Barbara Bódi was born as the third child in the Romungo Roma family in Hungary. The boys in her family would devote themselves to music, so many of them are engaged in performing Romani or classical music, while Bodi, much like her mother, has embarked on the path of fine arts, although she works and operates in other fields as well. Her body of work includes painting, drawing, photography and collage, and she works under the pseudonym BOBA. In 2002 she graduated in art history, drawing and visual communication from the Eszterházy Károly University, where her artistic development was determined by two Munkácsy Award artists, Péter Földi and István B. Nagy. She then studied at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest under József Baska and Katalin Rényi, and obtained an MA in religious education from the Apor Vilmos Catholic College in 2011. Her doctoral dissertation deals with the topic of the Romani fine art movement and its development processes that take place in the second half of the 20th century, exploring its intertwining with Hungarian fine art.
You were born into a Hungarian Romani musician family with four children, and art and culture were woven into your everyday life, even in childhood. What are your memories from that period?
When I was little with 3 siblings, contacts with the wider family were very common. I remember we often visited them and they would often come to ours. I remember having an emotionally rich and eventful childhood, with lots of cousins and many family events in which music and delicious food played central roles. Sometimes the men played music or we put on contemporary music and we also danced. Today, this habit has faded and the family cohesion has worn out. On an average day, my dad practiced with my brother who played the violin, meanwhile my mom cooked a nice lunch for us. Usually my dad sat me down next to them to sing to them. I was an aloof little kid, but with a huge inner world – maybe that’s why I didn’t want to be on stage and be a singer, but chose to paint instead.
You are an artist, art teacher, interior designer, religion teacher, china painter and a social researcher. The position of an artists who has reconciled such various professions is very interesting, so can you tell us how you experience it and how much do your own artistic experiences help you in better understanding your fellow artists – especially through the lens of a religious teacher and a social researcher?
I see a connection in everything, there is a strong parallel between art and my faith, that has the characteristics of an artistic creed for all creators. He or She who does not believe in God also believes in someone or something else, or in himself. My doctoral studies are an interdisciplinary social research program, which is also a cross-disciplinary intersection with a new perspective on search contexts. In my thoughts and emotions, I have always been different from others, so I would like to present this particular peculiarity in different and many dimensions of value creation.
You graduated from secondary art school where you focused on china painting, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Secessionist world. China painting has a long and rich history, dating back to the ancient past and the reign of the first dynasties. What did you find especially intriguing in china painting and did you try calligraphy, which involves the essence of the same technique as china paining?
I have always been attracted to Far Eastern cultures, philosophies and beliefs, so calligraphy also has a big impact on me. Works that are made with feminine sensitivity and deep experience are typical for me as meditative recharging inspires my works. With my belonging to the Roma nationality, I carry an attraction to ancient India, Far Eastern cultures and philosophies with it, which lends a special, radically different approach to my art and provides a deeply rooted strength to my mode of expression. With my creative visual imagination, I soar in the heights of my creative freedom – which is woven through my deep faith – without rules. For me, difference does not mean discrimination and subordination of otherness, but the strength of humanity, which carries the richness and diversity of different cultures, philosophies, and emotions and worlds of thought.
Do any other artists have a big effect on you and your art?
Through the energies of nature, I receive messages and exciting inspirations when I am at rest and in a more elevated mood of my spirit. Through many experiences, when I marvel at the perfect work of the supreme Artist, I feel an infinite and inexhaustible added values. As part of nature, I also feel this perfection in myself, which encourages creation. Sometimes it’s just an everyday activity that comes with inspiration, like cleaning, through which I often come up with better ideas. I am not in control of this, I am merely conveying what I have to say between artistic values or also in scientific publications. I find the motivating effect for me in almost every work of art, but the exciting discoveries encourage further inspiration to think further.
You are a regular attendee of the Roma Art Camp at Lake Balaton, where you collaborate with other artists of Romani origins.
When larger-scale creative camps were organized with the help of Romano Kher, I have been a participant since I was almost 18 years old. Since then, smaller circles of friends have come together in the summer to form an individual organization. In this case, the artistic network of contacts is expanded and strengthened, and at the same time interviews are ready to be completed. In the summer creative camps, I zone out of the world of everyday work and find my new place in focusing on the art district, at which point my creative mood really starts to flow.
In your works of art, the topics of nature, diversity of flora and fauna, and the miracle of birth are rich and inexhaustible sources of inspiration.
Yes, I discover all these natural wonders in people. Due to my humanistic focus, I discover the beauty, perfection and positive energies of nature in human diversity.
You explored your Romani origins in your 2015 oil painting series titled My mirror, my mirror – which also concerns the otherness which encourages a culture of multiracial and multiethnic acceptance. How did the process of mirroring yourself unfold and who did you see in that mirror and transfer to the canvas?
