The Intersecting Gaps of Unknowing

Mara Oláh: My Surgery, 1989, oil on fibreboard, 58×80 cm.

Starting at the End: Unknowing

OFF-Biennale Budapest was about to end in late April, when one of its most prestigious and yet under-recognised artworks, Péli Tamás’s Birth arrived in Budapest, to the Budapest History Museum in the Castle.[1] Shortly after closing the Mara Oláh exhibition[2] at the Glove Factory Community House (Kesztyűgyár Közösségi Ház), I went to see the exhibition in the framework of a programme in which a white male writer, Gábor Németh[3] read his text as a guide for visitors to the exhibition. My personal response to his interpretation was, I am ashamed to say, simply boredom. My professional response was the understanding of the feedback given to the installation: the feelings and thoughts repeated ad infinitum about social distance between the Roma and non-Roma populations, and the somewhat self-incriminating responsibility about it, the metaphor of which the writer found as the key motif of the Tamás Kaszás installation: the gap.

After Gábor Németh’s talk, I remembered the words of Susan Sontag, who wrote about images of suffering, “regarding the pain of others”:

Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who would learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.[4]

Sontag names different approaches to the pain of others: the active agents, “who could do something”, the passive ones, who “learn from it”, and the voyeurs, without any of these attributes.

Standing before the Péli tableau, we can see either the gaps or the scenes. Similarly to that established psychological experiment of the optical illusion of the duck or the rabbit. The speed with which we switch from one to the other speaks to our attitude toward Roma and art – our attitude toward others. If we are just voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.

Psychologist Joseph Jastrow’s experiment on optical illusion.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Jastrow

 

In the field of art and culture, it is not so simple to find tools “to alleviate” pain, inequality, discrimination, stigmatisation, or victimisation. Education is the most obvious connected field, and it is now evident that contemporary art also employs approaches of collaboration and participation for similar purposes. For a non-Roma, working together with people of Roma descent requires constant self-reflexivity: gender, social status, education, living conditions, and intellectual sensitivity produce intersecting gaps of unknowing.

Mind the Gap

In over a decade of work spent in the field of Romani studies, cultural research, and curating, I have found a huge number of gaps. But the most beautiful and telling one was undoubtedly created by Tamás Kaszás with his installation of the four pieces of Tamás Péli’s tableau with gaps between them. Apart from that, the title of the exhibition and its content (with the texts placed at the back of the wooden construction, which also had a “photo-point” up a flight of stairs, offering visitors a vantage point to photograph from, at the same level as the tableau) astonished me most.

Photos: Ákos Keppel / BTM, Andrea Pócsik.

 

This prompted me to not only recall, but also analyse the process of our joint programme at OFF-Biennale Budapest 2021, entitled RomaMoMA, curated by Anna Lujza Szász.[5]

Both exhibitions (! Omara Occupies the Sound-Space, and Collectively Carried Out), as well as the installation of Norbert Oláh (Anxiety of the Roma Artist), with the performance of Independent Theatre (Frogtales), were curated with the intention of triggering future actions, and not to present a – largely – irretrievable past. One of the key concepts, the lack of institutions, was made manifest not by systematising research about the past, but as part of the diverse, subjectively true narratives, through making the facts somehow deliberately uncanny.

bell hooks, in an analysis of a film about black gay identity, stresses the importance of searching for one’s own past, even if it seems to bear no results, i.e., searching is just as important as finding:

Looking for Langston problematizes the black gay history, acknowledging the need to claim forefathers, to rescue them for nameless burial, even as it also suggests, that this quest cannot always be fully realized, especially, when necessary, documentation cannot be found (as in the case of Hughes). This doesn’t mean that one ceases to search. It means that the pain that this gap of unknowing causes must be understood as a crucial dynamic in the formation of black gay sensibility and identity.[6]

The curators of the Péli exhibition created a blog[7], where they placed interviews with Roma intellectuals (Péli’s generation or younger) who recalled the social and cultural environment, and the influence of the tableau. The “forefathers’s” narratives are full of gaps, but this does not weaken their relevance, because they fill in other gaps of unknowing: the general under-recognition of these groups and activities.[8]

