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BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by Deutscher Kunstverlag (DKV) March 9, 2023

The Complicated Position of Ethnic Roma in Art and Culture Today

  • Jasmina Tumbas

    JASMINA TUMBAS (PhD, Art History, Duke University) is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History & Performance Studies in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of “I Am Jugoslovenka!” Feminist Performance Politics during & after Yugoslav Socialism (MUP, 2022) and her research has appeared in ArtMargins, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, Art Monthly, Art in America, and ASAP Journal.

Crowning the March 2021 cover of ELLE magazine (Serbia), performance artist Selma Selman flaunted a confident gaze to fashion and art lovers alike, bathing in a signature “feminist” pink background wearing a lacy black dress, with her arms raised and one hand holding long-stemmed pink anthurium flowers (fig. 1). Labeled “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World” on the magazine’s cover,[1] Selma Selman’s name loomed large in white letters, signaling that the magazine was not showcasing an unnamed fashion model, but an attractive and charismatic star. Next to her were added the lines “Stories of Sisterhood and Solidarity.”[2] In a social media post on February 21, 2021 announcing her cover, the artist noted: “As a child of the ghetto – an ugly, poor nobody – I could barely stay afloat in my small town. Now, as a grown woman, I fly over the oceans of the world. And I am still me.”[3]

Fast forward a year later, as I am writing this essay, and Selman’s work is featured at popular contemporary exhibitions like Manifesta 14 in Prishtina, Kosovo and documenta 15, in Kassel, Germany, and she made the cover of another fashion magazine, the October 2022 Serbian issue of Harper’s Bazaar. This time, Selman is wearing a black cowboy hat paired with dark red, armlength leather gloves. The cover headline declares: “A New Era of Optimism,”[4] implicitly celebrating the ascension of this young performance artist of ethnic Romani descent, who, against all odds, has reached the ranks of the beautiful and famous. Inside the magazine’s pages, we find more photographs of the artist, and an interview that emphasizes her ascent: “How the young artist Selma Selman literally turned the heritage and the past of her people [implied: ethnic Roma] into gold and platinum.”[5]

Beauty emerges as a complicated political feminist statement for Selman, whose body is marked as being tied to “her people,” on behalf of whom she is thought to be transcending racially charged poverty with her personhood and art. To frame her in this way summons difficult discussions about racial politics in Europe. Romani activist and scholar Ioanida Costache has described “the Romani status as a negative referent for European whiteness,” stressing that ethnic Roma and their histories of discrimination “remain unincorporated into global discussions of coloniality and white supremacy,” and arguing that “the academy and wider society should recognize the Roma as central figures in present day reckonings about past racial injustice.”[6] Indeed, while racial justice movements have recently made significant strides towards critiquing whiteness in culture and art, especially in the United States, such social and political changes have not emerged in Europe with regard to ethnic Roma, despite the increased violence against this ethnic group in the post-socialist era.[7] As such, Selman’s prominence on the covers of fashion magazines calls for an art historical consideration of how intersectional feminist approaches collide with the politics of non-white visibility of ethnic Roma within contemporary art and culture.

Selma Selman on the cover of ELLE, Spring 2021

Selma Selman on the cover of ELLE, Spring 2021

While feminist and queer women of color have been the leading forces behind the Black Lives Matter and Decolonize This Place movements in the US, among many others, which have changed how museums and educators display and discuss art by non-white artists and collectives, many feminists of Roma origins have to contend with demands to erase their racial identities. Here, I am thinking of the experience scholar and activist Ethel Brooks described in her encounter with a feminist at a conference, who told Brooks: “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.”[8] The xenophobic entitlement underlying this request – presuming a monolithic and narrow definition of “Roma identity” while also laying claim over who gets to belong to, or shape the future of feminism – insinuates that for feminists attached to the right types of progressive cultures, emancipation does not require surrendering their cultural, national, or ethnic identities (such as whiteness). But the hostility towards Brooks also reveals additional sacrifices women of color are forced to consider, if they assimilate: “If I join the side of the feminists, denying my connection to the Romani community, would that, in the end, save my Romani sisters?”[9]

