Romani Feminism in Works of Female Roma Artists
Romani Feminism in Works of Female Roma Artists
With aesthetic discrimination still prevalent in the art scene, the label ‘Roma art’ can serve as an important asset in exercising minority cultural rights. Art historian and curator Tímea Jungahus explains that: ‘Roma art has the potential to innovatively (…) shed light exactly on the perpetuation of the kind of asymmetry that has marred the critical analyses of racial/ethnic formation and cultural practice, where the majority (white) position remains unexamined, unqualified, essential, homogenous, seemingly self-fashioned, and unmarked by history or practice.’1 On the other hand, artists of Roma origin often point out that labelling their artworks simply as ‘Roma art’ is simplistic. It puts a very diverse and heterogenous artistic production under one simplifying label assuming its homogeneity, similarity and uniformity. Artist Ladislava Gažiová notes, for instance, that: ‘It is important to say that many of us have had a long-standing problem with the category ‘Roma artist’. None of us wanted to accept this category, we all wanted to be artists without an ethnic label. … [but] we all have come to understand that there is a need for the category of Roma art to be created, although it is not entirely pleasant to us personally.’2 Similarly, artist Emília Rigová explains that: ‘Capsulizing the Roma cultural identity in some kind of uniform description or instructions on how to recognize it is extremely complicated due to the fact that a long list of other circumstances contributed to forming the Roma identity.’ However, similarly to Gažiová, she adds that: ‘Although I have a problem with the term Roma art. (…) I’m beginning to understand that it’s necessary to work with this term. However, I believe that the day will come when we won’t need it, and Roma artists will simply make art: without labels.’3
Therefore, ‘Roma art’, despite being a simplifying label, has the potential to challenge cultural hegemony and aesthetic discrimination. It can be a very productive term, if chosen consciously as a site of resistance. Black feminist and social activist bell hooks argues that: ‘I am located in the margin. I make a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility. This site of resistance is continually formed in that segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination.’4 Relating to hooks’ argument, we can claim that ‘Roma art’ functions similarly as a site of resistance. ‘Roma art’ demonstrates the need to redefine Roma spaces, to allow Roma artists to become subjects rather than objects and to challenge hegemonic narratives and gazes.5 The re-appropriation of visual aspects and stereotypes associated with Roma culture appears to be crucial for Roma artists in their artistic practice. By utilizing stereotypical images of the Roma, and by claiming these images back, Roma artists can challenge cultural hegemony and the often negative attitudes of the majority towards Roma people.
Furthermore, the visual strategies employed by female Roma artists challenge not only racism but also sexism in society. The issue of intersectional discrimination against Roma women was also addressed by the exhibition, ‘Roma Women Weaving Europe. Roma Feminist Thought and Contemporary Art’ in 2019 at European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin.6 The exhibition presented works by Ionela Mihaela Cîmpeanu, Ioanida Costache, Michaela Drăgan, Ana Maria Gheorghe, Delaine Le Bas, Kiba Lumberg, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Emília Rigová, Selma Selman, Alina Șerban, George Vasilescu and urban_roma. This intersectionality of artistic practice of Roma female artists opens up the complexities of their belonging. For instance, Tamara Moyzes, in the photomontage, Museum of Ethnology I-III, (2015), uses a historical ethnographic photograph, which depicts a line of Roma girls with exposed breasts. By juxtaposing the archived photograph with non-Romani nude women presented in a line with numbers in front of them (reminiscent of popular beauty contests), the artist points out the problem of fetishizing female Roma bodies, in contrast to the completely normalized perception of the white female nude. Similarly, Selma Selman in her drawings, Superpositional Intersectionalism, (2018-ongoing), invites the viewer to see identities, bodies and cultures as fluid and dynamic. The performance with the eponymous title, consists of Selman in a boxing match, concurrently acting as the coach, athlete and the opponent. The artist derived the inspiration for the drawings and the performance from quantum superposition in physics, when a single particle can occupy two places at once.7 As the visual theorist Suzana Milevska asks: ‘What does it mean to belong to the Roma community and to be called by this name while being a woman artist, and what really belongs to Roma and to the mere name of the Roma in historic, cultural and socio-political terms, takes a lot of challenging the misunderstandings, stereotypes and controversies.’8 Milveska proposes here the concept of transindividuality,rather than intersectionality, as she claims that this term better addresses the mutual constitution of the individual and the collective. Through examination of works by two artists – Emília Rigová and Małgorzata Mirga-Tas – this essay will explore how these Roma female artists employ feminist strategies in their art practice.
