Taken individually, the works brought together by the RomaMoMA project in the Chronic Desire exhibition raise a series of fundamental issues and draw attention to highly relevant narratives about the history and the current situation of the Roma communities both in Romania and Eastern or Western Europe.
All the works that Roma artist of Albanian origin Sead Kazanxhiu is displaying in Timișoara deal with the issue of dislocation or the absence of larger territories (states) or smaller areas (living spaces) where his community can reunite. With humour and irony, the work entitled I Don’t Have Borders to Protect (2017), located between the Garrison Command and an adjacent building, takes into account both the advantages and the disadvantages of belonging or not belonging to such physical and mental spaces. At the same time, it draws attention to the relationship between individual identity, territory, borders and their defence (to preserve the order suggested by the title of this paper). The work is all the more relevant for the present moment, and all the more meaningful as it is understood in relation to the identity of the artist, who belongs to a community that historically has no territory and no borders.
The absence of these borders and territories is felt, sometimes simultaneously, as both a blessing and a curse. However, if considered in relation to a globalized world that talks about the disappearance of the common quite often, the position of one who suffers from this absence is difficult to understand, unless one takes into account the fact that the will to overcome national contexts appears as a natural evolutionary step strictly within the context of a previous history of belonging to a place and therefore cannot be developed ex nihilo. In other words, how many of us, if our identity were built, more or less by chance, in the absence of a clearly circumscribed territory, would be able to talk with ease about overcoming it today? The analysis of the situation of stateless persons could provide an example and an additional convincing argument. In a world where state membership has guaranteed, at least since the 19th century in Europe, the protection of personal and community integrity for certain groups, yet at the same time demanding a more justified or more fictional protection of superstructure from them, issues such as citizenship and its relationship to violence and defence remain, it seems, just as complicated.
The same theme of belonging and dislocation, this time from a somewhat closer perspective, is illustrated in the other three works of the artist: Nests (2012-2022), Home Sweet Home (2014) and the Baltosje/Mudding video (2021). The first consists of four nests similar to those made by swallows, but oversized and attached to the facade of the Garrison Command building. As far as swallows and their nests are concerned, two things, though facile, are relevant here. The first is that these birds are migratory. The second is that they do return, or hypothetically would return, to their previous nests if they were to find them again where they had left them. This happens sometimes, but other times it is prevented by the self-sufficiency, the selfishness or simply the wickedness and stupidity of people who seize the territory the swallows inhabit, instead of sharing the it with them.
The artist’s previous metaphorical approach is not so visible in his third work discussed here – Home Sweet Home (2014). Placed indoors, it is presented in the form of an installation made up of a multitude of small clay houses, joined with gut threads into a unitary, fluid structure. But the small houses, their number and nude colours, and their arrangement – they seem to have been swirled by a tornado, or resemble the mechanisms floating above children’s cots – suggest associations with concepts such as childhood, forced relocation or imaginary community. Marc Chagall’s 1911 painting I and the Village might actually be the closest iconographic reference to this work. Sead Kazanxhiu’s film shown in an adjacent room – the “documentation of the performance in which the artist invites members of his community to cover him with shishik (“clay” in Romani) as a form of purification and protection” in a strange yet very familiar ritual of using visual expression as a metaphor for socialization and solidarity within a community – reminds of Sergei Parajanov’s (sur)realist works.
While Sead Kazanxhiu’s contribution to the RomaMoMA project, as it is presented in Timișoara, talks about dislocations, identities and current problems, the work of Ionela Mihaela Cîmpeanu originates in the past, without ignoring the effect the past has on the current state of affairs. Her 2017 work, The Sleep (The Unconscious Memory of the Holocaust), draws attention to a phenomenon that is still little visible and little discussed in Romania. Although the Roma Holocaust – Samudaripen – is commemorated on 2 August in Romania, the issue of recognizing the status of the victims as well as the trauma they experienced are not emphasised enough. Anticipating the criticism that the issue of anchoring in the past might attract, the question of how one can or could ignore the memory of such a horrific experience and the risk of reliving it again relies primarily on empathy. What is the means of protection against this risk? The artist’s 2015 work entitled Wings tentatively and tenderly answers this difficult question.
The third work by Ionela Mihaela Cîmpeanu, The Silence/The Silent Cry (2020) stems from the same historical memory of unequal social and family relationships. Its construction reminds of the offering that Praxias made to Asklepios (a physician raised to the rank of god of medicine by the ancient Greeks) for healing his wife’s eyes, offering that today is displayed in the Acropolis Museum. The portrait of a woman “stuck in a block covering the lower part of her face” and the reduction of this portrait to a pair of eyes is, in Ionela Mihaela Cîmpeanu’s work, a symbol of silent suffering. Given the patriarchal domination in older or more modern societies, the work “is a silent sentinel of one’s own suffering and of silent suffering in general”. A symbolic expression of the life lived by many women of yesterday and today, and the counterpart of The Silent Cry, Waiting (2015) talks about (up)rooting and “the limited right of women to choose their own path and make their own decisions”. Waiting reflects the woman’s privileged relationship with the land and the house as an immemorial but misogynistic projection in the ancestral and the archetypal, a projection that still makes many victims.
All these works, along with the RomaMoMA Library project, an itinerant library that brings together publications on various topics related to Roma art and culture, which the public is invited to read at the Maria Theresia Bastion, are united in the Chronic Desire exhibition under the RomaMoMA project initiated by the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) and OFF-Biennale Budapest as a platform for (re)presenting contemporary Roma art and culture. Developed around the idea of a contemporary art museum, as suggested by the reference in the project’s title to a well-known museum*, in recent years the platform has proposed contemporary art projects shown by Roma artists at numerous exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta or Manifesta. Whether and to what extent such an institutionalized and integrative practice regarding the status quo corresponds or should correspond to the ideal situation of making the art and culture it promotes more visible are questions yet to be answered. Fortunately, they are the main focus of the RomaMoMA project.
*Museum of Modern Art in New York whose abbreviation, MoMA generated a fashion among more or less contemporary museums to propose the abbreviation of their names as an essential part of their own brand.