After my mostly colorful representation, a more monochrome, more realistic period began to intensify in my visual vision. I evoked my inner visual images in a 12 + 1 part of a 120cmx140cm contiguous series where, with the expression of symbolic realism, I explored our pure human feelings coming from deep within, our different tempers through different faces. In my art so far, I have emphasized positive feelings, portrayed them from a kind of brighter, more optimistic perspective. However, this time the more shady side appears, because the depth of the ups and downs also provides a framework for our broad, universal true emotions. Through the regularity of polarity, we can only fully experience positive feelings if we know and experience the opposite, if we know what it means to suffer, to shout, to be frustrated, to experience failure, to fall to the ground, to lose – and to start again. These feelings also have beauty and an important significance in our lives. I emphasize common human values by expressing feelings, by the facial character of different ethnic groups, by emphasizing different cultures, by perceiving otherness.
Different characters appear in the paintings, each with strong emotional expressions. My message is that we are not alone in our deepest feelings. Even the smallest part of the whole, because everything is connected to everything. Everyone experiences the depths of failure and the heights of happiness in different arenas of life, regardless of skin color, nationality, religious denomination, or political affiliation. I immortalized it all on an artistic level. Among the 12 paintings is the redeeming Jesus Christ, with whom the message becomes a mystery, as if it were a prophecy. Part 13 of the exhibition is a mirror with which I also invited the viewer into the process of creation, whereby he/she also became an integral part of the message with their own face. I saw myself in all 12 faces, and identified with their emotions while painting, so that I could convey them powerfully and authentically.
National Romani fine art is the focal theme of your doctoral studies. Can you share some interesting facts and findings with us, especially some about the representation of Romani women throughout history?
The title of my doctoral research is The process of the Gypsy/Roma fine art movement, its development in the second half of the 20th century and its impact on social emancipation – placed in the Hungarian social and cultural history and in the field of universal art as a whole by exploring the existing connection points with Hungarian fine art.
I am exploring the notion of fine art of the Roma minority with an overview of its short history as the largest ethnical population that resides in Hungary for over six centuries. Apart from the definition of Romani art, I am discussing the processes of change and the self-representation of the present, mainly from the artistic aspect, and the ethnic classification of Romani identity through self-confessions. I set up the Romani art scene based on traditions, then the modern Hungarian-Romani fine art that emerged from it, and finally I define the categories of professional fine art in relation to each other and to their association with Hungarian fine art, European Romani art and universal art. The self-representation of native Romani painters in the context of the contemporary majority-minority dimension, in the difference between internal and external reflections is the most common value of the work quality of art in this sole fine art scene.
Apart from the interpretation of Romani art, the study offers an opportunity for contemporary artists to become more acquire more accurate and detailed knowledge, and to understand and evaluate their works more closely and in a more sophisticated manner. Romani women, who represent a minority within the Romani minority itself, presented themselves in a self-representative productive way, through which they developed their visual vision into the umbrella of Romani fine art, unfolding as self-realization. All of this was revealed in an extremely sensitive way, with their emotional state in a value-creating mode. Romani women cried out from a segregated state with unknown multiple disadvantages, with works that gave a strong visual signal of themselves and their situation and emotional state – of the constraint of being a dual minority, about the unfolding of talent that overcomes almost all obstacles and finds its way despite all circumstances. The placement and a brief characterization of Romani female artists appear in the development process diagram of Romani fine art.
How would you characterize the mechanisms by which discrimination is propelled and sustained in Hungary, and how does it affects female artists – especially those with different ethnic backgrounds?
Discrimination is manifested in quite complex and nail-biting ways in different fields, which was also formulated by the anthropologist Péter Szuhay: Attitudes towards Roma are prevalent at school, in the workplace or even in public administration, albeit in a somewhat more consolidated and nail-biting form. At the same time, it is important to point out that those who do not want to define themselves as Roma are also subject to qualifying and ethnic designation. Ethnic choice, whether called cultural integration or community identity, or even assimilation, does not create a real opportunity for social integration for people called Roma.
At the present, the majoritarian society cannot distinguish between the more nuanced and detailed presence of creative trends in the work of artists of Romani origin, thus they cannot make a real attempt at its realistic interpretation and inclusion. Their knowledge covers the characteristics of the Gypsy/Roma fine art in the authentic sense, based on the original traditions, and focuses on highlighting the Roma origin as naïve or “subaltern”, which are underestimated in a pejorative way. As the artist’s origins become apparent, ethnicity overrides the true quality and message of the work. From this moment on, the artist is deemed a Romani painter and is classified as a Romani artist, and their work is found to be “gypsy” in a nail-biting way, even in cases of graduated professional artists. I am confident that my doctoral research will provide an opportunity to go beyond all these narrow and closed frameworks, and that it will encourage a freer way of thinking, thereby also encouraging more people-centered attitudes.