Some of the intellectuals (József Choli Daróczi, Ágnes Daróczi, Tímea Junghaus, André Raatzsch) were asked at a symposium in 2014 to share their ideas and memories about their efforts to institutionalise Roma culture. This programme, “Intersections I-III”, was initiated by Andre Raatzsch and myself in the framework of a Roma Visual Lab course development (ELTE University), supported by Erste Stiftung and tranzit.hu. The symposium was conceptualised by Andre Raatzsch, in consultation with the Roma Visual Lab co-organiser, András Müllner, stressing the importance of intersections in the Hungarian art and culture scene at the time of Roma cultural emancipation in the socialist era. An exhibition by Sostar Group was also installed in the open office of tranzit.hu, entitled {roma} The contract to sell the ethnicity. The huge, provocative sign: “This is not Roma art”[9], in a period when, for instance, the small but strong Gallery8 began to call for “true” attention and prestige on the Hungarian and international contemporary art scene[10], seemed to be a “sneak attack”, although it did not mean to be. The event was accompanied and followed by many debates – creating not really gaps, but a battlefield.

And yet, the contract writing/signing performative art event, in my opinion, resulted in “true” intersections of other gaps. The atmosphere in the crowded exhibition opening, where the guests were invited to sign the contract, was exceptional.[11] I can still recall the voice of Ágnes Daróczi, who, as a fully knowledgeable and competent participant, started to shout as if at a horse fair, inviting the present members of the Hungarian art scene to join.

The event and exhibition {roma} The contract to sell the ethnicity builds, even in its title, on a conscious act of contradiction, in order to create a disturbance in the accepted critical outlook. The Sostar group aims to change, reject, and rethink the schizophrenic conditions that, among other things, force also the group members to take on ethnicizing and moralizing roles. Further objectives include taking a critical approach to the functioning of the art scene and bringing about a change in perspective, as well as to point to the missing terminology that can facilitate a reinterpretation of Roma art, which is currently only present in the canon as an ethnic category. In projecting this change, the Sostar group’s writers and artists of Roma descent will, in the future, define themselves as part of the canons of Hungarian contemporary art and literature, freely owning their European mentality, as well as their Roma and Hungarian identities. {roma} The contract to sell the ethnicity is not an exhibition in the classical sense of the word: it is more of a performative art event. Its objectives do not include the presentation of artworks or glass case installations. Nor does it seek to represent yet another piece of Roma art activism or aim for political demonstration. The open office of tranzit.hu, which housed the exhibition, functioned as mediator during the contract signing process, with the goal—as an open and freely alterable space—of establishing new relationships and creating a public (audience) of critical thinking. It was this we could witness during the opening, with the promise of its concrete realization being visible in the signed contracts.[12]

To be continued

The “off-institutional” framework of OFF-Biennale Budapest and the original concept of RomaMoMA, developed by art historian Tímea Junghaus, an important art theoretician of the decolonisation discourse in Hungary[13], prepared the ground in which the seedlings of ideas sown nearly a decade ago could take root.

Contemporary painter Norbert Oláh declared it explicitly in his manifesto on “The anxiety of a Roma artist”. He built a wall in front of the former building of the Roma Parliament, a cultic scene of the democratic transition process over 2000 years. “The bricks have clearly legible words on them, representing concepts and perceptions that are ingrained and instilled into us”.[14] The building itself, before demolition and re-building, in the phase of a pseudo-transformation, was an excellent, and yet traumatic backdrop to the performance.[15] The wall, the manifesto, the performance and the ! Omara exhibition, just like the installation of the Péli tableau, produced visible striking gaps, and many intersections.

