Robert Gabris: The digital world just reproduces the real world, including its exclusion of otherness and its racism
Robert Gabris (1986) graduated in scenography from Bratislava's College of Performing Arts and continued his Master's studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In his predominantly autobiographical work, the subject of identity politics appears frequently.
The artist is interested in excluded groups or queer physicality in confrontation with the limits and norms of mainstream society. His drawings, which are experimental in nature, are a form of resistance to racism and various forms of (social) exclusion.
He does not want to be labeled as an artist who is Romani, but his Romaniness is one of the pivotal subjects of his work. He is a brilliant draftsman but claims he doesn't care about that, that he doesn't even like art, and that what is most important about his works are his ideas and how they overlap with the discussion in society.
Gabris won a prestigious Jindřich Chalupecký Award in the Czech Republic this year for "ERROR", an installation on the subject of the LGBTQ+ community within the framework of the Romani minority and the double disadvantage of this group, of which he himself is also a member. Romano vod'i magazine interviewed him for a recent issue.
Q: Your "ERROR" installation is currently on exhibit at the Moravian Gallery. It makes a lot of use of human physicality expressed through photographs of the body parts of members of the community of LGBTQ+ people who are Romani, and at the same time that corporeality is covered by a kind of veil and interspersed with text. When creating "ERROR" you used a dating app to meet members of that community within the Romani minority. How did you find them there?
A: This community commonly meets on a daily basis in these apps, people arrange meetings there. I was doing an artistic residency in Košice, and I found out that a lot of Roma also use such apps. It's a fact that while these digital technologies do serve, on the one hand, as inclusive spaces where we can experience our queer identity, on the other hand they are also dangerous spaces that are very racist, sexist and often exclude minorities. It is typical of dating sites that people openly write profiles for themselves that include racist text, for example: "I don't want a gypsy". The digital world just reproduces the real world, actually, so racism and the elimination of otherness transpires there as well. Because I know how these dating apps work, I used them to meet these people and talk to them about what it's like to be excluded from your own community. That was the first point where we met and began discussing the fact that we don't have our own space yet and that we don't really belong anywhere, whether that be in the reality of the majority society, the reality of the street, the reality of the settlements, or even the digital reality of these dating apps.
Q: How do you want your work to address the public? What impact is this installation meant to have on a viewer, what is it supposed to evoke for the viewer?
A: Actually, I never contemplate what just any viewer should think about the installation, or how any viewer should behold it, because it is not created for the majority society at all, it is mainly for us. I have used this installation to better connect with the queer Roma community. In fact, I created an exclusive space in the inclusive institution of the Moravian Gallery. The way in which the majority society views us is a complex, complicated topic, because the imagery of the Romani body is completely destroyed today. There are a lot of aspects to talk about in the installation. The main thing is that the people shown in the photos live a very taboo sexual physicality, they live marginalized and excluded not just from society, but also from their own families in the settlements where I created this project. These people don't want to show themselves, and I actually anonymize their bodies. This is because as long as the majority society remains racist, hierarchical and believing it is superior to the extent it does now, then these people cannot speak openly about their sexuality or what they are experiencing. The photos are arranged in an inward-facing circle because I don't want to let any old person inside the installation. The space is exclusive, created just for us. We have a lot of work we need to do there, and it is essential that we connect and get to know each other and meet, because we still don't know much about each other, we don't know each other. If any of us needs help, we do not know where to look for it.
Q: On your website you state that you do not define yourself as an artist who is Romani. Is that because your art essentially does not reflect the culture of Roma who are traditional?
A: That is because I do not want society to thrust me into some normative, prefabricated box where I won't ever be able to create anything different. Although my origin is Romani, I do not define my art as Romani. Although my ethnicity often becomes the subject of my work, it is not the basis of my work, because I am dealing with various aspects of being and identity, and my identity is fluid. I do not want society to define and homogenize us by our ethnicity. It is also an emancipatory aspect of my work to make society realize that I am not an artist because I am Roma. That has nothing to do with it.
