Performative Approaches to Identity in Contemporary Roma Art

Jen? André Raatzsch, “Manifesto for the Occasion of Roma Artists Arrival to Hungary,” mixed-media installation, 2010. Photo by and courtesy of Maria-Alina Asavei.

At the 2007 Venice Biennale, and for the first time in the history of the event, art works produced by Romani artists were displayed in the Roma Pavilion. The exhibition for the first Roma Pavilion, entitled Paradise Lost, was curated by cultural activist and art historian Timea Junghaus. Contemporary artists of Roma descent had the chance to engage artistically and politically with their own identity concerns. Junghaus clearly states in the exhibition catalogue: “a new generation of Roma intellectuals and artists is emerging; along with a new Roma consciousness…The Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will be the first, internationally significant step toward assuring that Roma Contemporary Art finds the audience it deserves.”(Timea Junghaus, Paradise Lost. The First Roma Pavilion at The Biennale di Venezia 2007. Timea Junghaus and Katalin Szekely (Munich-Berlin-London-New York: Prestel Verlang, 2007).)

This event established a remarkable and unprecedented paradigm shift: previously (and with few exceptions) Roma art had largely been exhibited only in ethnographic museums or community cultural centers. This institutional segregation secluded Roma art to areas of “outsider art,” “folk art” and “naïve art,” diminishing its chance to participate in contemporary art discourse. Paradise Lost rectifies the preconception that Roma art lacks conceptual accuracy and does not accomplish the sophistication required by contemporary art’s demands. The Roma Pavilion did not operate as a self-segregated “cultural ghetto,” but as a platform for the “public development of a contemporary Roma identity”(Research Objects-The Roma Pavilion, 2007, Venice Biennale: (accessed April 15, 2013).) and as a broadening of Roma art’s image (which includes contemporary art and Romani artists’ ability to reflect on its problems). According to the curatorial statement, the participant artists proved that they speak a visual language that is comprehensible globally, and that this language is in line with the “sophisticated problem-conscious” approach of contemporary art.

The project of the second Roma Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, entitled Call the Witness (after Suzana Milevska’s concept), prolonged the legacy of Paradise Lost. It called on Roma artists to bear witness “through works of art, to their communities’ struggles as they are caught in the paradox of being at once assigned to the edges of mainstream society and at the center of this society’s discriminatory order of control.”(Call the Witness, Roma Pavilion, Introduction: Central was the presentation of contemporary Romani artists from different regions and cultures as witnesses of what they have experienced firsthand, as active participants in solidarity with that which triggered their artistic production. The artist-witness is not a passive and aesthetically disinterested spectator of his/her times, but an involved and conscious agent who operates a tremendous conversion in the status of the traditional “art object.”

In the last two decades, Romani artists have engaged with conceptual forms of artistic expression, as well as with other nontraditional art mediums. Some of these artists, such as Marika Schmiedt, Daniel Baker and Tibor Balogh, deal with concepts and other dematerialized forms whose message is the result of a conglomerate of factors. Others, including Savo Spada and Katarzyna Pollok, investigate through their artistic practice the conceptual and political implications of ornament, handwork and handicraft turned into visual, professional expression of art for social change. Still others, for example Delaine Le Bas, combine “art brut” and conceptual art in a dialogic poetics endeavoring to recycle myths, themes, fears and symbols. Together these artists attempt to visually embed the idea of out-sidedness by employing daily concerns, mixed values, aesthetics of the oppressed and critical strategies. The “outsider artist” acknowledges his/her margins and turns the community-taught crafts into idiosyncratic and political art meant to function as a vehicle for resistance.

Contemporary Romani artists are becoming more assertive in disrupting visual stereotypes, prejudices and deprecating myths about Roma culture. Their voices reverberate as an act of affirmation opening new theoretical perspectives and unique approaches to reconsidering the way in which Romani artists envision the world, themselves within it, and how they are seen by majority society. Contemporary Roma art has been exhibited recently, both in contemporary art galleries (Kai Dikhas in Berlin and Gallery8 in Budapest), and in public spaces.

In what follows, I will examine several recent art pieces in which contemporary Romani artists offer their creative responses to specific social issues. Their artistic production consists of a set of practices that reflects the world as it is and re-envisions the world as it could be. Contemporary “aesthetics” also influences the effectiveness of their politically engaged art. The personal, visual response of each artist may vary but all of them offer an “expending menu of vectors to infiltrate the works and ideas into the very populations that care most about the issues and which might make the most difference.”(Tom Block, “Prophetic Activist Art: Activism Beyond Oppositionality,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, vol. 3, no. 2, Australia, Fall, 2008, p. 34.)

On view in the recent exhibition Roma Concept (Gallery8, Budapest, April, 2013) were two installations, one conceived by Jen? André Raatzsch and the other by Lili Csokonai, that were conceptually appealing and politically savvy. Raatzsch’s Manifesto for the Occasion of Roma Artists’ Arrival to Hungary problematizes the existential difficulties of Roma artists in Hungary. The work consists of two chairs stacked, one on top of the other, and a TV monitor screening the 1988 film Stations: Portrait Film of the Hungarian Painter Tamás Péli. The prisonlike appearance of this mixed-media installation recontextualizes the representational space of Roma traditional art through both political imagination and poetic communication. Thus, the piece becomes a metaphor for the new readings of the conversions from the status of the art object and its progressive politics. The piece does not merely repackage news and new media, but also invites the beholder to reconfigure the possibilities of knowledge dissemination. Thus Raatzsch’s piece can be understood as a document of aesthetic resistance that avoids radical activism and void aesthetization.

