Memory of a silenced community: Fighting Anti-Roma Attitudes through Art

by Alicia Cotillas

December 9 is World Genocide Prevention Day, marking the anniversary of the UN Genocide Convention, which was adopted on this day in 1948 after the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, we remember the victims of genocide and the commitment to prevent future atrocities.

Today we also to bring attention to what the Forgotten Holocaust refers to.

European collective memory remembers The Holocaust as one of the darkest chapters of History. However, one episode was excluded from the history of World War II for decades: the Roma Genocide (Porajmos). Nazi Germany classified Roma people under the same category as Jews: “enemies of the race-based state” who were “racially inferiors”. The Nazis murdered an estimated 400,000 Roma. Only a minority survived. In post-war years, Romani continued facing persecution throughout Europe. For example, the Czech Republic and Slovakia sterilized around 90,000 Romani women against their will between the seventies and nineties. In addition, Germany did not pay war reparations to Romani survivors as it did to the Jewish victims. West Germany only recognized the crime as a racist act in 1982. As Open Society Foundations remarks, the lack of official acknowledgement of the genocide is directly linked to the long-standing discrimination against gipsy people in Europe.[1] But racism against Roma is nothing new. They are seen as low-achieving students, criminals, and low-skilled workers living in wagons. Since Romani have no country of their own, the perpetuation of these prejudices only makes harder their struggle to achieve a dignified life in the countries they live in. Most live in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, and Russia.

At Creating Rights, we believe that educating ourselves about Roma history is crucial to raise awareness about silenced past atrocities, dismantle institutional racism, and create a safer future for Roma people in and outside of Europe. It is not acceptable that the biggest ethnic minority within the European Union keeps living on the margins of society.

Artistic expression is one of the ways through which Roma combats the anti-Romani sentiment and commemorates the Romani victims of the Holocaust. Since the field of Roma’s artistic memory is still evolving[2], I would like to bring to the forefront concrete cases of Romani who have drawn on the visual arts, film, and music to disclose emotions about both the traumatic past and the prevailing culture of Anti-Gypsyism.

Image: Frauenlager Ravensbrück (Ceija Stojka, 1993)/Flickr

This painting was made by Ceija Stojka, an Austrian-born Romani artist who survived three concentration camps. As a victim of mass atrocity, she depicted the reality she lived in more than 1,000 paintings. Stojka gave a voice to those of her kind who died or were persecuted both during the Nazi and post-war periods. In short, her art became a visual testimony of the Forgotten Holocaust and broke through the silence imposed by the strategic politics of forgetting.

Marika Schmiedt is another Austrian-Roma contemporary filmmaker concerned about unmuting the voices and testimonies of the victims of the Romani Holocaust. Her artistic-political work is relevant because it exemplifies how art can act as a transitional justice tool and “call the witness” of the genocide.[1] In her practice, Schmiedt unveils the long-term effects of the genocide in the lives of younger Roma generations; visible in the film-document Undesirable Society.

Polish-Roma artist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas also aims to break the silence on the Porajmos through art. She designed a wooden sculpture to commemorate the 29 Romani murdered by the Nazis in 1942. It was placed on the same site in the forest where the killing happened. The work was vandalized in 2016 and remade again.

However, most of politically committed Romani artists focus on denouncing the present-day social struggles and negative stereotypes that Roma face. A good example of an artist who uses art as a form of resistance is Albanian Sead Kazanxhiu. Concerned about the unjust treatment of his people, he uses public space to restore the dignity of Roma. 8 per 8 Prillin 2013  installation was placed in front of Albanian Parliament.

Roma aesthetics and visual culture is full of symbols that embody the spiritual and everyday life of their people. This is what fascinates English-born Romani artists Daniel Baker and Delaine Le Ban. Baker attempts to challenge pre-existing assumptions about Roma by re-contextualising the objects made by Roma artisans who do not label themselves as ‘artists’. Le Bas embraces her condition as ‘the other’ to explore the political potential of clothing and textiles.


Image: Witch Hunt (Delaine Le Bas)/Flickr


On the other hand, some artists with Roma origins do not define themselves as Roma artists. This is the case of Robert Gabris, an experimental Slovak artist who creates safe spaces for marginalised and queer people like himself. Similarly, Bosnian multimedia artist Selma Selman is inspired by her family background. She explores the role of women in Roma communities. In A Pink Room of Her Own, Selman reconstructs the memories of her mother, who got married at age 13, and designs for her the girly room of her childhood’s dreams.

Finally, I would like to name two female Spanish-Roma artists who have shown that those with a difficult past marked by their ethnicity can still become internationally renowned artists: Lita Cabellut and María José Llergo. Cabellut grew up on the streets of Barcelona as a Sinti orphan. Now, she is based in The Hague and her large-scale figurative paintings have been exhibited globally. In fact, she is the third most valued Spanish artist. María José Llergo is a 27-years old flamenco singer. She discovered her passion for music when her grandparents sang while they were working on the field. The song Me miras pero no me ves (“You look at me but you don’t see me”) is a cry of the trauma and invisibility suffered by Spanish “gypsies”.

