As with the outsider art from many other marginalized communities, there’s been a building interest in Roma art over the last few years, with a very subtle shift in the discourse around this marginalized group. The last decade has seen more exposure for contemporary Roma art in Germany, Roma pavilions at the Venice Biennale, the opening of the world’s first Roma cultural centre in 2017, recent exploration of Roma art activism and feminism, and the growing profile of stores like MBQ [Mesteshukar ButiQ] at Romanian Design Week.
Who are the Roma?
If you live in North America, you’ve probably mostly heard them referred to as gypsies, along with a myriad of other degrading names. Typical representations of Roma (or Romani) are created by everyone but Roma, and depict them in a highly romanticized, sexualized way, or sometimes in a poverty-pornographic light.
The Roma migrated to Europe in the 10th century from ancestral homes in India, and have a history marked by open persecution and vilification. There are approximately 11 million Roma living across Europe, with larger communities based in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Spain.
Roma communities are usually poorer, have a lower education rate than their neighbours, and have lower life expectancies and employment rates than the overall population. In Hungary, they have been openly vilified by the far-right who blame them for crime and insecurity. During the Holocaust, an estimated 500,000 European Roma were murdered by the Nazis.
Berlin has become a focal point for Roma activism since last year’s opening of the European Roma Institute of Art and Culture (ERIAC), an international creative hub set up to reduce prejudice towards the Roma.
If the majority of the Roma population resides in Central Europe, why base the ERIAC in Berlin? Berlin is seen as an ideal location for the institute by its directors, not just because of its geography, but because of its thriving vibrant art scene and its status as a magnet for young Europeans. It’s basically the coolest.
Germany’s support for the centre and its pledge that it will support the institute indefinitely, has been vital for the ERIAC project to work. The public commitment and support is due in no small part to the German government’s sense of responsibility towards rebuilding the Roma cultural legacy in Europe following the murder of 500,000 Roma. While Germany has long addressed the Jewish Holocaust, recognition of the toll it took on the Roma community has taken far longer, and many outside of Europe aren’t even aware of their inclusion in the murders. A memorial to murdered Sinti and Roma was finally constructed in Berlin in 2012 after years of debate, and now Berlin is also home to this game-changing arts institute.
In the course of deciding whose cultures deserve celebration and preservation, indigenous and nomadic peoples are often left behind and deemed to lack cultural capital. The positive portrayal, and celebration of, marginalized and vilified cultures like the Roma is integral to moving past centuries of prejudice and hate, and integrating Roma communities into the countries they reside in.
The truth is, there is a rich creative history, and a wealth of contemporary Roma artists that are creating significant work that is not being acknowledged in the art community. And while that’s a true shame for the talented artists representing the Roma community, it’s also a great loss for art lovers to be closed off from their work.
Roma art was presented for the first time at the Venice Biennale in 2007 in an exhibit called Paradise Lost, and thankfully shows no sign ofbeing lost to the ethers ever again, thanks in large part to the efforts of cultural activist, art historian and ERIAC Executive Director, Timea Junghaus.
“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, 2007
Her work has spurred a global interest in contemporary Roma art and an awakening of interest in Roma folk art throughout Central Europe. One need look no further then Mesteshakur ButiQ to see Roma art and craftsmanship getting the bougee boutique treatment.
With any luck, in a few years time the prevailing image of the Roma people will be of a community rich in culture and artistic diversity, rather than the almost Said-like Orientalism treatment they receive today. Hopefully soon, the Roma will not be the vilified ‘other’, made to play out troubling stereotypes by the European hegemony, and will become the authors of their own depiction.