We think… Recollections on Prefigurativity, Translocality, Trust, and a Museum of Roma Contemporary Art

Norbert Oláh: The Angst of the Gypsy Artist, 2021 (installation plan for OFF-Biennale Budapest 2021). Courtesy of the artist.

The curatorial team of OFF-Biennale Budapest expands upon the notion of “RomaMoMA” as a platform to discuss, to imagine, and to “perform” a Transnational Museum of Roma Contemporary Art through discursive events, contemporary art projects, publications, and mediation. To challenge the notion of the museum and to engage the public in questions about cultural heritage and the potentials of contemporary art in the social discourse. To dismantle prejudices and to build trust. “RomaMoMA” is an experiment in prefigurative politics: by acting as if there were an institution, we create it. And we do it on common ground: based on prefigurativity, translocality and trust.

When Károly Bari, an eighteen-year-old Hungarian poet of Roma origin published his first volume of poetry, “Holtak arca fölé” [Over the Face of the Dead] in 1970, the literary world cherished the young “shaman boy” [táltosfiú] for his breakthrough talent, his visionary images, and his unique voice. This éclat was also paramount in the fact that the volume soon had to be republished with a larger circulation. As one of the most important literary critics of the time, Mátyás Domokos, put it, this celebration also originated in a “guilty conscience”: in the lack of acknowledgement and ignorance of Roma in the literary field of Hungary. In his poem, “Azt hiszitek” [You think], Bari expressed his frustration over being “outside the ports”, asking for the “coppers” of “confidence” – and trust – of the nameless and undefined “others”.

In 2019, almost fifty years after the publication of his first volume, Károly Bari was accepted as a member of the prestigious Digital Literary Academy of the Petőfi Literary Museum, thus becoming an inalienable part of the Hungarian literary canon.[1] Museums do seem to have this effect: formulating guidelines as to what is worth preserving for future generations, giving praise and acknowledgment for all those who are considered worthy. Notwithstanding the latest developments in museum culture and theory – cf. “New Museology”, “Radical museology”, “Post-critical Museology – museums also still tend to foster the consciousness and pride of nations, peoples, communities and even métiers.

If museums do have this capacity – among many others – how is it possible that there is no such institution as a Museum of Roma Culture in Hungary? The question has been raised multiple times by Roma and non-Roma intellectuals and activists for years, but the answers as to what kind of museum it should be are quite diverse, generating further questions like: What principles should its collection be based upon? How should it relate to the varied Roma cultural tangible heritage? Who should decide what to display? In her research project, “The Natural History of Non-Existence”, exhibited at Gallery8 in Budapest in 2014, Tamara Moyzes presented a collection of almost a dozen (non-realised) institutional concepts for Roma Museums developed in Hungary since 1959 by both committed Roma and non-Roma. The collected actual locations, data, and even designs in the gallery display not only referred to the lack of a Roma Museum, but also emphasised engagement in the discourse of establishing a Roma Museum by the Roma emancipation movement in Hungary.

The question was recently raised again by Roma and non-Roma curators who – focusing on their own métier – reformulated it as follows: How can we imagine a Transnational Museum of Roma Contemporary Art? From this question arose the project, “RomaMoMA”, initiated by OFF-Biennale Budapest (OFF) with the partnership of ERIAC, out of the conviction that change can only be achieved if the “ports” are dismantled both from the inside and outside. “RomaMoMA” is hence based on collaboration: between Roma and non-Roma, between artists and art professionals, between theoreticians and practitioners, between artworks and audiences, between many communities and multiple nations in which Roma communities live. “RomaMoMA” has neither the blueprints for a museum building, nor a detailed catalogue of its future collections. It is a platform to discuss, to imagine, and to “perform” a Transnational Museum of Roma Contemporary Art through discursive events, contemporary art projects, publications, and mediation. To challenge the notion of the museum and to engage the public in questions about cultural heritage and the potentials of contemporary art in the social discourse. To dismantle prejudices and to build trust. “RomaMoMA” is an experiment in prefigurative politics: by acting as if there were an institution, we create it. And we do it on common ground: based on prefigurativity, translocality and trust.

OFF-Biennale also came into being as an act of prefigurative politics: it started in 2015 as a grassroots statement project that was to testify to the independence, resilience, and capability of the local art scene in the face of what was widely perceived as governmental trespassing, censorship and corruption induced in the public sector. Started and sustained by a handful of art professionals, the one-time event has since developed into an independent platform, where art engaged with pressing issues, and the underlying dialogues and collaborations of artists, curators, researchers, students, and various civil groups and organisations can be nurtured and promoted on a local, as well as international level. Since the beginning, OFF has stuck to a performative quality in its functioning: we work within a structure without an infrastructure, under practically nomadic circumstances. We think our competencies in contemporary art and experiences in performative functioning could be beneficial to the development of the concept for the Transnational Museum of Roma Contemporary Art. But we should think further: How could “RomaMoMA” take advantage of the biennale, and how could it support the realisation of “RomaMoMA” well beyond the biennale circles? Performing an institution dedicated to Roma Contemporary Art in the framework of the third edition of OFF-Biennale in 2021 is only the first phase of this project. There will be subsequent stations, as well emerging new sets of dilemmas, since “RomaMoMA” is geared towards the foundation of an actual institution: if it is a transnational museum, where should it be located, and who should ensure its long-term operation and funding? It is also an open question what role an organisation like OFF can play in the work of the future institution.