Q: What is your relationship to the culture of Romani people in general? Did you grow up in an environment where the importance of Romani culture and the Romanes language were emphasized?
A: I do not speak Romanes. I did grow up in a Romani environment, though. It wasn't the environment of a family and home as you know them, however - I grew up in an orphanage. It was quite a curious space, an artificial "white" space for re-educating children who were Romani, or at least that is what it was like during the 1980s and 1990s. I feel uncomfortable when I talk about it. It's not a subject that is discussed much, but in my work I also deal with how the majority society tries to re-educate Romani society with its "white" eyes and "white" view. So yes, I grew up among Romani people, I do know my biological family, and I do meet with them. I help them because my family lives in a Romani settlement in eastern Slovakia where they do not have many opportunities and live in a very bad situation.
Q: When you say the majority is striving to re-educate the Romani minority, how in your view is that manifested in the orphanages?
A: You know, today it's not like it was 30 years ago, when I lived in an orphanage. The children's home system has transformed since then. We're discussing the 1990s here, and the first question I ask is: Who decided that the children of my parents should be removed from them and raised in an orphanage? According to what parameters does a society decide which family is capable of raising their own children and which family is not? I don't want to speak much about it because it is difficult for me to discuss my personal past in the media.
Q: You are a brilliant, skilled draftsman, but at the same time your works involve an intellectual, philosophical overlap with the world. To what extent does conceptuality play a role in your art and how important is the purely formal artistic side of the work to you?
A: I consider myself a conceptual artist, so concept is absolutely the most important to me. I don't really care if I use photos or drawings. The formal side of art is actually completely wasted on me. I don't even like art very much. I use it in an interdisciplinary way to speak about the very topics that we've been discussing here. I begin making an artwork because I feel an acute need to express my view of events in society. It's an existential need for me. Art allows us to express ourselves completely differently, to speak through symbols and to create an intense, sensitive image. I invite people to start thinking discursively about the standards and subjects this society sets before us, the ones that everybody thinks are okay, that things have to be that way.
Q: Were you contemplating these concepts and ideas when you began drawing?
A: No, it's been a very lengthy process. When I graduated from the Academy in Vienna, I started visiting my family, and it was only then that I saw what was happening there. It was there that I began to feel the injustice and the asymmetrical relations between the majority society and that Romani settlement. I began to wonder what the problem was. Then I had to do the "homework" that our whole society, each of us, has to do, to deal with history and why the situation is as it is. I was still drawing at the time. My drawing is so very academic, I really like to draw studies of animals or bones and muscles and the like, but I missed something there. My personal physicality is so different, it has to be expressed. However, I'm also creating an image of something that is bigger than me. This is not just about me, it is about my relationship with this society. Then I began to deal with the topic of my father, who spent 30 years in prison and lived in a completely isolated area. I lived in an orphanage, and he lived in that prison, and we both found ourselves in an artificial, isolated, "white" space for a kind of re-education. So I began to wonder how it is possible that some people still live like this, and why many of us don't get the same chance as everyone else, and when they do get it, why they don't take matters into their own hands. It is a very complex topic. I also started to deal with it because I am very angry with this society. Anger inspires me to comment on certain things.
Q: How do you perceive the fact that you have become an award-winning, established artist? Did you ever have doubts about your work?
A: I've always had doubts about whether my work helps people or redefines things. I have to deal with whether my concepts are in line with what, for example, I or my family or the people around me are experiencing. I feel responsible for what I create, because I'm not just talking about myself, but about the whole, the community or the group. I don't think so much about the form of my art. I have always been a very good draftsman, so I knew that I could technically achieve this, I didn't have a problem with that. However, I don't like art awards very much. I took part in the Chalupecký Prize because there's not just one winner, but the works of all five winners are equally relevant. That's why I took advantage of that space. Otherwise I don't participate in awards and somehow I'm not attracted to it, I don't cooperate with commercial galleries and I don't sell my art because I perceive it as political and activist. I think that's why it belongs in the spaces where we have to talk about these things. I don't agree with commercial galleries and the sale of art, because then such aspects get lost - they lose their visibility in society. So I'm not selling my art yet, but I'll see what happens in the future. My art is existential for me, though, I have no choice but to create it. It's something that embodies me, and that's why I do it. I'm sure that's why art is important and relevant to society. I don't want to say it's "good" because I don't want to box art into "good" and "bad". However, if my art will remain relevant, I will be satisfied.
