"There is more than dirt in our history": how Berlin became the capital of Romani art

Artists, actors and playwrights are flocking to the city to show work that celebrates Roma identity and tackles negative stereotypes

April 06, 2018
Damian Le Bas' globe displayed at ERIAC.
Damian Le Bas' globe displayed at ERIAC.

In an old warehouse in eastern Berlin, Mihails Kokarevics sits at the head of a large brown table, reading aloud from his notes. The 31-year-old artist reads his poetry to the room through a theatrical moustache, slightly curled at each end. His writing speaks about racism faced by his community. “It doesn’t matter how much you want to make us dirty,” he says. “We are pure, clean souls inside.”

His audience—the 20-or-so people who share his table—are from Romania, Hungary, Germany and the UK. At first glance, there is nothing to unite them. They don’t look alike; they speak with different accents; they are both men and women. But like Kokarevics, they are all artists and activists from Europe’s Roma community—a minority of 11 million people whose ancestors migrated from India to Europe over 1,000 years ago. Today, they make up just over 1 per cent of Europe’s population.

The group have gathered in Berlin to rehearse for the first ever Roma Biennale: a series of parades, art exhibitions and theatre performances that will mark International Roma Day on the 8th April.

Delaine Le Bas, one of the Biennale’s organisers, says she chose Berlin as the event’s location because the city offered unique opportunities to collaborate with both Roma organisations and mainstream venues.

Over the past seven years, Berlin has emerged as a new capital for Romani arts. Artists, actors and playwrights have flocked to the city to show work that celebrates Roma identity and tackles negative stereotypes.

These artists embrace politics and Europe is regularly criticized in their work. They draw threads through history, highlighting hundreds of years of anti-Roma stigma and violence on the continent.

The German capital’s new status as a hub of Romani culture was cemented when the European Roma Institute of Art and Culture (ERIAC) chose Berlin as its base, opening its doors to the public at the end of 2017.

One video work currently on display there sees artist Tamara Moyzes give the 2008 winner of the Czech Republic’s Miss Roma competition a “makeover.” The winner was not allowed to enter Czech bars, discos and shops because of her ethnicity. Moyzes helps Miss Roma “whitewash” her appearance to escape discrimination, dressing in a blonde wig and painting her skin white.

ERIAC is the first institution of its kind; an official celebration of Romani culture—supported by the German government. On a continent where the minority face disproportionate poverty and negative “gypsy” stereotypes, the institution’s gold sign, in Berlin’s upmarket Mitte area, broadcasts a sense of Roma-pride.

For its director, Timea Junghaus, the establishment of the institute is a historic moment. But it also signals a shift in European politics. While the Roma rights movement once saw its centre in Budapest, Hungary’s increasingly repressive government has forced Roma artists to find a new base abroad.

With the movement’s relocation to Berlin comes increased visibility for the Roma in western Europe. While many people associate the minority only with eastern Europe, there are some 750,000 Roma living in Spain, 100,000 in Germany and 200,000 in the UK.

ERIAC builds on Berlin’s growing reputation for contemporary Romani art. While it is the city’s first Roma-led cultural institution, back in 2011 German curator Moritz Pankok set up Gallery Kai Dikhas—Germany’s first exhibition space devoted to Romani art.

Pankok believes Berliners’ open-minded attitudes helped make the gallery a success; he has held over 90 exhibitions in Berlin and abroad. “Here, the audience and the artists are sensitive to what it is about to speak about identity,” he says. “People have the right awareness of racism and anti-ziganism [discrimination against Roma].”

Until February, the gallery exhibited the work of Damian Le Bas, who died in late 2017. The artist—of Irish traveller heritage—painted on maps and globes to highlight the Roma community’s statelessness.

Le Bas regularly exhibited in Berlin, often collaborating with his wife Delaine Le Bas. In November, the couple exhibited their ‘Safe European Home?’ installation. A shed-like structure, painted with artworks. From the wheels from the Roma flag to declarations of “Gypsy Resistance,” the installation narrated the artists’ frustrations with their outsider status.

The interior was wallpapered with newspaper headlines from the 2000s that revealed anti-Roma attitudes. Among them: “Pubs in racist snub to gipsies” and “Seven killed as gunman targets gypsy family.”

The work was on display for the second time at the Maxim Gorki Theatre—another Berlin institution that has been instrumental in raising the profile of Romani art since the appointment of Shermin Langhoff as co-artistic director in 2013.

Before Langhoff joined the Gorki, she had earned a reputation as a director who gave first, second and third generation migrants a voice on stage.

Her arrival at the Gorki did not change her approach. Since she started, the venue has exhibited Romani art, hosted Romani theatre shows and celebrated Roma Day for four consecutive years.

For Hamze Bytyçi, co-curator of the upcoming Biennale, Berliners such as the Gorki’s Langhoff create a positive atmosphere for Romani art to flourish.

Bytyçi’s own organisation, German-based Roma Trial, uses culture to unpack prejudice against the Roma community. In 2017, he organised Berlin's first Romani film festival. “It’s about time for the largest minority in Europe to raise its voice,” he said, at the event.

Delaine Le Bas—the Biennale’s other curator—believes Roma art can go further than raising visibility. “The politics of creativity are underestimated,” she says.

She believes art can create real change. In 2012, Le Bas was filmed in an art performance drawing attention to the unfinished memorial for Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. While the government agreed to the memorial in 1992, 10 years later, it remained a building site.

“You would go there and it would look like a rubbish tip,” she says from her hometown of Worthing in the UK.

The film shows her at the site, dressed as a Shaman, rolling a crystal ball in her hands as if she was turning time backwards and forwards—an effort to resolve arguments between the artist and the German government that had ground the project to a halt.

In October, just nine months after the performance, the memorial was finally finished.

But alongside art that is explicitly activist, Berlin’s contemporary Roma art can be characterised by its efforts to confront negative stereotypes and challenge public perceptions of the minority.

Back in the warehouse, Kokarevics takes a break from the Biennale’s rehearsals. “We want to show there is more than just dirt and mud in our history,” he says. “We want to prove we are artists.”