Positing herself as “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World” who is committed to sisterhood and solidarity, as declared on ELLE’s cover, Selman seems not to choose sides; she embraces her emancipation while also strategically playing with her role as a menacing outsider, in body-centered works that posit her as a feared yet desired object of exoticization and fascination. For her performance Platinum at the National Gallery of Sarajevo (2021), Selman worked with family members to mechanically remove dirty catalytic converters from discarded scrap metal of cars, and with the help of experts, chemically extracted their platinum, and created a tiny platinum ax.[10] The physical strength and ingenuity such an artwork requires harkens back to her family’s livelihood of extracting valuable metals from discarded commodities, labor typically ascribed to ethnic Roma. Defying the worn-out clichés of Carmen as femme fatale in the media, the artist’s performances often culminate in spectacular images of an attractive, young, long-haired feminist swinging large axes at turned-over washing machines and other household appliances in public squares; not an angry feminist letting off steam, but a working woman providing for her family (fig. 2).

Selman was an unlikely candidate for this breakthrough into celebrity culture, being part of a deeply detested minority that is discriminated against in Europe and whose members rarely, if ever, have graced the covers of exclusive fashion magazines while participating in elite art biennials. Instead, in the history of visual art and culture, what we have typically seen is non-Roma exploit Romani traditions in the name of modern art, advertisements, fashion, and contemporary film. However, when I recently spoke at an academic feminist conference about Selman’s image on the ELLE cover, touting it as an important moment for thinking through the thorny intersections between beauty, feminism, racial justice, and practices of resistance, Selman’s feminism was also met with hostility: during the Q&A after my talk, a feminist scholar and activist expressed her indignation, adding that she would like to “burn” the ELLE cover image of Selman. She did not elaborate, but the implication was that there could be nothing feminist about Selman’s “selling out” to a magazine that celebrates the commodification of women’s beauty. While this line of critique has its crucial place in feminist discourses aimed at exposing misogyny in culture and art, it ignores an important geopolitical aspect of Selman’s breakthrough: as an ethnic minority from Bosnia and Herzegovina, she is now celebrated in Serbia, where, as elsewhere in the marginalized regions of former Yugoslavia (and Europe), horrid conditions of discrimination for ethnic Roma remain the status quo, as do stereotypes of criminality and humiliating poverty. Thus, Selman forces readers to face an ethnic Romani woman defying those confines as an up and coming, transnational figure in the arts who seeks to foster feminist solidarity in the region and beyond. But as with Brooks a decade prior, Selman’s feminism is seen as somehow tainted, as not belonging, or even worse, as adversary to feminism’s goals for emancipation. Fame and beauty, however, are exactly what have forced this reckoning with new directions in feminist liberation.

2 Selma Selman, video documentation of Self-Portrait Performance, 2016, Rijeka, Croatia

Selma Selman, video documentation of Self-Portrait Performance, 2016, Rijeka, Croatia

Mainstream feminism has been accused of selling out to commercial culture, especially recently, but the implications vary and are complicated by questions of race. One must only think of Susan Faludi’s New York Times essay from June 2022, “Feminism Made a Faustian Bargain With Celebrity Culture. Now It’s Paying the Price,” where the author delivered a scathing and persuasive analysis of just how counterproductive celebrity or pop feminism has been in advancing women’s rights in the last decade.[11] Faludi thinks through numerous examples of feminist politics entering elite popular and celebrity culture, such as Beyoncé’s branding of herself as feminist at the 2014 MTV Awards or the #MeToo movement, to argue that the “viral solidarity” that was to “hasten change” did bring about change, but not the far-reaching feminist transformation we hoped for; what’s worse, right-wing conservative movements against women’s autonomy were quietly gaining power and political traction while celebrity feminism, or as Faludi diagnoses – “celebrity-besotted and self-absorbed times” – has distracted the left from doing the work needed on the ground.[12]

