Art debating the media image of the Roma

Speaking out about violent attacks against the Roma in Hungary

Eszter Neuberger
8 April 2014

The explicit and implicit anti-Roma attitude of the Hungarian population was clearly manifested in a series of attacks on Roma families in several villages of northeastern Hungary in 2008-2009. The trauma caused as well as the collective responsibility of the entire population in what happened to the families just because of their ethnic qualities, is still something Hungarian society has not been able to digest. However, processing, taking responsibility, and detecting and avoiding racist behavior in contemporary society is in everyone’s interest.

Intermedia artist Csaba Nemes consciously uses the possibilities of a distended media space to raise issues of contemporary society. His exhibition Stand here! Shown at the Kiscelli Museum in October 2010, consisted of Nemes’s hyperrealist paintings and a five-minute-long puppet video installation.

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Roma representation in Hungary

Ethnic exclusion and racism is an untold social taboo in Hungary. By racism, I understand not only prejudices based on physical features, but something called “new racism” – creating hierarchies of dominance and subordination in society to legitimize the marginalization of the imagined Other – said to be far away from the values of the majority. Giddens calls it cultural racism as it emphasizes cultural differences instead of biological ones.

The mindset of society and the individuum is also shaped by the media – building up its own reality. As a social phenomena gains importance by being represented, the perception of people is influenced by the agenda-setting power of the mass media. The latter brings to life the politics of representation, theorizing the role of visibility and invisibility in hierarchic structures.

When we talk about an ethnic minority (in this case the Roma), however, it is not enough to stick to the context of visibility. When examining the media representation of the Roma, the most determining factor is who is speaking about whom. Except the Roma media and the minority programs on public television, the coin is quite one-sided: the representatives of the majority supervise the media-filtered image we draw on the Roma.

Research carried out by Zsuzsa Vidra and Borbála Kriza, entitled “Entrapped by Majority – Media Representation of Minorities,” studies the representation of minorities in the Hungarian press by means of quantitative research and discourse analyses. Although they come to the conclusion that the most represented minority in Hungary is the Roma, the study draws attention to the backstrokes of this representation.

One problem is the lack of the minority’s “voice.” They argue that “the press rarely presents minorities, but if its issues yet appear, members of the minority hardly ever speak, the representatives of major society talk instead.” Another problematic aspect of Roma representation in Hungary is the ambiguous manner in which the media speaks about sensitive topics. Quoting the conclusions of the so-called Olaszliszka case, Vida and Kriza say: “…reports covering the Roma are subjective and evaluating, often referring to unconfirmed information. Roma-Hungarian relations appear to be full of tension, ambiguous, misunderstandable phrases are frequently used – such as the ironic application of the word ‘minority.’”

Non-Roma artists presenting the Roma can also run into a few traps. Art that depicts the Roma are mainly photographs, often with an socio-anthropological character. In 2005 there was an exhibition in Millenáris Park entitled Pictures, Gypsies, Gypsy-Pictures presenting photos by photographers, academic researchers, and studio photographers showing Roma people. These photos shocked the Roma intelligentsia, who criticized the artists and the curator in their own media for presenting the Roma in an essentialist manner – showing them only as poor and deprived, living in bad conditions. The case is presented in Péter Szuhay’s article “Who is Speaking? Gypsy/Roma representation in visual arts” as the first example of so-called “counter-speaking” – the Roma’s denial and opposition of dominant methods of minority representation.

 

Csaba Nemes: Stand here!

The exhibition Stand here! consists of a puppet video installation. In his short film, Nemes uses rapidly changing viewpoints as a counterpoint to the still, life-like paintings depicting the homes of the attacked Roma families and other houses of the so-called “gypsy settlement.”

These images function only as inserts in the TV news illustrating narration and remain away from the spectator’s attention. However, as paintings exhibited in a gallery or museum they become central and inevitable to interpretation.