The second common ground is translocality. Translocality does not point to a particular geographical location, since it is rather a network based on like-minded people (either individuals or groups). Networks could be expanded into the virtual space, where well thought-out structure is particularly needed in order to create new contents and knowledge sharing tools, and to offer different channels easily accessed by museum visitors and new audiences, as well. OFF-Biennale’s modus operandi is also largely based on the concept of translocality: while focusing on our own locality, we make connections both within and outside of Hungary with like-minded individuals, groups and institutions. OFF is also part of  the long-term translocal sharing network of documenta fifteen, the so-called “lumbung interlokal”, consisting of different organisations from all over the globe.

Translocality as a concept could also be implemented in shaping “RomaMoMA” with its lack of a Roma nation-state, with major Roma communities living in numerous countries of Europe (and beyond). A “translocal” Museum of Roma Contemporary Art would make the local issues and the local artists visible (e.g., in the project based on Tamás Péli’s tableau Birth, mentioned in a previous blog entry by Anna Lujza Szász), and contextualise their works in a global context. Addressing issues such as the (hidden) visibility of (Hungarian) Roma heritage in different state institutions and museums, and the shrinking presence of Roma cultural institutions in Hungary, due to the lack of resources and support, are part of the discursive frame provided by OFF-Biennale. “RomaMoMA” – as a translocal network of similar projects from all around Europe and beyond – will have to face the greatest challenges of similar meta-institutions, which are cohesion (organisationally, creatively, etc.) and sustainability (institutionally, economically), and will have to come up with new models to overcome them.

Such collaborations should build on mutual trust. But we are at the turn of the tide: to paraphrase the afore-mentioned Bari-poem, it is now the nameless and undefined “others” – we, non-Roma – who are asking for the “coppers of your confidence”. Museums across the globe are facing pressure to transform their policies in the institutional organisation, acquisition, display, and educational roles. The museum is a construction based on the premises of modernity in the 18th century that needs to be reinvented. The postcolonial shift, especially in the museums (which seems to be a very slow shift starting from the 1970s), reflecting long legacies of racism and colonialism, could be one chance to reshape the principles of the museum. In order to explore and experiment with the new ways of establishing such an institution, “RomaMoMA” contributes to this paradigm shift as well, decolonising the western concept of collecting, displaying and (systematically) organising the artworks and artefacts, decolonising the way how the museum speaks about, and does not speak for, the communities whose cultural properties – whether an object, a piece of art, or a story – have been in storage for centuries, or displayed in the exhibition rooms. Listening to those voices that it represents. For instance, to Károly Bari, who famously stated that “origin is not an aesthetic category”. And what better way to redefine the categories, policies and canons of a museum, than through the means of contemporary art: its prefigurative potentials, its translocal networks, and its collaborations based on trust?

Eszter Lázár is a curator and lecturer based in Budapest. She holds a PhD in cultural studies from the Doctoral School of Literary Studies, University of Pécs. In addition to teaching at the Department of Art Theory and Curatorial Studies in the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in Budapest, she curates exhibitions and collaborates on projects (e.g., OFF-Biennale Budapest  2015, 2017; curated by, 2018 in Vienna with Edina Nagy; Residency Under Investigation at tranzit.sk, Bratislava 2017; The Blue Room, with artist duo Tehnica Schweiz, 2019). Between 2016–2019 she was a researcher of the Film Section in the international RomArchive project. She is a member of an ongoing collaborative project with the Semmelweis Medical History Museum in Budapest: Waiting Room – Women Healers and Patients on the Periphery of Medicine. She joined the curatorial team of the OFF-Biennale Budapest in 2019.

Hajnalka Somogyi is a curator based in Budapest. Since 2014, she has worked as leader and co-curator of OFF-Biennale Budapest, the largest state-free international art project in Central Europe, which she initiated. After two editions in 2015 and 2017, the third edition of the biennale is scheduled for May 2021. In 2013–2014, she was editor of artmagazin.hu. Between 2009–2012 she served as curator at Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, and between 2001–2006 at Trafo House of Contemporary Arts, Budapest. She co-founded two independent art spaces, Dinamo (2002–2006) and Impex (2006–2008), both in Budapest. She holds a degree in Art History from ELTE Budapest, and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Recent curated exhibitions include Hide and Seek, (various venues in Budapest, as part of OFF-Biennale 2017), Art Has No Alternative (tranzit.sk, Bratislava, 2015); Les statues meurent aussi (with artist István Csákány, Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, 2014); and Yona Friedman: Architecture without building (with Nikolett Erőss, Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, 2011–2012).

Katalin Székely is a curator and art historian based in Budapest. She is a doctoral candidate in the Doctoral Program in Film, Media and Contemporary Culture at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest. In 2006, she was co-editor of the volume, Meet Your Neighbours with Tímea Junghaus, and in 2007 she was assistant curator alongside Tímea Junghaus of the First Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She was a curator at Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art between 2008–2013. Since 2014, she has been a member of the curatorial team of OFF-Biennale Budapest. Since 2015, as Creative Program Officer at Blinken OSA, she curates and coordinates exhibitions and other public programmes. Recent curated exhibitions include Collective Dreams and Bourgeois Villas (with Miklós Zsámboki, 2019 at OSA), Farewell to Spring (with József Mélyi, 2018 at OSA), Somewhere in Europe – Gaudiopolis (2017, at OSA, in the framework of OFF-Biennale Budapest).

[1] Bari describes himself as “a Hungarian poet and a Roma Intellectual”. After participating in one of the first student demonstrations against the Communist regime after the 1956 Revolution in 1972, he was imprisoned, could not finish his studies and was not allowed to publish for decades. In the long years of the forced silence he had to endure, he undertook the tremendous task of collecting and arranging Roma folklore, translating Roma folk poetry and tales, and compiling dictionaries.

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