Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Little Respect

'A place to call our own': Europe's first Roma cultural centre opens in Berlin

Groundbreaking institute to showcase and promote artistic and cultural contribution of Europe’s 12 million Roma people


The 30-year-old visual artist, who trained as a painter at the University of Arts in Tirana, is at the forefront of a groundbreaking institute launched in Berlin on Thursday to showcase and promote the largely invisible artistic and cultural existence of Europe’s estimated 12 million Roma people.

“We’ve been living in Europe for 600 years,” Kazanxhiu said, speaking in Romanesque. “Now for the first time we have a place we can call our own and the chance to present the image of who we are, rather than others doing it for us.”

The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (Eriac) will be led by Roma artists, activists and scholars. Supported by the German government, the Council of Europe and the philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, it will promote Roma culture as well as contribute towards overcoming the deep-rooted hostility and discrimination directed against Roma communities across the continent.

“For hundreds of years, it’s been non-Roma who have monopolised the popular representation of the Roma,” said Timea Junghaus, a Hungarian Roma curator and activist who is the Eriac’s executive director.

Visual artist Sead Kazanxhiu. Photograph: Bevis Fusha 
 
“The stereotypical view of us is as a romanticised, sexualised, criminal people. The effect is false and destructive. Now we’re claiming our own right to represent ourselves,” she said. “Self-expression will hopefully challenge these long-held assumptions and prejudices.”

Roma people’s cultural contribution to Europe had been almost completely ignored, she added. Only one of the estimated 10,000 works by Roma artists held in state collections in Europe was on show in a permanent exhibition, she said. 

That work, by the contemporary Hungarian painter István Szentandrássy, hangs in the Roma parliament in Budapest. “This gives you an idea of the change that needs to happen,” Junghaus said.

Delaine Le Bas, a cross-disciplinary artist from Worthing, who trained at St Martins School of Art in London and refers to herself as Gypsy, said the main problem many Roma artists faced was exclusion.

Timea Junghaus, executive director of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture. Photograph: Akos Stiller  

“Most Roma art is held in storage, gathering dust in basements of museums,” she said. “Most artists are either ignored altogether or, as Gypsies, we’re visible only in a highly negative way.”

Le Bas, together with her husband artist Damian Le Bas, both of whom are associated with the UK’s Outsider art movement, appeared at the first Roma art pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007, called Lost in Paradise. Curated by Junghaus, it is regarded as having been a vital step towards the establishment of Eriac.

Damian Le Bas, who draws inspiration in his art – including globes covered in graffiti-like codes – from his own Irish Traveller heritage, said: “We’re treading new ground here in Berlin. It’s a very creative community but we’ve rarely been recognised as proper artists. It’s been more like people loving having Gypsy music at their barbecue parties, just not the Gypsies themselves.”

Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Polish painter and sculptor from Czarna Góra in southern Poland, said being part of the institute gave her the support that was lacking in her native Poland, particularly under its nationalist government. 

“Poland is a very homogenous country and Roma are seen as something of a threat by many people, because we look different,” she said. 

She felt the force of the animosity when a huge wooden sculpture she had made to commemorate 29 Roma – including 22 children from Szczurowa, near her community, who were killed in the Holocaust – was destroyed by vandals. With the help of donations, she is building a new sculpture.

“After something like that, joining together with other Roma from across Europe in a more official way than we’ve ever done strengthens our presence at a difficult time,” she said.

Berlin is seen as an ideal location for the institute, not just because of its geography, but because of its vibrant art scene and its status as a magnet for young Europeans.

The government’s support for the centre and its pledge on Thursday that it will support the institute indefinitely, has been vital for the project to work. Inevitably, the commitment also has much to do with the government’s sense of responsibility towards rebuilding the Roma cultural legacy in Europe. 

During the Holocaust, an estimated 500,000 European Roma were murdered by the Nazis.

While Germany has long addressed the Jewish Holocaust, recognition of Roma victims has taken far longer. A memorial to murdered Sinti and Roma was finally erected in Berlin in 2012 after years of debate. The city is home to a growing number of Roma from across Europe’s diverse communities.

The Eriac will seek to act as a hub, a meeting point for Roma artists and intellectuals, and as a point of contact for festivals, galleries, museums and other institutions seeking partnerships or materials for exhibitions.

Daniel Baker, a Kent-born Romani Gypsy, studied Roma aesthetics at the Royal College of Art. Photograph: Chris Gloag for the Open Society 
 
Romani Rose, head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, has fought for for decades their civil rights, including a long struggle to secure compensation for Holocaust victims from the government. Rose said the Eriac sent a signal to other countries to “treat your Roma as equals”. 

He cited what he called the “horrific, inhumane” conditions, in particular in parts of central and eastern Europe but also in Italy and Spain, in which Roma live in ghettos often without amenities including basic plumbing.

According to the European Roma Rights Centre, an international public interest organisation that fights anti-Romani racism, estimates that about 60% of Roma dwellings in Europe do not have running water. About 12% live in temporary shelters such as tents or shacks, and more than half live in areas with mud tracks instead of paved roads. 

Segregation in the education system, frequent forced evictions, discrimination, including racial profiling and ill-treatment by the police, are ubiquitous features in the lives of many European Roma.
Addressing an audience of dignitaries, Kazanxhiu, the Albanian artist, said Roma had finally recognised they had a valuable contribution to make to the political discourse, “to show people you can reach out and embrace other cultures like we’ve done without losing your own culture or identity”.

No comments: