Norbert Oláh
The Anxieties of the ‘Roma Artist’, 2021

It is not possible to speak of Roma art in my view – at least in no way can it be used as a technical term. Nonetheless the concept of course has a meaning even if it has no sharp boundaries and creates misunderstandings in certain cases. On the most straightforward level, we can say that Roma art – more precisely Roma fine art – covers fine arts activities carried out by Roma people. It is important to differentiate between fine arts and folk art  – although they might overlap.  Folk art traditionally is more about the repetition of content and form elements created and accepted by the community and less about individual creativity and motivation.

Does the above mean that the Roma artist is someone of Roma origin practicing fine arts? Or is it more precise to say that the Roma artist is an individual with an artistic and a Roma identity at the same time? Or is the Roma artist an artist of Roma origin focusing on Roma related themes? Or are they a person who can be recognized by using rather loosely defined formal frames like color pallet and certain motifs along with a romanticism, mysticism and passion? Can Roma artists be identified based on certain ethnographic characteristics to be found in their works?

Moreover, when talking about Roma artists we cannot limit our attention to Hungary – not even to Europe – which makes the definition of the concept a lot more complicated. Focusing narrowly on Hungary, we will immediately find the phrase ‘Roma art’ in association with the so-called Roma Movement – a cultural, civil rights and emancipation movement started in the seventies – that some people hope still exists today. Central figures of this movement have been Károly Bari, József Choli Daróczi, Ágnes Daróczi, Aladár Horváth, Menyhért Lakatos, Tamás Péli, Jenő Zsigó and many others. Some are still active today. They called for, or rather claimed, a voice and space in culture and politics. It was in the context of this movement, where underrepresented and oppressed people are fighting for attention and not to be treated as a minority only but rather as a people, that the phrase ‘Roma art’ – saturated with faith, hope and passion – entered the public discourse with enormous strength. The pure ownership of origin bears astonishing force. The concept lives and gets stronger through projects like the Roma Parliament, Romaveritas, Kugler Art Salon, Romano Kher, Amaro Drom or Cigányfúró and many others. Numerous schools and study halls have been established by famously committed individuals, who aimed at the development of young Roma people’s knowledge. Poetry books, novels, feature films came to life and became cultic since. The concepts of Roma art, Roma painting, Roma artist are constantly present in exhibitions, catalogues, artistic and curatorial statements.

The anomalies of the concept soon became apparent though, and great figures of the movement formulated their critiques of its usage right from the beginning.  Károly Bari, the poet and graphic artist said, “origin is not an aesthetic issue”  – and one hears anecdotes that he very much abstains from exhibitions where the selection of artists was contradictory to this belief. József Choli Daróczi was of the opinion that “it is equally well founded to talk about Roma art and Dutch painting”. Painter Tamás Péli said in Stations – a portrait film about him: “for me to be acknowledged as a Roma artist one should acknowledge Roma bricklayers too…and I would very much like to be a Hungarian artist. The time will come”. Talking about his own painting he declares: “my painting is political basically due to my origin, my assumed origin.”

Besides the forthright engagement of the activist, there appears the feeling and fear of being pigeonholed – the question of how the artist would enter the canon. Is an artist of Roma origin important only if a Roma artist is needed or every time a Hungarian artist is needed? Are they sought after when a non-Roma related topic needs to be reflected upon too? This question manifests a right and understandable desire and semantically carries an interpretation that ‘Hungarian art’, ‘Hungarian artist’, ‘Hungarian culture’ represents a higher ranking in the canon than ‘Roma art’. At the same time however, an autonomous Roma artist with a healthy ego, with self-respect, tries to avoid all kinds of compliance constraint – like the ambition to become a good enough Hungarian artist. This frustration can be further enhanced with a hypothetical assumption: what if the Roma artist whose artistic power is comparable to that of the greatest Hungarian artists has not been born yet or has not started their artistic career? Naturally, even if this assumption is true (and I am not arguing for or against), it does not mean that Roma art is less prestigious. Considering other areas – like music, be it Roma or Hungarian folk music, Hungarian jazz – you find Roma artists in significant numbers, stemming from musical traditions.  We might consider Edward Munch as an example, before whom there was no Norwegian artist of the same standing represented on the European or the world map.  On the same basis, we could also compare the value of the Hungarian art and culture with those of Western Europe. In 2019, the Tate Modern in London organized an exhibition of Dóra Maurer works. This was the first time a Hungarian had a solo exhibition there – which everybody is very proud of – but we still cannot talk about super-famous Hungarian artists yet.

