Bohemia Revisited

In a time when an increasing percentage of European feel alienated from their governments and at the mercy of economic forces, the Roma are no longer the only marginalized group. Crisis can become the spawning point for new inclusivity.

The Roma have long been the scapegoat of choice for the governments of Europe. We have also become the last ethnic group for whom state legislated racism is acceptable and indeed actively encouraged. These dubious honors are the products of a political landscape where the violent eviction and forced repatriation of Roma have become regular occurrences which pass unchallenged within a Europe whose heads of state simply look the other way. History shows that feelings towards Roma have changed little over the centuries. Such is the legacy of a thousand years of thwarted Gorgio (non-Roma) fascination.

The ambivalent nature of Roma/Gorgio relations is built upon the simultaneous disdain and curiosity which underpins the Gorgio’s complex and unfulfilled desire to know the Roma. In the absence of knowing, a fantasy of the Roma is generated and as with any fantasy, extreme possibilities are imagined. Conflict occurs when imagination is conceived as reality; hence the spectre of the Roma menace that continues to haunt Europe.

This spectral aspect of the imagined Roma is fueled by popular representation where excessive visual markers of separateness are reinforced through broadcast, print and digital media. The ongoing demonization of the Roma suggests there to be an urgent need for both rational accounts of contemporary Roma culture as well as a lucid set of images of Roma life which avoid the sensationalized vocabulary of the stereotype. As an artist from a Romany Gypsy community, my work sets out to address this imbalance by examining how Roma visual culture can influence the Roma’s geopolitical position. Part of my research into a Roma aesthetic considers how Roma culture has influenced Europe in the past and how it might provide a model for new ways of understanding the Europe of tomorrow.

Roma are considered to be the original Bohemians, personifying an unconventionally creative approach to living and thinking that has historically influenced the artists and thinkers of the avant-garde. If we consider Bohemianism to be a founding model of the cultural vanguard, a new and more generous way of thinking about Roma today would be to admire the Roma’s unconventional approach to life for its potential to engender cultural and social innovation.

The Roma could be embraced for being tenacious, resourceful and adaptable, and for maintaining cultural traditions that value social fluidity and cross-nation unity; all values that lie at the heart of the European ideal. However, instead of being celebrated for our approaches to community construction we are seen as a systemic irritant to power and the status quo.

Until recently Roma were considered Europe’s largest marginalized group, scattered as we are across the length and breadth of the continent and beyond. The recent Occupy movement suggests that 99% of Europeans (and beyond) feel abandoned by the nation state and broken by the brutal appetite of market forces. Now that so many are disenfranchised, the margins have expanded exponentially and the Roma are no longer alone in our alterity.

In such a situation the potential of Roma culture to provide an alternative vision of Europe that reconsiders social equality across the boundaries of national, economic and ethnic boundaries should be considered aspirational rather than objectionable. The architects of the newly emergent Europe could do worse than look to the Roma as a source of cultural and political inspiration, just as the avant-garde has in the past.

Read more in this debate: Morten Kjaerum, Valeriu Nicolae.

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