In conclusion, Roma’s history of mass violence proves that when transitional justice fails, art has the power to disclose the anger and trauma of marginalised groups and raise awareness about genocide prevention. It is as necessary to learn from past atrocities as it is to get rid of prejudices about vulnerable communities in order to thrive as democracies. Roma people have been living in Europe for 600 years, yet they are still ‘the minority of the minorities’, living in the outskirts of cities and subject to exclusion and oppression. Their undeniable artistic and cultural record is a valuable tool to fight for change through self-expression and political storytelling about their truth. The artists mentioned here only represent a small number out of all Romani artists who openly embrace their ethnic identity to tell us their truth and reality through sharing their stories in their practice. On a day in which the lives of the victims of genocide are to be honoured and dignified, Creating Rights recognises the political relevance of stories conveyed by ethnic minority artists when the status-quo turns its back to serious societal and political issues.



[1] Open Society Foundations. “What is the Roma Genocide.” Accessed December 5, 2021.  https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/what-roma-genocide

[2] Maria Alina Asavei, Call the witness”: Romani Holocaust related art in Austria and Marika Schmiedt’s will to memory,” Memory Studies 13.1 (2020): 107-123.

Sources:

Asavei, Maria Alina, 2020. “Call the witness”: Romani Holocaust related art in Austria and Marika Schmiedt’s will to memory. Memory Studies, 13(1), 107-123.

Connolly, Kate. 2017. “’A place to call our own’: Europe’s first Roma cultural centre opens in Berlin”.The Guardian. Accessed December 6, 2021.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/08/roma-artists-launch-art-cultural-centre-institute-berlin

Open Society Foundations. 2019. “What is the Roma Genocide.” Accessed December 5, 2021. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/what-roma-genocide

Children’s Drawings of the Genocide Against the Tutsi

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez

Warning: this post contains sensitive photographs which some people may find disturbing.  

The Shoah Memorial in Paris is hosting, from the 4th of April to the 17th of November, a commemorative exhibition of the genocide against the Tutsi, 25 years after it happened (as a small reminder, from April to mid-July 1994, almost a million ethnic Tutsi were massacred in Rwanda). I decided to go there. I misread the exhibit’s poster and thought that there was also a memorial for the Tutsi victims in addition to the memorial for the victims of the Holocaust. It turned out to be an exhibition only, but an instructive one.

As an international criminal law student, I am quite familiar with this, sadly famous, genocide and I was therefore expecting the exhibition to be emotionally heavy but even so, it hit me harder than expected.

The commemoration is called “the genocide through the eyes of the child”. The organiser of the commemoration decided to exhibit the children’s drawings and stories. The first thing that really impacted me in this exhibition was the harshness and the violence in the children’s drawings. In the below drawing, by a 14 year old, one can clearly distinguish the blood drawn in red, as compared to the rest of the drawing which is black. The people being stabbed, people’s legs being cut, are visible to point out. 

The notes made by the boy are even harder as they frankly explain what he experienced,  This is what happened to be during my teenage years in 1994 (up right); Here the interahamwe (a Hutu paramilitary organisation) cut my arm (center); This one is a military man from Habyarimana (down right)”

As Creating Rights had already been working on this subject (see for example Zérane Girardeau’s project Déflagrations) I had already seen children’s drawings and had already been shocked by the cruelty displayed in them. However, at the exhibition it felt different because there were a few people with me, reading the same stories, examining the same drawings. Some would sigh as they were confronted with the harshness of the testimonies. I have to say that when I arrived, I was quite in a good mood, but after reading only one story I directly felt touched and immersed in the terrible events that happened 25 years ago in Rwanda.

The second thing that impacted me was that the organiser did not only focus on the genocide itself but also on its consequences. This was, I think, very clever because, as it is a commemoration, 25 years after the events occurred, it is also interesting to examine what happened to the victims after the massacre. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation did not improve. A victim even said, “life after the genocide was like a second genocide for the survivors and a third genocide for the orphans”. The exhibition gives the examples of women who, after being raped, eventually died of AIDS, half of the survivors who did not have a house; orphans who couldn’t go to orphanages because they were too crowded and who had troubles at school. A young girl testifies “people would say that survivor children were the stupid ones, but I would say we were intelligent because studying with all the problems that we have and manage to have the grades that we had, was a great sign of bravery”.

The interahamwe came. They killed my neighbours and burned the house. I hid in a sorghum field.”

 

“Our life is a succession of jokes” – Two documentaries explore humor and conflict

By Fiana Gantheret

The Happy Sad Route (and a Comedian) by Linda Hakeboom: a documentary movie about the road trip of a Dutch man in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. A Dutch stand-up comedian Jan Jaap van der Wal, alias JJ, goes on a journey in the former Yugoslavia to meet with fellow comedians. The trailer can be viewed here.

téléchargement

(No) Laughing Matter (Blagues à part), by Vanessa Rousselot: a documentary film looking at expressions of humor in Palestine. Vanessa Rousselot embarks on a journey in the West Bank to find out what Palestinians have to say about their own sense of humor. The trailer can be viewed here. The English version of the movie can be accessed here.

no maughing matter

The two movies approach situations in which people have experienced or still experience a hard way of life. What are the reactions there when humor is mentioned? What do they joke about? Is humor a necessity or a luxury? Through the themes of laughter and distance, Vanessa Rousselot and Linda Hakeboom deal with sensitive issues in a subtle and profound way. Read more