What is then the solution to the questions raised above? Is the ‘Roma artist’ label acceptable? One possible answer – though very distasteful – is total denial, or less severely, ignoring the question completely. Those whose origin is not visible in external marks like skin color, who lack a strong Roma identity, who were not socialized with any kind of cultural attachment, or who are capable of overcoming resentments and assimilate to deny their origins– have the possibility of full denial. Those who do not want to deny or cannot do so because of ethnic characteristics might try to ignore the issue. This means withdrawal from all exhibitions, interviews, public appearances that have anything to do with the concept of Roma art. Although this, too, is a paradoxical situation: such strong and determined rejection seems to direct strong and irrevocable attention to the subject itself. The artist’s major problems with the ‘Roma artist’ label might be the result of not having Roma artist role models, not being moved by the works of these artists. Understandably, they do not want to be on a common platform with individuals whose perception is fundamentally different to their own and therefore not truly acceptable to them. Ignorance is in any case an adequate tool to avoid the label, and it can even be useful if the artist can determinedly fight for their work to be the only thing considered. Nonetheless, since the artist is not omnipotent, they regularly end up in situations where they have to keep explaining or withdrawing. Questions related to the artist’s origins are regularly the first, compulsory themes in interview situations. Even good journalists assume that their subject is a naïve artist, while others – socially sensitive members of the intelligentsia – will turn the  conversation to other Roma artists unprompted. Or they may ask straight out whether the artist considers István Szentandrássy or Tamás Péli as an influence. To avoid the ‘Roma art’ pigeonhole takes a huge amount of attention and energy – unfortunately often at the expense of creative work. Access to publicity, exhibition opportunities, and eventually also to potential earnings is not a negligible problem either. Getting trapped within the walls of a cultural ghetto is a real danger for a committed programmatic Roma artist. Should this happen, the artist might have an audience, but most probably will not become part of the mainstream contemporary art scene. Their audience might consist of amateurs – intellectuals with explicit social sensitivity – who acknowledge and value the artist’s work. But one suspects that their attention was caught first by the artist’s social situation and not by the real artistic merit.  This artist will achieve results and acknowledgement almost exclusively in this rather limited space. Worst case scenario is that the artist, as a ‘Roma artist’, becomes a political pawn. In turn, considered ignorant, they will be left out of those valuable situations where there might be a chance to raise meaningful questions with the aim of broadening discussions and strengthening critical voices. For example: if an artist does not deal –even tangentially – with problems of Roma art, does not touch any Roma-related socio-cultural or political issues, should they accept an invitation to a prestigious art event where they are required to speak about these topics? Such a dilemma hurts the artist’s ego, since they feel that their Roma origin is stronger than their works and accomplishments – although the latter make the artist and are the reason for the invitation. The artist might often feel that ‘studious Whites’ use them to illustrate and legitimize their studies. At the same time, they might see a chance that by not being so stubborn, they could make a contribution that would justify that stubborn distancing.

Besides issues of art and artistic existence there is a tormenting feeling from inside: taking social or political responsibility. Does an artist have duties? Where to situate themselves in this incomprehensible world? Should they be an activist? Politician? Fighter, hero of their people? Who to trust? Who to ally with? Were they not betrayed a thousand times by power-hungry White people fighting for power? Should they trust their own people? Are all the great elders spotless?  Listen to the call and immerse themselves in dirty games? Infect their art and daily thoughts with abstract speculation? And if they do want to act, do they feel the weight of it? Or should they run frightened back to their comfortable studios? Do Roma or Hungarian people, or people in general deserve any sacrifice on their part? Should they deserve it, does sacrifice make any sense? Would it not be wiser to observe silently how the world changes?

What should the artist do to avoid labels, prejudices, cultural segregation, and yet not deny the issue? What to do to be part of really valuable discussions? What to do if the possibility of cultural assimilation is unacceptable or unethical? All these contradictory thoughts and feelings create awful anxieties with all creative individuals with the least critical sensibility.

Although I talked about the artist in the third person, I have to admit that most of the time I was talking about myself and my dilemmas in the last ten years, since I was admitted to the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, to the Department of Painting. Ten years of self-contradictory agony has led me to these thoughts – as for solutions, I still have none.