Emília Rigová is a Slovak-Roma visual artist who works primarily in the mediums of installation, object and performance. She teaches art at the Department of Fine Arts at the Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, where she also established the Department of Roma Art and Culture (KRUK) in 2019. Rigová is a member of the Barvalipe Academy, the agenda-setting and strategic body of European Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin. In 2018, Rigová was awarded the prestigious Slovak award for contemporary art, the Oskar Čepan Award. Since 2012, Rigová has adopted the alter ego of Bári Raklóri (Bári meaning big, Raklór meaning a daughter of non-Roma parents) in her artistic practice. Bári Raklóri is presented visually in the stereotypical image of a Roma woman. However, conceptually, Bári Raklóri is under the dual influence of both non-Roma and Roma culture. As a consequence of assimilation during the state-socialist period in Czechoslovakia, Rigová’s family has not used Romani as their mother tongue for around three generations now. As Rigová herself asserts: ‘A huge generation of Roma living on the territory of former Czechoslovakia “chose” to not use their Roma mother language based on the belief embedded in the assimilation programme connected with the “common working class.”9 This mutual influence of identities influenced Rigová in her creation of her alter ego Bári Raklóri. 10
Bári is a depiction of a Roma woman with dark hair, wearing a red ornamental scarf and golden jewellery. She represents a romantic myth of Roma woman, traditionally depicted as fortune tellers or as objects of sexual desire on historical posters, photographs and paintings. Feminist sociologist Ethel C. Brooks explains that: ‘Romani women have been painted as sexually available objects of fantasy and as old witches.’ 11 This myth surrounding Roma identity is reappropriated by Rigová through her alter ego. However, Bári represents and is influenced by both Roma and non-Roma identities. In her transindividuality concept, Milveska clarifies that: ‘… rather than see individuality and collectivity as a kind of zero sum game, in which individuality is developed through a refutation of collectivity, and collectivity through a suppression of individuality, it is necessary to understand the way in which collectivity is nothing other than a particular way of being individuated and individuality is a particular articulation of collective habits and ways of being.’12 Utilizing Milveska’s concept, we can better understand how Rigová’s alter ego performs a symbolic reference to the mutual influence of Roma and non-Roma identities, in her artistic practice, with both influences understood as being ever present and mutually constituted.
The creation of the alter ego Bári Raklóri was crucial for Rigová’s artistic practice in general because the language of Bári was very transparent in its use of stereotypes and very understandable visual language. It enabled the artist, through this stereotypical view of Roma woman, to tell more complex stories. Bári Raklóri also opened future possibilities for other works to come, as she introduced a set of tools and vocabularies on how to approach and read these works. Rigová explains that: ‘Bári Raklóri as an object had the language function, in the way of what it represents and what it communicates. Because I felt unrooted everywhere (at school, at work and in the family), I wanted to define myself with Bári.’13
Bári Raklóri, as with Rigová’s other works, is visually based on symbols and stereotypes associated with the Roma culture by the majority society, such as: physical gold, the colours gold and bright red, and ornamental scarves.14 These images are used consciously by the artist, providing a visual shortcut that allows the audience to understand the message of her works. Rigová, however, finds herself in the ambivalent position between utilizing these symbols as a communication tool and the fear of further proliferating stereotypes. She explains that: ‘For the first time, when the paintings of Bári did not physically fit into the space at the Oscar Čepan exhibition in 2018, where I had exhibited Crossing B(l)ack, Photos with golden teeth, Ballad with a red scarf, Bulletproof vest, and in the last room was the video Vomite Ergo Sum!; I realized that I had flattened myself into that visual shortcut, an ornamental scarf or gold. I myself help to create the same affirmation, which I wanted to avoid.’ 15
