’s concept is the most burning issue for Roma artists. Even when they create an image or enter into a dialogue addressing the Roma as a topic, they somehow become a part of a pre-defined context in the interpreter’s view. Once again, I return to the concept of a museum of Roma culture. Today, the meaningless but interesting ambivalence of the acronym MRC occurred to me: Marginalised Roma Community and Museum of Roma Culture. The first cannot escape the associations with ghettos like Luník IX or Brnox – Brno’s Bronx –; the other cannot escape the institutional nature of object interpretation. You ask how the problems faced by Roma youth can be portrayed without contemporary art. To me, it seems like another pre-defined strategy, or a way to record the life of the current generation. This interview is difficult for me on several levels. I would like to emphasise that my positions and opinions on the topics we have discussed are processed primarily through my visual statements. I work with motifs related to Roma and their interpretation. I don’t want to say that it’s all about simple provocation, but that is indeed a part of it. I do not put myself in the role of a Roma leader or activist who understands everything and knows the solutions.
Oto Hudec (*1981) is a Slovak multimedia visual artist, who focuses on ecology, immigration and the impact of globalisation on the environment. Hudec graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. In 2012, he was a laureate of the Oscar Čepan Award, the prestigious Slovak Award for Contemporary Art. His work has been exhibited at the Slovak National Gallery, Kunsthalle Bratislava, the MAP Triennial in Dallas, Threewalls Gallery in Chicago, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, where one of Hudec’s works is preserved in its collection.
Emília Rigová (*1980) is a Slovak visual artist of Roma origin. In 2018, she won the Oscar Čepan Award. Rigová is also a university lecturer at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, where she teaches art courses (object, multimedia, intermedia media). In recent years, her work has focused on the internal and external construction of the Roma identity, and the acquisition of the Roma body into the long history of European culture. Rigová has shown her work at international exhibitions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Croatia. In 2019, her work was also part of the FUTUROMA Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Milena Hübschmannová: Preface, in: Lacková, Elena. 2010. Narodila jsem se pod šťastnou hvězdou [I was born under a lucky star]. Prague: Triáda, p.13. Triáda. https://www.databazeknih.cz/knihy/narodila-jsem-se-pod-stastnou-hvezdou-341743