Besides interpretation they oblige the spectator to take a position: to engage with one side or the other. The title of the exhibition (Stand here!) is a strong imperative with a double meaning. On one hand, it invites the spectator to identify with the artist’s perspective, to accept and step into his position. On the other hand, it can offer the position of the Roma having to experience racism on a daily basis. The title can also function as an imperative to choose a side, saying: in this question one cannot stay neutral. Vidra and Kriza write in their book on the minority’s media representation that the indicator of coded racism is the frequency of ambiguous talk: if a (media) message would deny discrimination and racism in its totality, then it should be visible in the “text”. Thus, when speaking of racism, one must distance oneself from it, without compromise and condition. Any ambiguity implicitly surmises exclusive thinking.

 

Criticism of media representation

Nemes’s seven paintings exhibited in the Templespace are copies of documentary photographs. These images in their style and content are familiar to the spectator.

“The paintings show current social phenomena dealing with Hungarian far right’s tension with the Roma, and it’s brutal and tragic consequences together with the political grey zone surrounding them,” writes Kiscelli Museum’s website about the exhibition.

In my interpretation, “political grey zone” means the simplifying manner of representation with which media images reduce the visual presentation of the atrocities to inserts or illustrations of texts. Therefore, statistically over-represented images become least noticeable or interesting for the public, consumed only as “side dish.”

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With paintings made after documentary photos, the artist exalts the merely documentative type of picture from the context of news media: it is given a title and eventually a “story” or a plot. The mass images that has been consumed schematically and with monotony, undergo individualization.

 

Credibility of the personal viewpoint

Nemes was previously defined as an artist relying very much on his own personal experience, emphasizing his individual viewpoint in his artistic self-expression. He applies this approach in visualizing the 2008-2009 attacks on the Roma and their social context. Stressing his own viewpoint as an artist makes the paintings very human, credible, and understandable. Four of the presented seven paintings depict houses familiar from the news, as the locations of the racist-motivated crimes, while the other three show “common” houses that do not usually get much media attention.

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The fact that these paintings are included in the exhibition shows that Nemes has a broader attendance towards the problems of the Roma, not just explicitly raising his voice against racism. As Ákos Birkás writes in the catalogue presenting Nemes’s paintings: “His topics effect very much with their banality (…) walking where everybody walks he notices and shows what today’s people see.”

According to this rhetoric of the artist, those who did not fall victim to the racist attacks but live under the same poor conditions, facing the exclusion of society every day, are also affected and deserve no less attention than the actual victims of the attacks.

 

Idyll and behind

It is also symbolic that the puppet film Stand here! does not immediately relate to the 2008-2009 attacks but shows the manifestations of racism present underneath the surface and rooted from society’s deeper structures. In the short film, a verderer (a judicial officer of a royal forest – editor’s note) dressed as a member of the Hungarian far right paramilitary organization (Hungarian Guard Movement) blames a Roma man of stealing wood from the forest. Népszabadság Online (the online version of Népszabadság – one of the biggest Hungarian dailies) published Gyula Rózsa’s review of the exhibition. In this article the critic calls the film “brutal” and “infuriating” because of the shocking genre, the grotesque visual compositions and the “boundless flooding of racism bursting onto the screen.” The combination of grotesque and playful in the film makes it shocking – says the critic. The bright colors, the puppets which are normally associated with toys make the film even more shocking – and also these are the features to link it with the painting collection.

These paintings are full with the idyll of plein air style with sunshiny houses and green gardens. However, this idyll is shattered by something in each and every painting, also including those depicting houses but not wearing the traces of racist atrocities. Telling signs prove that we see a house from a gypsy row. The peeling plaster, the wet walls with satellite dishes, the patchwork of different-colored walls, gardens disfigured by wire fences. Hidden allusions that can only be decoded by those who know the Hungarian Roma’s living conditions closely. This is why Csaba Nemes’s art becomes local, experience-like, and this is what gives it its social embeddedness.

Nemes holds a mirror to Hungarian society. He criticizes and alters the general methods of representation and visualization of the Roma. Thus, it makes the spectator face his/her own responsibility and society’s indirect responsibility in the manifestations of racist attitudes. This is an example of socially engaged art I wish we had more of in Hungary.

 

Eszter Neuberger is a scholar from Hungary finishing her MA in Media and Communication Studies at ELTE University of Budapest, researching fields such as representation of ethnic minorities and Holocaust memory. In 2013 she spent six months in Krakow, working with the Villa Decius Association and the Hungarian Cultural Center in Krakow.