This in-between, or transidividual position, is understood by Rigová as her double agent role: ‘On the one hand, with each of my art projects, I endorse everything that refers to ‘Roma’, but at the same time I try to dispel the myth, which, however, means that I have to use it first. By which, I even more re-create the same myth and the same stereotype. That’s the role of the double agent, that I actually work for both parties, but at the same time I uncover dirt for both.’16 Rigová reveals that: ‘Sometimes I feel that as Roma artists we are quite individualistic, but we stick together through those stereotypical images of us. We are defined by being able to speak about ourselves through the language of our oppression. On the one hand, I see it as a sale of “Roma-ness”, but on the other hand, I see it as a real revolution in Roma art and the evolution of each of us. Thus, from our art, one can then deduct common changes of the ‘public image of the Roma’.’17
Polish-Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is an internationally established artist whose work was presented at the last Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2020. As well as her artistic activities, Mirga-Tas is also an active activist who is engaged in several social and educational projects against Roma exclusion and racial discrimination. In 2017 she founded and organised an international association for Roma and non-Roma artists called Jaw Dikh!.
Mirga-Tas depicts Roma women who are important to her in her colourful patchworks. In the patchworks, the artist incorporates the fabric of clothing worn by her relatives and community members. In 2020, when the curator Maria Lind initiated the Instagram project ’52 Proposals for the 20s’ that invited 52 artists to take over the Instagram account and make weekly proposals for the decade of the 2020s, Mirga-Tas created a series entitled ‘Gypsy wonderful women’. In the series she depicted influential Roma women artists, activists and researchers such as: Adela Głowacka, Tímea Junghaus, Ágnes Daróczi, Delaine Le Bas, Teresa Mirga and among others. One of the patchworks depicted Roma activist Anna Mirga-Kruszelnica and artist Emília Rigová. The two women are presented sitting under an apple tree surrounded by roosters and hens, in a very idyllic scene in which both women seem very relaxed in their environment. 18 Mirga-Kruszelnica is a Roma activist and anthropologist who is a deputy director of European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture in Berlin; she is also the artist’s cousin. Rigová and Mirga-Tas met at the Jaw Dikh! in 2016. Jaw Dikh is an open-air event organised by Mirga-Tas every year in Czarna Góra in Poland. It has become an important meeting place for Roma artists and activists from all over the world.
Hence, feminism in Mirga-Tas’s patchworks is based on personal experiences, friendships and networks of inspiring women. Similarly observes curator Joanna Warsza that Mirga-Tas’s feminism and activism: ‘…stems from a subjective, emancipatory story, wherein autonomy, the recording of women’s genealogies, the practice of sisterhood, as well as a conscious rooting in Romani identity and culture are first and foremost embodied ideas, and only later theoretical concepts.’19 Her patchworks depict mostly women, children and animals, and only very rarely men. Mirga-Tas explains that: ‘During my workshop internships in Romani settlements, I noticed that it is precisely women who are progressive. They try to educate their children and take care of their better future. They see education as an opportunity to influence their destiny, improve the quality of life in the economic sphere, and strengthen their self-esteem. Therefore, they are important for me to consolidate them in my work. Most of my inspiration comes from my own experiences. I photograph a lot, look for interesting stories, talk to older people.’20 21
In the publication from the symposium on Romani Feminism in 2012, Brooks describes her shocking experience when non-Roma woman at the conference responded by claiming that: ‘I am sorry, but you can’t claim both: If you want to claim feminism, then you must give up your claim to a Romani identity. Patriarchy and oppression to women are central to your culture; to be a feminist means renouncing being a Romani woman.’22 This statement reveals the imperialist approach and saviour complex rampant within much traditional white feminism. Returning again to bel hooks, we can observe the similarity between the black feminist movement in the States and Romani feminist struggles. Hooks observes that: ‘Racism is another barrier to solidarity between women. The ideology of Sisterhood as expressed by contemporary feminist activists indicated no acknowledgment that racist discrimination, exploitation, and oppression of multi-ethnic women by white women had made it impossible for the two groups to feel they shared common interests or political concerns.’23 Hence, hooks argues for political solidarity among women and urges us women to unlearn the lessons we were taught about other women being our enemies, ‘if we are to build a sustained feminist movement.’24