3 Marika Schmiedt, Thoughts Are Free, exhibition installation photograph, Linz, Austria, 2013

Marika Schmiedt, Thoughts Are Free, exhibition installation photograph, Linz, Austria, 2013

To be sure, one might read Harper’s Bazaar’s “new optimism” as epitomizing Lauren Berlant’s cautioning exegesis of what she termed “cruel optimism,” the seductive promise of “the good life,” which is always out of reach and which actually impedes happiness and fulfillment.[13] In this regard, the magazine’s catchy if bizarre note that Selman is “turning her heritage into gold and platinum,” inadvertently yields a racialized rhetoric leveled at Selman’s relative commercial success: while Harper’s Bazaar is alluding to her work of collecting and transforming metal scraps with her family for her performance Platinum, the statement undercuts her success as an artist by echoing a common racist prejudice held against non-white individuals, namely that their achievements are only possible because they are willing to spin anything – including their own families and the hardships of “their people” – into gold. This disparaging line of thinking easily lends itself to dismissing the political stakes of her socially engaged art as a feminist and woman of color.

Those who engage in feminist, political, and activist art repeatedly have to face the burden of cruel optimism, and of being doubted, when tasked with facilitating change, raising awareness, and opening up dialogues about some of the most pressing political issues of our times, such as widespread economic inequalities exacerbated by racial and gender injustices. Here, it is useful to apply Faludi’s stands on feminism to socially engaged art: “Celebrity feminism is based on the idea that a celebrity can instigate change by representing a cause …. Virtue becomes a vanity. No longer are you doing something; you’re being something.”[14] In the case of non-white artists whose ethnic or racial backgrounds often become the focal point of analysis and expectations, especially when institutions try to “diversify” their exhibitions, collections, or employees, this conflation between “representing” and “being” something is all too familiar. For this reason, artists like Marika Schmiedt often emphasize that they are artists first, and not “Roma artists,” avoiding being “branded” and used as a homogenizing representative of an entire ethnic group.[15] But when artists make it too big, they are habitually charged with vanity and exploiting their racial otherness for profit, or with offending well-intentioned democracies by highlighting structural inequalities and racism.

Fame then easily turns into infamy, as in the case of Schmiedt, whose April 2013 exhibition in Linz, Austria – Thoughts Are Free – exposed and critiqued the appallingly racist and extreme right-wing rhetoric circulating in Europe at the time, especially in Hungary under the leadership of Viktor Orbán (fig. 3). Her work included provocative images of Orbán’s face paired with a “Gypsy cooked Salami” and of neo-Nazis marching in Hungary proclaiming: “We attacked the Gypsies and we are proud of it.”[16] Further, she exposed shocking instances of contemporary politicians degrading ethnic Roma, as when a mayor in a Slovak town publicly called on them to “eat” stray dogs.[17] Mounted in the public for everyone to see in the city center, her works were destroyed within two days by local police without informing her. A Hungarian tour guide, who had physically attacked Schmiedt at the opening, promptly reported the artist to the police with the absurd claim that Schmiedt’s work was racist, and with the added charge that she was defaming the Hungarian nation and its people.[18] This destruction of Schmiedt’s art was particularly egregious when considering that her work was well-known and had – at that point – thematized the violence ethnic Roma experienced during and since World War II in Europe for more than a decade, especially by shedding light on the devastating history of her grandmother being murdered during the Holocaust and her mother’s harsh journey through the Austrian system thereafter.[19]