To name just a few: I took part in two community radio programmes that dealt with the OFF-Biennale RomaMoMA programme, and I listened to another. One was edited by a cultural reporter of the older generation[16], one by young feminists[17], and one by politically engaged male artists.[18] The striking differences in their approaches show the discursive gaps and intersections in our society and cultural scene. This is not the place for an analysis of their discourse, but please allow me to characterise them in just a few words. The first reporter, Júlia Ránki, stubbornly stuck to her assumptions, despite Norbert Oláh and myself trying to persuade her to make more intellectual efforts to understand the manifesto. With a mistakenly interpreted journalist self-confidence, in a paternalistic way she tried to extend her interpretational framework onto Norbert Oláh’s work, despite his rejection of it at many points. In the second programme, in a highly sensitive, female approach, the questions of the editors highlighted not only the works and life of Mara Oláh, but also the essential part of the exhibition: the reading theatre and catalogue with the stories told by young Roma women. I took part in the discussion with gender researcher Marina Csikós, an important contributor to the project, who engaged with enthusiasm and professionalism. Etelka Jónás, a community social worker at the Glove Factory Community House, where the Omara exhibition and accompanying events took place was the other participant in the discussion. The third programme foregrounded Norbert Oláh’s works and ars poetica, but also analysed the Roma women’s stories workshop and reading theatre and catalogue, interviewing socio-drama leader Ágnes Blaskó and theatre director Tamás Szegedi, who had organised the events. If I were to characterise it, I would say that this was the best understanding and interpretation from a contemporary art viewpoint: Balázs Horváth and János Sugár analysed in a highly sophisticated way the controversial harmony in Norbert Oláh’s style and themes, and the political engagement fulfilled through the collaboration and participation in Omara’s sound-space occupation.

Ágnes Blaskó, Marina Csikós, Andrea Pócsik (eds): Omara’s Sound-Spaces, 2021, OFF-Biennale Budapest. Photo: Lili Thury, graphic designer.

 

With these examples, I would like to indicate the richness of possible interpretations and the obvious efforts on the part of the reporters, who mind and try to avoid, who bridge, or who rather do the opposite – and cannot see the gaps at all (thus widening them further).

Cigarette Break – Gaps of Unlearning

I recognised my own ignorance about the theoretical richness of intersectionality when reading the articles and social media posts written by Joci Márton, who also referred to the Omara exhibition in this interpretational framework below.[19]

Reading his sharp critical remarks, I recalled an episode during our work at the Glove Factory on the very first day, during installation. We had a cigarette together with Eta Jónás, and while chatting, we filled in the gaps of unknowing with emotions. Eta, as a community social worker of the house, and as an 8th District inhabitant, cares deeply about her Roma identity and helps to build this identity of young children, not only in Budapest, but also in remote segregated areas of the countryside. As a cultural researcher, and also first-generation intelligentsia with a solid academic background, I also have bricks like the ones in Norbert Oláh’s installation, which constitute a wall, as I have started to build a newcomer’s 8th District identity. I experience intersectionality on my white skin here.

This knowledge that was gained multiplied during our collaborative work, in editing the catalogue, preparing for the reading theatre, and celebrating after the vernissage: we were able to learn from Mara Oláh’s pictures.

This knowledge will be disseminated (not only by me, but by all those who participated) through many channels: the video of Frogtales will be screened at festivals; Norbert Oláh will hopefully be reconciled with this crucial phase of his oeuvre and further enrich his ars poetica; the tableau of Tamás Péli will be placed in the National Gallery Budapest; Glove Factory Community House has opened a contemporary art gallery on the site of the Omara exhibition; the catalogue was reprinted, and the Omara Sound-Spaces are extended, reaching many NGOs and libraries. And hopefully, we are starting to fill in the gaps.