Similarly, Brooks explains that Roma women have always been portrayed as passive victims of patriarchy who need saving. She explains that: ‘This is the racist backdrop to the exhortation by my feminist “sister” for me to give up one identity in favour of the other. If I join the side of the feminists, denying my connection to the Romani community, would that, in the end, save my Romani sisters?’25 We can find answers to these urgent questions in the patchworks of Mirga-Tas, who argues that: ‘Although the traditional model of the Roma family or group presents men as alpha who decide and are at the highest level in the social hierarchy, it cannot be ignored that Roma women strive for changes, educate themselves, want to have their own “voice”, want a better future for themselves and their families.’26 Through her patchworks Mirga-Tas consciously aims to erase this public stereotypical image by foregrounding and celebrating strong Roma women. The artist explains that: ‘I would like to portray the known and unknown Romani women artists, female politicians, artists, activists, but also those who mean a lot to me in my life. Women, girls growing up in Romani settlements, in towns or on their outskirts, who decided to change the world with their attitude and courage.’27 This is precisely what Brooks thinks Romani feminism is about: ‘Friendship, personal connections, networks, and solidarity among activists and scholars, across national boundaries and ethnic identifications (…).’28
Exploring the feminist strategies employed by Emília Rigová and Małgorzata Mirga-Tas in their artistic practice, we can observe some parallels. Even though both discussed artists employ different approaches in their artistic practice, both represent a generation of influential Roma female artists who through their artistic practice re-claim stereotypical images of Roma. Through their art practice, they become active subjects of Roma resistance. Their works challenge cultural hegemony and the often negative assumptions about Roma women. Finally, through their international cultural activities, they form a strong solidarity among Roma women. It is precisely art that has the potential to challenge the cultural hegemony and aesthetic discrimination. Mirga-Tas similarly notes that: ‘I have no doubts that art is one of the best forms of taking up topics that break through to the social consciousness and can be an impulse for grey discussion. Thanks to technology and rapidly developing media, art will have a wider reach. The very fact of the presence of Roma artists at major artistic events is of great importance, especially for us artists.’29 The visibility for Roma women artists is especially important. It is precisely the work of Roma female artists, who Roma curator Junghaus highlights as particularly important because of their ‘double minority position, that helps to break down these barriers.30 She stresses that their art ‘is organised around the question of visibility and how the Roma artist can rewrite or modify the mainstream discourse once she arrives to the position of visibility.31 As demonstrated, ‘Roma art’ can perform as a site of resistance, which has the potential to challenge cultural hegemony. Moreover, in particular the artistic practice of Roma female artists can open up the complexities of their belonging and challenge the stereotypical image of a Roma woman through the intersectionality of their identity. Through their artistic practice, Roma female artists take part and form Romani feminist movements that are based on their personal experiences, friendships and networks of influential Roma women.
Denisa Tomkova is a Slovak-born, Berlin-based and UK and US-educated art historian and curator. She gained her PhD from the University of Aberdeen in the UK. Between 2015- 2018, she was a member of the international research project ‘Comparing WE’s. Cosmopolitanism. Emancipation. Postcoloniality’ based at the University of Lisbon. She taught the Introduction to Visual Culture class and was a guest lecturer in the Performance Art Class at the University of Aberdeen. She was a Research Fellow for the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin. In April 2020, she curated an online group exhibition Performing the Museum at ERIAC which questioned the absence of Roma representation in arts and culture spaces. She contributed to journals such as Third Text, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, ARTMargins Online, L’Internationale Online, Camera Austria, Profil – súčasného vytvarného umenia, H- SHERA, Berlin Art Link, Kuba Paris and Magis Iteso.