Q: If you don't sell your works, can you make a living as an artist, or do you do something else?
A: I live through my art and I exhibit it. This year I have produced 14 exhibitions for which I received fees. I give various interviews, engage in discussions and the like. What I get is enough for me to survive. In the past, I taught anatomical drawing and made money that way. Today, I make good enough money for my art to survive. So my full-time job is art. That's lucky, because not everyone gets such an opportunity.
Q: You live in Vienna. How do you compare the Austrian art scene to the Czech or Slovak art scene?
A: There's not much to compare. It's a completely different system of protection for artists, exhibitions, financial support for artists, everything is different. I cannot imagine working as a full-time artist in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. I know people who do it and manage it, but I can't imagine it, because in Austria we have completely different support. It's intense. I feel safe in Austria, and I know that art is at a high level in that society. After work, when people are tired, they go to a gallery to relax. Art, in Austria, is an experience. To be an artist there is a job like any other.
Q: Your project "My Country, My Blood" also relates to the perception of national identity. I was fascinated by the part called "Landscape of Excretion". It involves stylized images of human intestines, which look like a medical textbook, in parts, but are so stylized that they almost seem like colorful plants. Why did you choose this symbolism?
A: I like working with anatomy. In that piece I compare the human gut to a map. The image of the intestines reminds me of the image of each individual person's own landscape. We don't all have the same map of our home country, the map that each of us does have is very individual, thanks to our experiences. I'm interested in how we perceive our society, how we perceive our landscape, because everybody has one's own pushpins stuck at a different place on the map to anybody else, indicating where one finds oneself. The intestines are a symbol of how, when a person leaves a place, he then perceives his country retrospectively, how he excludes it from his own reality when he gets to another country. Symbolically speaking, I have escaped Slovakia because, as a Romani man and as a queer, I was unable to live in that country. It was very difficult for me to study in Slovakia and to freely work on the subjects that I would like to work on. The instruction in Slovakia at that time was quite limited. I've had enough of the stereotypical way society perceives me. For example, while I was studying scenography, I was forced to produce scenography for a production of the play "Gypsies Go to Heaven". When I said that I didn't want to do it just because I'm Roma, everyone got mad: "Why, though, you're Roma so you should have it all in your blood!" They thought I should automatically know how things had to be. The current discourses just didn't work there. The behavior of people on the street, and life in Slovakia in general, were very complicated for me. My story is unique to me, everybody has their own. I have friends who are Romani who have not experienced what I experienced there. Maybe I was just unlucky, but I didn't feel safe in that country. When I got to Vienna, I started thinking about what my country was like, and about this individual map. It was a very bitter, painful experience, I felt that it involved the body and corporeality. That's why the gut symbolism. It's a kind of therapy, an attempt to explore the spaces through which such input comes and goes. It was actually quite a very intimate, biographical work. In Košice, where I exhibited it, I drew another big two-meter map, with about 200 pushpins in it, and I attached signs with the names of the emotions that I experienced in those different places. Because I wrote them down, I also coped with the feeling of being excluded and constantly addressing my ethnicity. I have a feeling that I will never belong to that country, I will never be a part of it, I will always be someone, whether a lesser figure or a more important one, but I will never be equal to everybody else there. That's how it is. When you live in a visibly different body, you are always perceived as somebody other, and that was the subject of this work, the theme of otherness.
First published in Czech in Romano voďi.
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