In the place of glamour and concomitant vanity à la Faludi, the circulation of the artist’s name and face in the media resulted in increased threats and harassment.[20] But Schmiedt is not a hashtag artist; she is a fervent researcher and provocateur who makes people uncomfortable. Few want to be in proximity of such shocking work, let alone repost it on social media, as Schmiedt’s art does not shy away from showing racialized violence, swastikas, and other disturbing images and facts in her work. The cover image for her catalogue, Thoughts Are Free, is a perfect example: not a glamourous fashion shoot, but a simple self-portrait, taken at home on her own device, with a Hitler mustache drawn on her upper lip (fig. 4). Sardonically titled Roma Integration, Schmiedt posits that integration for ethnic Roma requires and demands conformism to fascist principles in purportedly democratic societies like Austria and Hungary. It is no surprise then that government officials have urged for more censorship of her work, such as the (failed) request by the Hungarian ambassador to Austria, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, to cancel the same exhibition, Thoughts Are Free, planned at Linz City Hall in October of the same year, because he deemed it “racist” and “anti-Hungarian.”[21]

If feminists are to burn the image of Selman, and nationalists and the police destroy the art of Schmiedt, what does that tell us about the precarious position of contemporary artists who are ethnic Roma and invested in socially engaged art? What other cases of upward mobility are “too much” for potential allies? What kinds of critiques of the status quo are too offensive? Not offensive enough? On what grounds do we judge whether or not a work of art perpetuates or upends political injustice? How does one measure what effect the circulation of Selman’s image – say, for example, in the Roma communities of Bihać or other parts of the region – has, where young girls, perhaps for the first time, see a powerful woman on a magazine cover, who looks like them? How do we measure whether Schmiedt’s forceful critiques of fascist histories and conditions in Europe have incited change? What other “issues” are artists like Schmiedt and Selman accused of having “failed” to address? My point is that artists have every right to betray or go against expectations of feminists, curators, nationalists, ambassadors, the police, and whoever else is watching. But to be identified as a socially engaged artist with ethnic Roma origins is to live with the added pressure to speak to, and solve, social and political problems in ways that Roma and non-Roma alike, even if allies, project on such individuals.

4 Marika Schmiedt, Roma Integration, photograph, Vienna, Austria, 2012

Marika Schmiedt, Roma Integration, photograph, Vienna, Austria, 2012

Given the inescapable probability of misunderstanding, misrepresenting, wronging, and ultimately, exploiting artists with complex backgrounds and histories of erasure and oppression, leaders in the cultural spheres that center ethnic Roma insist on being included, and treated as agents, when narratives about, and plans for, ethnic Roma are proposed and produced. In 2014, the European Roma Rights Centre held a conference in Budapest, which took a pointed political stance: Nothing about Us without Us? Roma Participation in Policy Making and Knowledge Production.[22] While some of us writing from ivory towers might contemplate the futility of optimism today, those individuals and collectives who do the work of pioneering change on the ground rely on hope to continue the fight. “[D]espite the setbacks and disappointments of the past, a new sense of idealism and optimism may be emerging,” organizers of Nothing about Us without Us? noted, adding: “This is an invaluable resource, for without a ‘pedagogy of hope’ the Romani Movement would stagnate.”[23]

A transformative sense of agency, hope, and resistance is especially apparent in a new generation of artists and creators who share the background of being ethnic Roma, such as the sisters Sandra and Simonida Selimović. Originally from former Yugoslavia, their family left Serbia in the late 1980s to work as “Gastarbeiters” (guest workers) in Austria, a few years before the wars began.[24] Together, the sisters founded Romano Svato in 2010, the first feminist and professional Roma theater association in Vienna. They are also known for writing and acting in Roma Armee, put on by the Israeli director Yael Ronen, which became a hit at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin in 2017.[25] On a stage that abounds with dynamic artworks by Damian Le Bas and Delaine Le Bas – two eminent artists whose work had a decade prior been featured in Tímea Junghaus’s 2007 Paradise Lost: The First Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennial – Roma Armee confronts the continued racism ethnic Roma face in Europe through the varied experiences of its cast members, who, with the exception of two, identify as Roma. Offering a gender non-conforming, queer, enchantingly free-spirited, and fiercely feminist ethos, Roma Armee has mesmerized audience members and critics alike.

