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The Roma Exhibition as a Space for Transnational Alliances

The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mihaela Dragan by Ilina Schileru (2022)

Interview with the Commissioners of the Roma Exhibition at the 59th Biennale Arte: Abduction from the Seraglio: Timea Junghaus, Executive Director of ERIAC, and Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, and Chairman of the Board of ERIAC

RomaMoMA: What is the history of the presence of Roma art at the La Biennale di Venezia?

Timea Junghaus: The Biennale opened its gates for the first time in 1895, and it is the most prestigious art event in the world. Over the course of this 127 years, however, there has been a Roma presence only three times, beginning in 2007. Between 1894 and 2007, there was no mention of any members of the Roma community in the Biennale history or archives. The gigantic effort involved, in a somewhat heroic undertaking, in making the Roma exhibition possible at the Biennale, is of utmost importance for the Roma community to be included – and for the art world to learn to think beyond nation states in this most significant art event.

The inaugural Roma exhibition of 2007 was called Paradise Lost, featuring a selection of contemporary Roma artists from eight European countries, with Open Society Foundations the Commissioner and its catalyst. The exhibition marked the arrival of contemporary Roma culture on the international stage and delivered an important message of inclusion. In 2011, the second Roma exhibition, Call the Witness, addressed the situation of the Roma within European culture and society. At the most recent Biennale, in 2019, ERIAC commissioned Daniel Baker as curator of FUTUROMA, an exhibition bringing together 14 Roma artists. Futuroma embodied the notion of Roma contribution and Roma leadership, as well as excellence and the highest standard of quality in the arts. This year, ERIAC acts as Commissioner of the Roma Exhibition for the second time, featuring Romanian artist Eugen Raportoru, in dialogue with a community of Roma artists and activists. ERIAC is also extremely proud that the 2022 Biennale includes an unprecedented exhibition showcasing Polish Roma artist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas in her national pavilion. This marks the first time in the history of the Biennale that a Roma artist is shown in a national pavilion and participates in the official competition. We are extremely proud that both our exhibition, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and the Polish Pavilion bring distinguished Roma artists to Venice.

RM: Why is it necessary to have a Roma presence at the Biennale?

TJ: Roma presence at the Biennale unveils the pedagogy of how inspiring, fertile and transformative it is to think beyond national representations. I believe it is very important for the Biennale itself to recognise how Roma revolutionise and contribute with a new vision to their institution. The Roma exhibition demonstrates how to create a space of transnational alliances, trans-border collaboration. It inspires self-definition of a transformative character to Europe, through which our widely dispersed and fragmented sense of belonging can transcend national boundaries and invite universal participation.

RM: What is the significance of being Commissioner of the Roma Exhibition – The Abduction from the Seraglio – at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia, and taking part in the Opening Ceremony on 21 April 2022?

Zeljko Jovanovic: It is an immense honour to be part of an initiative where ERIAC, as a Roma-led institution, presents an exhibition 15 years after the first Roma pavilion opened here in Venice. I am walking in the footsteps of the previous generations of Roma intellectuals, artists and cultural producers who have shaped our artistic and activist history. That history is a basis for The Abduction, a forward-looking reflection that itself makes history – at a time when Roma in European societies are increasingly threatened by populism and fascism, which exploit the deeply ingrained prejudice against the Roma. That prejudice is the wrong answer to the question of who the Roma are. This exhibition, on the other hand, is a first-person expression of our identity and creativity.

RM: What made it possible to develop such an ambitious project?

ZJ: The Abduction was made possible by the tremendous artistic gravitas of our curator, Ilina Schileru, the talent of artist Eugen Raportoru, and a group of Roma women activists and artists who enter into a dialogue with Raportoru’s oeuvre, the visionary leadership of Timea Junghaus, who pioneered the Roma presence at the Venice Biennale a decade and a half ago, and the incredible people who work with ERIAC. Their collective strength has been the key in putting this project together, and it only exemplifies what the Roma people are capable of doing when they come together from different parts of the globe, and when they have a few determined friends.

RM: Is there still anyone in Europe not accepting the term “Roma Art”?

TJ: The notion of Roma arts and culture was very highly debated until the early years of the new millennium, in the 00s. The intertextuality of Roma scholarship on Roma arts and culture and the excellence of artists of Roma origin have stabilised this notion of Roma art. This is not an ethnic category. Roma arts speaks very authentically and sensitively from within the Roma subjectivity. The notion of Roma art has been the most important vehicle over the past five decades to speak positively about the Roma experience, to achieve visibility and momentum for the Roma political movement, and to fight anti-Gypsyism.

RM: How would you regard the significance of the Roma community coming together at the Biennale in Venice – especially in connection with celebrating Roma Arts and Culture?

ZJ: Exhibiting at the Venice Biennale is hugely important for us, as we can showcase our vision
both of ourselves and of the world around us, in time and space alongside nation-states. We can prove here, as many Roma do in sports, that when the rules are clear and fair, and when we are judged not by the colour of our skin but by the richness of our talent, we can succeed just as well as any other group that has established a nation. Despite the fact that we do not formally have the same status at the Biennale, our artistic expression breaks through any social, economic or political bars that have been erected before us.

RM: How do you see the future of Roma in the context of contemporary art?

TJ: The future of Roma in contemporary art is bright. Over the course of 2022, ERIAC, apart from the exhibition in Venice, will be present at most of the premier international art events across Europe. In May, the exhibition of Emilia Rigova will be opened at the 23rd International Exhibition Milan Triennale. On view at the quinquennial documenta 15 in Kassel will be Roma artists Tamas Peli, Omara, Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, Selma Selman, Emilia Rigova, Janos Balazs, Ornella Rudevics, Robert Gabris, and Marina Roselle, as well as the RomaMoMA Library. ERIAC is also partnering with Manifesta Foundation, and we will have exhibitions both in Pristina (Kosovo), as well as our Belgrade exhibition space within Manifesta 14. The number of majority organisations who invite a Roma contribution is growing, while the community is pressing for art institutions and professional museum spaces in multiple locations.

RM: How do you imagine the future of Roma representation at the Venice Biennale? How do you imagine the representation of Roma (Arts and Culture) in general?

ZJ: The world of the arts, while always capable of helping to build nation-states, was never limited to this. On the contrary, it has served as an expression of suffering caused by nation-states: for example, in the case of oppressed minorities – as well building bridges across states – between France and Germany, for instance. Art has always been a divine touch upon the deeply situated humanity in each of us. As such, Roma arts and culture represent a unique opportunity for the Venice Biennale to fulfil the ambition of art and expand its promise for the future.

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