Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Reconsidering Roma in a shifting Europe





A new Berlin exhibition featuring the work of Roma and Sinti artists aims to raise awareness about a segregated people, who continue to face discrimination. "Reconsidering Roma" runs until December 11.

A new exhibition at Berlin's Kunstquartier Bethanien hopes to raise awareness about Europe's 12 million strong Roma and Sinti population - who despite widespread perceptions about what it is to be a "gypsy" remain a segregated and unrecognized people.

The show "Reconsidering Roma - Aspects of Roma and Sinti Life in Contemporary Art" - features diverse work such as Delaine Le Bas' "Witch Hunt" and Daniel Baker's "Mirrored Books."
Many of the artists have a Roma or Sinti background and some have experienced discrimination first hand.

Viennese painter Karl Stojka and his sister Ceija Stojka are also on show at the exhibition with pieces which they hope will continue to chip away at what they say is a pervading silence about the crimes committed against Roma and Sinti during Nazi Germany.

Curators Lith Bahlmann and Matthias Reichelt say little is known about the Roma and Sinti on the international art scene and they want to change that.

"The effect of the Holocaust on the Roma community is not so well-known and [we've brought all this artwork together in one place because] we feel it's very important to make the issue more visible," said Bahlmann.

Haunting dolls of the Holocaust

It is an aspect of German history that has taken at least 60 years to gain a place on the national stage - let alone in the art world.

During this year's Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27), Zoni Weisz became the first ever representative for Roma and Sinti communities to address the German parliament.

As a seven year old, Weisz escaped while being taken to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. In the Bundestag, he talked about the genocide of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust.

But he also talked about the discrimination they face today.

The cultural segregation and discrimination felt by Roma and Sinti is reflected in the work on show in Berlin. It is hoped the work will reach beyond art and go on to influence the political and historical debate.

Featured artists Karl Stojka and his sister Ceija Stojka were themselves victims of the Nazis.

Karl first began breaking the silence he felt surrounded Nazi atrocities against Roma and Sinti through his painting in the 1980s. Ceija also deals with her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen in her drawings and paintings.

Le Bas - whose "Witch Hunt" series shows haunting, but vibrant dolls dressed in brightly colored clothing, and wearing masks to distort their faces - agrees that the experiences of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust are not well known.

"The works here are very important because they will force people to recognize what happened," Le Bas told Deutsche Welle. "I was interested in the witch hunts and did lots of research. There was this idea of people, who were seen as different, being used as scapegoats and the pieces evolved from that."

No place is home

In post-war Europe, discrimination against Roma and Sinti continues.

Le Bas is the eldest of five children and was the only one of her siblings to go to secondary school in Britain. She says her family was often subject to discrimination and their home was once targeted by vandals, who spray-painted it.

"My mother was particularly upset," said Le Bas. "Stereotypes are so ingrained. But I work in the visual arts because I hope it's a way to get people to see Roma and Sinti in a different light."

Like Le Bas, Daniel Baker is a Roma artist based in Britain.

"There is definitely still persecution happening in Europe, particularly in Italy and France," Baker told Deutsche Welle. "The treatment of Roma by some governments goes relatively unchallenged. They don't seem to be able to see that what happened in 1939 is happening still."

Baker says this is partly because there is no real place of origin for Roma and Sinti.

"I think it's a very threatening position," he said. "Nation states seem to think Roma and Sinti have no legitimacy and they are treated as if they don't fit in and don't belong. It is an excuse."

Baker's work features reversed writing painted on glass, with silver or gold leave gilded onto the surface to create a mirrored background.

He says he uses the idea of reflection to challenge perceptions about Roma - to turn perceptions around.

"Lots of my work uses natural reflection because the mirrors symbolize the gypsy experience," said Baker. "It is a real but also imagined space."

The exhibition runs until December 11.

Author: Louise Osborne, Berlin
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany


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