Reframing Roma: Activism, Feminism & Shedding the Gypsy Myth with Contemporary Roma Art

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 2017recent exploration of Roma art activism and feminism, and the growing profile of stores like MBQ [Mesteshukar ButiQ] at Romanian Design Week.


Lita Cabellut, “Dried Tear,” 2013, mixed media on canvas

As discussion around Roma contemporary art is increasing and becoming more prevalent in popular publications, many (especially those not living in Europe) are wondering what the big deal is.

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.

“Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime”, 2012
photo: Marko Priske / Stiftung Denkmal
Home is where the art is

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.

Damian Le Bas, Gypsy Journey,

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.

Who cares?

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.

For Romanian Design Week in May 2018, MBQ created a collection of copper vases designed by Radu Abraham and produced by three traditional Roma craftsmen — Radu Ion, also known as Nevers (silversmith), Victor Clopotar (coppersmith) and Angelica Papalet, also known as Strugurel (woodturner).

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.

Death on the trotting-track. 1995 Kiba Lumberg, displayed at Venice Biennale.

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.

Mesteshakur ButiQ

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s