5 Roma Armee, 2017, Promotional photograph featuring Sandra Selimović

Roma Armee, 2017, Promotional photograph featuring Sandra Selimović

6 Tamara Moyzes, TV T_ERROR, 2007, video installation, film still

Tamara Moyzes, TV T_ERROR, 2007, video installation, film still

Splendor, fashion, and humor reign supreme in Roma Armee, beckoning the alluring atmospheres of Berlin cabarets and drag shows, which will dazzle even the most unnerved viewer at one point or another. The Maxim Gorki Theater’s promotional image for Roma Armee features a highly polished and stunning photograph of Sandra Selimović (fig. 5), which echoes the fashion magazine styles discussed above. Identifying herself as “Roma, queer, and lesbian” in the play, Selimović displays shame for none of it, and neither do her fellow cast mates, all of whom share recollections of childhood and adolescent poverty, as well as being bullied and debased by others. But the image of Selimović conveys the strength, not the agony, of surviving those battles. Parading her flawless face, along with her trimmed body – accentuated by a see-through, military camouflage patterned shirt and golden shorts – Selimović is holding a semi-automatic pistol in one hand and in the other, an ammunition belt that wraps around her neck and down her torso touching her bare, upper thigh. A background of ferns and other plants on a metal fence completes the military chic style, replete with alluring fantasies of queer and feminist revenge from another unlikely candidate for such authority: an ethnic Roma who identifies as “macho,” “gender-liquid,” queer, and a lesbian, intimately familiar with what it means to be a poverty-stricken immigrant from Ex-Yugoslavia coming of age in the unwelcoming West in the 1990s.

As someone who ticks the latter three boxes myself, what is not to adore in this image of resistance and ascension? What could have come off as a didactic, Russian doll-like stacking of marginalized identities in Roma Armee instead allures the audience with an exuberant, biting, seductively queer performative energy that manages to present, honor, and complicate the backgrounds of each cast member. Language alone cannot manifest solidarities, truth, and optimism. The living breathing bodies of Roma Armee make patently clear that the non-white and poor people of the global majority are rising up and demanding fair treatment. And while ethnic Roma are often stigmatized as criminals, the idea that their young generations might build an unsanctioned army against majoritarian, straight, white, patriarchal culture – the central focus of Roma Armee – is unthinkable for most.

Why is resistance by ethnic Roma so inconceivable? What prejudices inform this perceived lack of threat to the status quo? Some ten years before Roma Armee’s triumph at the Maxim Gorki Theater, Tamara Moyzes’s video installation, TV T_ERROR (2007), honed in on these questions in a manner antithetical to the joyous yet fierce visual bravado of Roma Armee.[26] Decidedly unglamorous and without triumphant catharsis, TV T_ERROR introduced fictional narratives of ethnic Roma as suicide bombers taking revenge on Czech society for longstanding discrimination and tyranny, including three videos of different protagonists building bombs. Daringly mimicking Palestinian methods of building bombs in the name of art, Moyzes drew on her experiences of living in Israel during the Second Intifada and her work with the anti-occupation, LGBTQ organization Black Laundry in Israel, which included both Israelis and Palestinians.[27] The related struggles of Roma and Palestinians are not something that Roma Armee addresses, but in TV T_ERROR, this provocative conflation of both is front and center. In one of the videos, we see artist Věra Duždová, with whom Moyzes collaborated for this piece, seated before a huge Roma flag with two printouts of assault rifles and paper flowers awkwardly attached to it (fig. 6). Bathed in red color from head to toe, wearing a red dress and red paint on her face, she has fake bombs attached to her chest and reads a letter detailing stories of humiliation and violence. The aesthetics of the scene convey the “amateur” style associated with this frightening genre’s low budget home-made décor and video equipment; another example of an artwork – like Schmiedt’s Roma Integration mentioned above – that many curators, especially those working in Western Europe, would rather avoid showcasing.[28]

