In the video, a woman hits a misshapen circle made out of the centre of the Sinti and Roma flag – it is her way of creatively pointing out the difficulties she is exposed to, just because she is Roma. A large map of Europe, covered in drawings of faces so that it’s impossible to see national borders on it anymore, creates the utopian ideal of a borderless “Gypsyland”.
Sinti and Roma culture like this – colourful, diverse and very political – is presented in the RomArchive, an online archive that went live at the beginning of this year. It is the first comprehensive collection of the art and culture of Europe’s largest minority and the works can be found in sections: visual arts, film, literature, music, dance, theatre and flamenco, all the aspects of a wealth of inherited culture.
According to Tímea Junghaus, who heads the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, or ERIAC, and who curated the visual arts section of the archive, Roma art is often an “act of defence”. Because over the past 600 years, the minority was not just pushed into the background, a major part of their cultural knowledge also came from outsiders – and a lot of it was full of stereotypes.
Until the 1960s, Roma art was shown in museums under the name of the collector, not the artist. That is why a chapter of the archive is also dedicated to the Sinti and Roma civil rights movement: They fought for artefacts to be properly acknowledged in museums.
The persecution of Sinti and Roma during the Second World War also has space in the archive. In the section, “Voices of the Victims”, one can hear the casualties of the Holocaust tell their own stories. Romani Rose, chairperson of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, thinks it is valuable to remember that “we are not only the victims of the Holocaust, we also have a lot to offer”.
The multi-faceted culture of the Sinti and Roma is woven into European history. Their influence can be felt in contemporary music, poetry, art and literature, all the way from Spain to Hungary. Tímea Junghaus believes that the archive is an excellent way to highlight those influences and to encourage pride in them. Art can often be a better medium for discussing cultural identity than political debate – because even today, there is little comprehension of the topic among many European politicians.
“Through art, Sinti and Roma tell their stories subjectively and in doing so, they are rewriting Roma history,” Junghaus explains. If they are shown at all, then degrading representations from the past must be viewed critically, she notes.
Whether it is emancipatory movements, film or dance, every part of the archive is about self-evaluation. All of the most important jobs at the archive are filled by Sinti and Roma people and they manage the archive and a worldwide network of researchers, activities and artists that they’ve built up themselves. The archive first began as a cooperative project and was supported financially by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. After it was opened, it was handed over to ERIAC to run.
“It’s a funny experience, inheriting an archive,” Junghaus explains, because “you’re getting something that will never be completed.” She hopes that accessibility of the archive will mean that “this collected knowledge about our culture will enrich future generations of Sinti and Roma throughout Europe”.