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Timea Junghaus: Roma art as an act of resistance

27.5.2016 21:27
Visitors at the opening of an exhibition at Gallery8 in Budapest, a space for Romani contemporary art, in February 2013. (PHOTO:  © Nihad Nino Pusija)
Visitors at the opening of an exhibition at Gallery8 in Budapest, a space for Romani contemporary art, in February 2013. (PHOTO: © Nihad Nino Pusija)

On May 16, Europe’s Roma commemorated the 1944 uprising in the so-called Zigeunerlager (“Gypsy Camp”) in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today, the idea of Roma resistance is understood as the Roma people’s perseverance in fighting different forms of oppressions, now and in the past.

For Roma artists in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the concept of resistance is of special relevance. The situation of Roma artists and cultural producers in Hungary has worsened dramatically in the past six years. Besides the existential difficulties that individuals and Roma cultural institutions suffer due to the lack of funding for minority cultures, the tangible heritage of Roma is in actual danger: works of Roma artists are literally rotting in public collections, where they are not exhibited and are completely inaccessible to the public. Roma artists in Hungary work in precarious conditions: they do not receive funding for their cultural production and they exhibit in the very few independent contemporary art spaces, or in the one and only Roma gallery of the country:  the Budapest-based Gallery8.

The rise of nationalism in Hungary has created a vacuum for Roma intellectuals and the Roma movement. All the work that has been done since the 1970s on education for critical consciousness is no longer seen as of value. The Roma intellectual – who has an awareness of postcolonial theory, feminist studies, trauma studies and other critical theories – is now seen as a threat. Critical, subversive, and progressive strategies are considered illegitimate in the nationalist context.

The rise of nationalism in Hungary brought with it authoritarian changes to cultural institutions and the funding systems of cultural life. The independence and professionalism of Hungarian contemporary art has been completely dismantled by the government, since 2012 (the new Constitution or Fundamental Law came into force on January 1, 2012), when a small group of artists close to the right-wing government established the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA). This new body – without legitimate expertise, experience or constituency – holds unchallenged power and a gigantic budget. In order to be accepted as a member, the Academy requires a commitment to the nation, a certain “national feeling.”

Because of this, the contemporary art scene in Hungary, which has refused to sign up to the MMA, has been deprived of funding and support and now leads a struggle to maintain institutions, partnerships and visibility; the humanity that contemporary art contributes to also of course suffers. As a result of all of this, Roma artists have lost many institutional partners and allies. Against this backdrop, Roma art can be seen as a measured and creative method of Roma resistance, as a form of cultural survival and a demonstration of ethical and political commitment to the future of the Roma community.

Hungary has the most vivid Roma art scene in Europe, with a large number of Roma artists – Mara Oláh, Teréz Orsós, Peter Balogh, Andre Racz, István Szentandrássy, Erika Lakatos to name a few – and a fascinating intellectual discourse that theorizes Roma art since the late 1960s. Hungary should have capitalized on this vibrant scene and rich cultural heritage, and yet the authorities have chosen to neglect and to traumatize Roma artists and intellectuals.

The Hungarian government defines four major areas of what policies have designated as the “Roma problem”: education, health, housing and unemployment. This is more than offensive and draws a perfect picture of the “Hungarian problem” that we, Roma, are having. Roma do not need to be rescued or to become the target of “civilizing” missions. All areas of policy making – including culture – should be targeted when it comes to Roma inclusion measures. Social inclusion is impossible without cultural inclusion and so arts and culture cannot be neglected in this process.

Considering the situation in Hungary, the prospect of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, which will be established soon in a European city yet to be disclosed, becomes even more relevant. The Institute aims to amplify the work of Roma arts and culture initiatives and organizations in the international art scene. It will connect professionals and create a hub for the professional exchange of projects, ideas, inspirations and discourses of the Roma scene. This is an important opportunity for the few but vibrant initiatives and projects still existing in Hungary.

For the Roma of Eastern Europe, where governments retain control over access to political rights, economic opportunities, and cultural production, the necessity of continued Roma resistance and a connection to transnational cultures and networks is clear. This offers a chance to realize those hopes for cultural emancipation and respect for Roma identity, for now suppressed.

Tímea Junghaus is an art historian, contemporary art curator and cultural activist of Romani origin.

A German version of this article appeared in Der Standard on May 16, 2016, with the headline: Roma-Kunst als Widerstand. Translation published with permission. 

Timea Junghaus
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Analýzy, Holocaust, Neziskový sektor, Osobnosti, Politika, Power, Sbírka, Výstava, Aktivismus, Anticiganismus, antifašismus, Budapešť



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