Roma contemporary art is art created by Romani people. It emerged at the climax of the process that began in Central and Eastern Europe in the late-1980s, when the interpretation of the cultural practice of minorities was enabled by a paradigm shift, commonly referred to in specialist literature as the Cultural turn. The idea of the “cultural turn” was introduced; and this was also the time when the notion of cultural democracy became crystallized in the debates carried on at various public forums. Civil society gained strength, and civil politics appeared, which is a prerequisite for cultural democracy. This shift of attitude in scholarly circles derived from concerns specific not only to ethnicity, but also to society, gender and class.
Contemporary art has the power to define and communicate specific ideas, as well as collective cultural codes. Throughout history artists have exercised their creative power to define themselves through art and to fashion a self-definition that reveals them and their respective societies in the best possible light. Roma artists have exercised the same right, but until recently they were condemned to anonymity and their voices have been hushed. This change brought about an interest in exploring the history and value of Roma culture. Not only has it become obvious that the arts are laden with stereotypes about the Roma, but also that the cultural classification describes the visual products of the Roma with terms the experts themselves claim to be positive, like naïve, barbarian, primitive, primordial, archetypal, autodidactic. Roma art was evaluated solely by non-Roma experts, who excluded it from the official canon on the grounds that it was outdated, merely illustrative or, at best, nostalgic. Roma artists rarely had the opportunity to experiment with new techniques, and they could exhibit only in community centres, venues which seem marginal from the perspective of the cultural discourse.
As a new generation of Roma intellectuals emerges, there is the birth of Roma consciousness, a state when successful, wealthy and well-educated Roma proudly acknowledge their origin, rather than opt for assimilation and the relinquishment of their cultural heritage. These newly emerged professionals (e.g. cultural anthropologist Ágnes Daróczi, politician Nicolae Gheorghe, political and cultural activist Jenő Zsigó, artist Tibor Balogh, curator and art historian Tímea Junghaus are rewriting the history of Roma culture, representation and art. If we draw on Stuart Hall’s analysis of minority cultural politics, we might suggest that in order to deconstruct dominant cultural representations, Roma artists need to fight on two fronts. First, they need to reverse the stereotypes that prevail in the media, by producing images of the Roma that oppose those created in mainstream culture. Secondly, they need to fight for access to mainstream audiences. Otherwise, even the rare examples of truly authentic self-representations remain visible only within the narrow circles of academia or human rights festivals. If, as leading Romani scholar-politician Nicolae Gheorghe suggests, “the representation of Romani identity is a process of ethno-genesis which involves the Roma self-consciously playing with their identities, then perhaps we must recognize that constructing effective representations involves the artist as much as the scientist or politician.”
Roma culture has generated such interesting new phenomena as the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, a professionally installed museum space, founded in 1991, with multiple functions and a carefully elaborated strategy of presenting the history of Roma representation accurately and engagingly. Most of the museum’s staff are Roma, and it is a place where everyone in the populous Brno Roma community can spend their time constructively. The building is decorated by a large mural, painted by David Zeman and his team: The Roma Road is screaming for recognition with vigorous oranges, reds and blues. Similarly momentous are those attempts which present Roma artists in the official spaces of contemporary culture.
The 2004 exhibition The Hidden Holocaust was the first in Hungary to open the gates of Hall of Art in Budapest, this bastion of contemporary art, to the Roma artists. This was in effect the first time that Roma artists (eleven in all) could exhibit in an official space of contemporary art, and could use the infrastructure of the institution to realise their works. A glimpse at the exhibits of the Second Site show, held in London in March 2006, will also convince us that the way we are invited and allowed to think about Roma visual art has changed irreversibly: the paradigm shift has occurred.
It is an emphatic part of Roma contemporary art that the display by Roma artists seeks to counter wild romantic stereotypes and misconceptions about “Gypsy” culture, fostering thereby a more self-assured Roma identity. It also wants to prove that Roma artists speak a visual language that is understandable all over the world, and that this language is in line with the “sophisticated, problem-conscious” approach of contemporary art. Though sensitivity to problems may be an attribute of contemporary art, it lost its interest in the kind of self-representation that relies on a homogeneous identity some time ago. The self-image that is to emerge at this display through the reinterpretation of Roma identity is not expected to be homogeneous or stable. It suggests that the identity of the Roma serves as a model for a modern, European transnational identity that is capable of cultural fusion and adaptation to changing circumstances.
These artists embrace and transform, deny and deconstruct, oppose and analyse, challenge and overwrite the existing stereotypes in a confident and intellectual manner, reinventing the Roma tradition and its elements as contemporary culture. The archetypical motives provide a firm underlying sentiment, but the result unexpectedly suggests a new interpretation, one that is created by the Roma artists themselves. The envisioned alternative identity highlights the strengths of the Roma, their capacity for fusion, sense of glamour, humour and irony, adaptability, mobility and transnationalism. The representations set models before the majority society, as well as the Roma, and represent the Roma as a group of civilised, successful individuals whose dignity is complete and worthy of acknowledgement.
Roma art, because of structural, institutional and infrastructural reasons was not prone to diverse representation for a long time and was forced to show itself in a monolithic fashion, the way how the majority regards ”gypsy art”. The works of young Roma artists show that Roma culture and identity are just as varied and polarised as majority cultures.