Lili Csokonai, “Our Little Roma Activist,” installation, 2013. Photo by and courtesy of Maria Alina Asavei.Csokonai’s installation Our Little Roma Activist critically examines the dramatic tension between the idealist dreamer who cherishes cordial and life-affirming purposes and maligns racism and radical nationalism. Her piece displays a live black mouse in a glass aquarium, the background of which displays a frightening Arpad striped flag, a symbol of the Hungarian Neo-Nazi forces since 2008. From time to time, the little mouse as activist gets into his wheel to turn the “I have a dream” message printed on the race-wheel surface. As the curators of the exhibition (Timea Junghaus, Viktoria Nagy, Dora Paulik) posit the “I have a dream” carousel refers to Martin Luther King’s famous speech. In spite of the hate flag, Our Little Roma Activist is infused with emboldening vigor and energy.

Marika Schmiedt, “Thoughts are Free,” digital collages, 2013. Photo by Hofkabinett. Image courtesy of the artist. Marika Schmiedt, “Thoughts are Free,” remains of the digital collages, 2013. Photo by Hofkabinett. Image courtesy of the artist. Thoughts are Free (2013) is another body of work that attempts to counteract the incessant discrimination of Roma. The artist, filmmaker, and activist Marika Schmiedt (who participated in Call the Witness for the Roma Pavilion in 2011) installed the piece in a public space in Linz, Austria, which through graphic representations deals with the persecution and segregation of Romany in Europe today. The work was exhibited within the framework of the event A Village within the City (part of the program Art on the fence of the construction site supported by Verein Altstadt Neu Association). Schmiedt states that these digital collages function like “artistic interventions or confrontages” meant to disrupt the comfortable silence by exposing “the visual culture of racism and its many languages.” Schmiedt’s artistic production functions as a constant criticism of the language of “hate speech,” and a lucid investigation into the mechanisms of silence and indifference. Even if some critics may find her art “too confrontational,” “excessively critical” and “too political,” her visual interventions testify and document with daring and wit the worsening situation of Roma in Europe and elsewhere. Her artistic approach is based on a rigorous analysis of the various forms in which racism is present within communication fields, “relying on various degrees of in/visibility and connotative meanings derived from merged verbal and visual forms.”(Marika Schmiedt, “Thoughts are Free,” Anxiety is Reality for Roma in EU-rope, (accessed September 9, 2013).) The project is a virulent but justified reaction to various harmful clichés about Romany’s genetic inferiority that are still freely propagated in certain European countries. Such artistic interventions offend the offenders. Within two days after the opening of the exhibition, offended radical nationalists ripped down all of the posters from the construction-site fence. But the material and conceptual traces of this artistic resistance have remained; their metonymic presence objectifies the absence of acceptance for the cultural and political “Other.”

Savo Spada, “More than Porrajmos,” graphic art, 2013. Photo by Roberto Malini. Image courtesy of the artist. A different sort of artistic activism, one that aims to transform the majority society into a caring and spiritually conscious world, is envisaged by Savo Spada, an Italian artist of Roma descent.(Savo Spada, l’artista rom che crede in un mondo senza odio His art is both hauntingly beautiful and critically loaded. His most recent piece More than Porrajmos (created on the occasion of The International Roma Day, April 8, 2013) is a visual tragedy that epitomizes the struggle of the Romani people and their passion, faith and strength. The work is an allegorical testimony that combines symbols from the past and present, symbols that normally should bring about equality among all people. Spada states that he believes in a world in which hate does not exist and in which art has the power to unite people and nations. His work is a telling example of what Tom Block would call a “prophetic activist art,” an art that marries beauty to the sublime. This brand of artistic activism diversifies the force field in such a manner that not only activates the impulse to act and react as political and critical gesture, but also rekindles feelings and emotions. In other words, critical engagement manifests in many (and sometimes antagonistic) art forms (from radical art to handmade decoration). At first, Spada’s piece seems more connected to “naïve” or “folk” art, mainly because it formally resembles visual storytelling framed by abundant ornament. Such labels were applied to work by Romani artists in the past and were grounded in official institutional art pedagogy. In other words, “naive” or “folk art” is nothing more “than a place-maker for a general structural phenomenon within modernism of what exists outside conventional art pedagogy.”(James Elkins, “There is No Such Things as Outsider Art,” Inner Worlds Outside, John Thomson (ed.), (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2006), p. 77.) Et utvalg av de beste Norsk Online Casinoer

Yet, the fact that there is this official institutional art discourse does not mean that “naïve” art is simplistic, minor entertainment and primitive. As James Elkins suggests, we rather need “a non-naïve approach to naïve art” than to start a war against these labels since “outsider art is an oxymoron and its naiveté is seldom as pure as it appears.”(Ibid,, p. 75.) Even if “naïve art” tends to be secluded to an ornamental domain, it does follow that “ornament” cannot act as an indicator of social change or as a critical reminder. Folk art produced by Romani artists testifies to Roma self-consciousness, as well as to Roma cultural, social history and pride. At the same time, it is both visual confession and art of resistance – an art that is hardly naïve.

Maria Alina Asavei is an art theorist and curator from Budapest. A PhD researcher in the Philosophy of Art at Central European University, her thesis is on Political-Critical Art and the Aesthetic. She is a former fellow at the City University of New York (Queens College). Her current research focuses on artistic collectivism, politics of aesthetics, Roma contemporary art and economies of pleasure. She has published articles and book chapters for Oxford University Press, Sternberg Press (Berlin), Romanian Political Science Journal (Bucharest), Art & Education (New York), and Heathwood Institute and Press (Norfolk).