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ROMA MOBILE GALLERY TRAVELS COUNTRY TO REVIVE MINORITY'S ART TRADITIONS

A new road opens to Roma art

THEATRE in the 18th century had a nomadic character. Actors travelled across a country in order to bring their performances to their audiences. Later, when theatre achieved deeper cultural recognition as a new form of art, they settled down. Now it is more or less the case that audiences travels to see a play.
The Roma mobile gallery, a collection of artwork by one of Slovakia's largest minorities, is thus something of an anachronism. The fact that Roma themselves have traditionally lived a nomadic life has nothing to do with the fact the gallery constantly moves from one place to another. Instead, it's lack of money that drives the caravan on - as well as the desire of the organisers to bring unknown Roma artists into the spotlight and revive the minority's traditional motifs.


ROMA History, oil on canvas, is a collective work
photo: Courtesy of Jekhetame

THEATRE in the 18th century had a nomadic character. Actors travelled across a country in order to bring their performances to their audiences. Later, when theatre achieved deeper cultural recognition as a new form of art, they settled down. Now it is more or less the case that audiences travels to see a play.

The Roma mobile gallery, a collection of artwork by one of Slovakia's largest minorities, is thus something of an anachronism. The fact that Roma themselves have traditionally lived a nomadic life has nothing to do with the fact the gallery constantly moves from one place to another. Instead, it's lack of money that drives the caravan on - as well as the desire of the organisers to bring unknown Roma artists into the spotlight and revive the minority's traditional motifs.

"We really wish one day to settle down," says Daniela Hivešová-Šilanová, the head of the Jekhetane (Together) civic association that is behind the project. "After more than a year of travelling across the country we have awoken many Roma artists who stopped creating new works after the 1989 revolution. We've collected dozens of works of art, but we lack the money to find the gallery a stable home."

The gallery consists of a 200-piece collection of drawings, oil paintings, graphic works and curved sculptures, created by 18 amateur Roma artists. A lack of storage space forces the organisers to plan its itinerary carefully. The gallery's ninth exhibition, Čitranas Perdal o Kamiben (We Paint for Love), is now running (literally) around the eastern Slovak town Bardejov until March 21.

"Roma fine art almost died out after 1989," says Hivešová-Šilanová. "We want to revive these traditions and introduce Roma as artists as well, since people know them mostly as musicians and dancers. We want to explode the stereotype that all Roma are layabouts."

Július Lakatoš, 63, is the oldest artist at the gallery. Throughout his life he has tried to bring to canvas the settlement he grew up in but which no longer exists. He learned to paint from books. One of his best works is called Fascism, and tells the story of Roma facing execution. The canvas is dominated by a hill in the shape of a fascist helmet, covered with the crosses of graves; in the foreground, soldiers are thrusting Roma into a deep hole.


IVAN Bery-Dušiík's Violin Virtuoso
photo: Courtesy of Jekhetame

Another of the exhibitors, 19-year-old Ildikó Pálová, is considered a young talent. Enrolled in an art programme at Košice's Technical University, Pálová has a knack for looking into peoples' souls and capturing the feelings hidden behind facial expressions.

Over the past decade journalists from the Roma-language paper Romano ľil Nevo (New Roma Letter), an activity under the Jekhetane umbrella, travelled around Slovakia and discovered many Roma artists. It had become an ordinary thing in Roma settlements to see a horse or a rose painted on a white wall. However, because the Roma lived so far below the standards of the rest of the population, they gradually lost enthusiasm for their art.

"During communism, many Roma participated with non-Roma in activities involving amateur artists. But after 1989 the cultural centres changed the way they worked and the artists stopped producing," says Hivešová-Šilanová.

"We told ourselves we had to do something about it."

In January 2001 the organisation bought paint brushes, canvases and sculpting tools. They organised a workshop led by professional painters and sculptors, in which nine Roma participated. Those works became the foundation of the gallery's offering, and were later augmented by art the Roma dug out of their closets and repaired.

During the summer 2001 workshop the number of participants grew to 18, as the gallery continued to address local artists on its country-wide tour.


VOJTECH Kokény's Transformation of a Skinhead
photo: Courtesy of Jekhetame

"The project is constantly growing as we travel around. And now it's them who come out to seek us," she says.

According to sociologist Iveta Radičová, such cultural activities play a very significant role in society. They are important for removing stereotypes and helping Slovak citizens understand cultural differences.

"The biggest fears our society has arise from the unknown. Every step towards deeper understanding, particularly of each other, helps ease this fear. These activities are absolutely crucial," Radičová says.

After Bardejov, the gallery will move to Bratislava, arriving on April 8, International Day of the Roma. The Bratislava show will feature the work of 33 artists. But while Jekhetane first thought the capital would be the appropriate place to wrap up the project, the group is not so sure now.

"I have to ask myself where it's all heading," says Hivešová-Šilanová. "We initially thought the April 8 exhibition would be the end of the gallery. Even though foreign embassies expressed an interest in inviting the gallery to visit their countries, they had second thoughts after they found out how much it would cost.

"But since then we decided to continue with the Slovak tour. We'll let you know our next stop when we figure it out ourselves."


ROMA artists with their lecturers
photo: Courtesy of Jekhetame

What: Čitranas Perdal O Kamiben (We Paint for Love) - Roma mobile gallery's 9th exhibition.
Where: Výstavná sieň Kultúrneho centra (Culture Centre Exhibition Hall), Radničné námestie 21, Bardejov.
When: until March 21,
Open: Mon-Fri 7:30-17:00, Sat-Sun 9:00-17:00.
Admission: free.
Tel: 054/4723-013.

The gallery will then move to Bratislava, opening an exhibition on April 8.

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