1Tímea Jungahus. 2013 ‘A Conversation Between Tímea Junghaus and Maria Hlavajova. Yours Is an Optimistic Scenario’ in Daniel Baker and Maria Hlavajova. 2013. We Roma: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Utrecht: BAK, 205. 2Ladislava Gažiová in Stejskalová, Tereza. 2018. ‘Svou historii si musí past Romové sami’ Interview with Ladislava Gažiová In Artlak.cz: https://artalk.cz/2018/02/23/svou-historii-si-musi-psat-romove-sami/. 3Oto Hudec and Emília Rigová. 2017. ‘In Dialogue’. Accessed on 20 January, 2021: https://eriac.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Oto-Hudec-and-Emilia-Rigova-in-dialogue_CORR.pdf 4bell hooks. 1989. ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openess’ in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, No. 36, pp. 15-23, 23. 5Tímea Jungahus. 2018. ‘Roma Contemporary Art – the language of European de-coloniality’ in Marcin Moskalewicz and Wojciech Przybylski. 2018. Understanding Central Europe, New York, Oxon: Routledge, 580. 6Exhibition ‘Roma Women Weaving Europe. Roma Feminist Thought and Contemporary Art’ at European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin. Accessed on 2 February 2021:https://eriac.org/roma-women-weaving-europe-exhibition-opening-eriac-and-rki/ 7Jelena Prtoric. 2020. ‘Selma Selman is the Bosnian artist breaking down cars, washing machines, and the patriarchy’ in Calvert Journal. Accessed on 2 February 2021: https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/12282/selma-selman-bosnian-roma-artist-performance-activism-painting 8Suzana Milevska. 2020. ‘Transindividuality and Difference. On Aprorias of Intersectionality.’ In Springerin, Issue 1/2020, Accessed on 12 January 2021: https://www.springerin.at/en/2020/1/transindividualitat-und-differenz/ 9Hudec and Rigová. 2017. ‘In Dialogue’ 10Emília Rigová, Two Báris, digital photography, 2018 (from the series Transgressing Past, Shaping Future), The Courtesy of the Artist. 11Ethel C. Brooks. 2012. "The Possibilities of Romani Feminism." Signs 38, no. 1: 1-11, 3. 12Milevska. 2020. ‘Transindividuality and Difference.’ 13Emília Rigová. 2020. Interview by the Author, Phone Conversation, December. 14Emília Rigová, Bári Raklóri XI., digital painting, 2015, The Courtesy of the Artist. 15Rigová. 2020. Interview by the Author. 16Ibid. 17Ibid. 18Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Summer afternoon in Kali Berga, patchwork, 96x74cm. ,2020 (from the series Sewn with our threads, Anna and Milka), The Courtesy of the Artist, Photo by Marcin Tas. 19Joanna Warsza. 2020. ‘A Material Called Life.On the Work of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ in Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Szydłowski Gallery, 15. 20Malgorzata Mirga-Tas. 2021. Interview by the Author, E-Mail Conversation, January. 21Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Kie Serina, 2017, acrylic and fabric on canvas, 120 x 140 cm, The Courtesy of the Artist and Galerii Szydłowski, Photo by Marcin Tas. 22Brooks. 2012. "The Possibilities of Romani Feminism.", 2. 23bell hooks. 2000. Feminist Theory. From Margin to Center, London: Pluto Press, 50. 24Ibid, 43. 25Brooks. 2012, 3. 26Mirga-Tas. 2021. Interview by the Author. 27Ibid. 28Brooks. 2012, 6 29Mirga-Tas. 2021. Interview by the Author. 30Jungahus. 2013. ‘A Conversation Between Tímea Junghaus and Maria Hlavajova.’, 198. 31Tímea Jungahus. 2018. ‘Our Beloved Margins: The Imagining of the Roma Transformative Subject and Art History Scholarship in Central Europe’ in Ana Janevski, Roxana Marcoci Eds. 2018. Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology. New York: MoMA, 386.