Although TV T_ERROR circulated in the media at the time, neither the Czech public nor the authorities were too concerned.[29] Other parts of the installation clue us in to why there is so little fear of ethnic Roma seeking revenge and/or justice. For example, Romani activist and scholar David Tišer acts as a TV reporter and interviews people on the streets of Prague about their attitudes regarding the discrimination of Roma. During each conversation, Tišer asks if they think Roma would be capable of becoming suicide bombers. “No,” or “I don’t know,” were the pervasive answers, while some also made sure to add that they think ethnic Roma are “too lazy” to do anything drastic like this. At one point, Tišer comes across a skinhead who openly talks about his hatred for Roma (he derogatorily calls them “gypsies”) and remarks that he would like nothing more than to kill them “on sight” if the law didn’t prohibit it. Tišer, himself ethnic Roma, remains astonishingly calm and digs deeper. In an unexpected turn, for the interviewer and us viewers, the skinhead discusses how he hates Nazis just as much as Roma and that he doesn’t support Hitler or the extermination of Jews, only that of ethnic Roma. And he remains a free man, walking the streets of Prague, who arrogantly adds that if he lived in Brno, he would be killing Roma for a living. As such, TV T_ERROR reminds us, time and again, that it is ethnic Roma who are terrorized by the general population, and in danger, even though they themselves are not perceived as a threat.

7 Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Re-enchanting the World, exhibition view, Polish Pavilion at the Biennale Arte, Venice, 2022

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Re-enchanting the World, exhibition view, Polish Pavilion at the Biennale Arte, Venice, 2022

The refusal to adhere to what Sandra Selimović diagnosed as the “white man’s” way of life in Roma Armee remains a thorn in the feeble flesh of contemporary nations. And yet, the art of ethnic Roma has always also served as inspiration and a source of ingenuity for those in search of alternatives. The highly venerated, exquisite large-scale cloth paintings by Romani-Polish artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, exhibited at the Polish Pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennial, astonished with their monumentality and invigorating appropriation of the Renaissance era frescoes found in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, especially its Hall of Months. Framed as “Re-enchanting the World,” after Silvia Federici’s work,[30] Mirga-Tas’s work highlighted the feminist strength and reproductive labour of community building within her own life and was presented as a “manifesto on Roma identity and art” and a “temporary and chance asylum, offering the viewers hope and respite.”[31] Images of distinguished figures in the arts who share ethnic Roma origins, such as Tímea Junghaus and Ethel Brooks, as well as Esma Redžepova and Ceija Stojka, were paired with striking scenes of migration and everyday life in Roma communities (fig. 7). While we must remember how easily some of us can fall prey to primitivist impulses to absorb the phantasmagoria of nomadism and nonconformity we glean from “the other,” Mirga-Tas’s work invites viewers to find refuge and guidance in a different vision of life that celebrates the lives of women of color and their communities, who have resisted the “white man’s” way of life for centuries. In the face of persistent and cruel segregation and hostility, artists who center ethnic Roma complicate and expand what it might mean to make socially engaged art, with the added – and ceaseless – expectation to repair our divided worlds.

About the author

Jasmina Tumbas

JASMINA TUMBAS (PhD, Art History, Duke University) is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History & Performance Studies in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of “I Am Jugoslovenka!” Feminist Performance Politics during & after Yugoslav Socialism (MUP, 2022) and her research has appeared in ArtMargins, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, Art Monthly, Art in America, and ASAP Journal.

  1. Photo Credits: 1 Courtesy of ELLE Serbia (photo: © Vedrana Vukojević). — 2 © Selma Selman (photo: Tanja Kanazir). — 3, 4 © Marika Schmiedt (photo: Marika Schmiedt). — 5 Courtesy of Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin (photo: © Esra Rotthoff). — 6 © Tamara Moyzes. — 7 Courtesy of Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw (photo: © Daniel Rumiancew).

Published Online: 2023-03-09
Published in Print: 2023-03-28

© 2023 Jasmina Tumbas, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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