 


[1] Collectively Carried Out, Budapest Historical Museum (BTM), 8 June 2021 – 26 September 2021. Curators: Eszter György, Anna Lujza Szász, Teri Szűcs. See: https://szuletespelitamas.wordpress.com/category/posts/
Also: https://eriac.org/collectively-carried-out-tamas-pelis-birth/
[2] ! Omara Occupies the Sound-Space, 4-29 May 2021. Curator: Andrea Pócsik. See: https://offbiennale.hu/en/%7Byear%7D/program/1-program-romamoma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMXsa-ctnJ8
The name of the artist appears both as Mara Oláh – in Hungarian Oláh Mara – and then her artist name, derived by shortening her legal name: Omara. Her transformation from the “naïve Roma painter Mara Oláh to the contemporary artist Omara” is reflected in the boundary object texts collected and installed as part of the exhibition.
[3] I apologise to those who reject my opinion and judge my words as unnecessarily offensive.
[4] Sontag, Susan (2003): Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux.
[5] The origin of the concept belongs to Tímea Junghaus, and the programme was produced in cooperation with and with the support of ERIAC.
[6] bell hooks (1990): Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Boston: Southend Press, p. 199.
[7] See, as in Note 1: https://szuletespelitamas.wordpress.com/category/posts/
[8] Romakép Műhely [Roma Image Lab], a community film club and university course at ELTE University, organised a discussion, inviting civil rights activist Ágnes Daróczi, and filmmakers Edit Kőszegi and Péter Szuhay, whose unquestionable merit was to shoot a film about the Roma intellectuals and artists who belonged to Tamás Péli’s circle, entitled Late Birth (2002). Ágnes Daróczi and Péter Szuhay, two crucial figures of Roma communicative memory, two agents of different backgrounds, often disagreed. They have different levels of resilience, and artist Andre Raatzsch who was also invited could have served as a mediator, but was unable to attend.
[9] Coincidently, András Müllner draws a parallel with African-American artists, e.g. Langston Hughes, whose legacy is highlighted in bell hooks’ book. He sums up his analysis : “(…) the contradiction arising from the ramification of Sostar’s declared intentions, to which I referred above, that is to say, that to operate both within and away from the tradition of ethnic representation is not a contradiction, but rather the natural agonistic nature of the critical situation, as it were, which the treaty fully brings to the fore”. Müllner András: “A zárójel mint a gettó ironikus képe. Az etnikai művészet lehetőségéről és kritikájáról a Sostar?/Why? {roma} művészcsoport akciójának tükrében” [The Parentheses as Ironic Image of the Ghetto: The Potential and Critique of Ethnic Art as Reflected in the Action of {roma} Artist Group Sostar?/Why?], in: Apertúra, summer-fall 2014. See: https://www.apertura.hu/2014/nyar-osz/mullner-a-zarojel-mint-a-getto-ironikus-kepe-az-etnikai-muveszet-lehetosegerol-es-kritikajarol-a-sostarwhy-roma-muveszcsoport-akciojanak-tukreben/
[10] Gallery8 was [2013-2018] a contemporary art gallery in the 8th District (opposite the Glove Factory Community House), which thematised decolonisation among many other crucial topics, and focused on art by artists who identify as Roma. See: http://gallery8.org/index.php?lang=en
[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UkqMwPV9nA
[12] Raatzsch André (2014): {roma} The contract to sell the ethnicity, see: http://hu.tranzit.org/file/roma_the_contract_to_sell.pdf
[13] Tímea Junghaus published an essay on decolonisation, analysing Mara Oláh’s art in a case study. It was quoted in the exhibition, as her contribution to collecting “boundary objects”. Ars Hungarica, 2013/3, XXXIX, pp. 302-318.
[14] https://offbiennale.hu/en/%7Byear%7D/program/a-cigany-muvesz-szorongasa
[15] The performance, Frogtales, was inspired by Leonor Teles’s film, Batrachian’s Ballad, analysed and accessible at RomArchive: https://www.romarchive.eu/en/collection/batrachians-ballad/
[16] Szépkilátó Fogadó, 17 April 2021. See: https://tilos.hu/episode/szepkilato/2021/04/17
[17] Drágám, hol a vacsorám?, 19 May 2021. See: https://tilos.hu/episode/dragam-hol-a-vacsoram/2021/05/19
[18] Alkotás útja, 27 May 2021. See: https://tilos.hu/show/alkotas-utja/archive/2021/4
[19] See: https://eriac.org/owning-the-game-intersectional-self-representation-in-the-roma-lgbtq-communities/

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