As a people, the Roma are mostly thought of and treated as a social problem, perceived through the prism of marginalization, exclusion and poverty. Roma ethnic identity tends to be problematized and carries with it an attributed social stigma – as if the socio-economic problems which many Roma face were characteristic of an ethnicity rather than symptomatic of structurally unjust societies.
While poverty and social exclusion are, regrettably, an everyday reality for a significant part of European Roma population, as a people, we are so much more than that.
We are a people with a millennial of history to draw upon: we were here before many of the European nations were formed, and we are also more numerous than many of the modern European states. We are a diverse people with our own language (Romani ćhib, which includes several dialects) and culture, composed of a mosaic of traditions and customs. Our history is an inseparable part of the history of Europe, intertwined with the past of all European nations. Yet, this is hardly ever acknowledged and is not included in the canon of collective narrative.
As I was growing up, from my early years in a Cracow primary school all the way through to my PhD studies in Barcelona, I was the only Roma in my class. I learned about bits and pieces of Roma history and culture through my extended family; and later through my own research and numerous travels across the world, but never at school or from the media. I heard stories of the Roma Holocaust through my father, Andrzej Mirga, who established the first national Polish Roma association fighting for the recognition of the Roma Holocaust and compensation for the Romani victims. He struggled for respectful commemoration and historical justice. Thanks to his work – as well as that of many other activists in Poland and across Europe – since the early 1990s, the Romani victims have been commemorated every year in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and elsewhere.
Likewise, in the field of arts and culture there have been numerous challenges for the recognition of Roma. In Poland and across Europe, our culture is seemingly limited to Roma folklore, which although it is part of our cultural patrimony, is only a fragment of our cultural richness. Roma artistic production is excluded from mainstream narratives – it is not exhibited in national galleries or included in national archives. I watched the struggle of my cousin Małgorzata Mirga-Tas – a graduate of the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts– to get her work recognized beyond the limited domains of craftwork or ethnography. Her artwork, and that of many other trained artists, is typically exhibited in Ethnographic Museums or community centres but rarely in galleries of contemporary art or national museums.
These challenges were encountered because we lacked institutions which would promote, document, develop and make visible our own collective cultural heritage. In Central and Eastern Europe, there have been some notable attempts to set up spaces in which Roma culture could be promoted – for example, in Hungary the “First National Exhibition of Self-Taught Roma Artists” was organized in 1979 by Roma activist Ágnes Daróczi; the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno was created in 1991; in Poland, the first world-wide exhibition on Roma was opened in 1990 in Ethnographic Museum in Tarnów (the collection dates back to 1979). But despite these prominent initiatives, an international institutional framework for the promotion of Roma arts and culture was missing.
All this is about to change with the creation of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, which will be launched on June 8th 2017 in Berlin. The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture will be an independent space for Roma artists, scholars, activists and journalists. It will be a place where the Roma will be able to use to define their identity and celebrate the contribution they have made to mainstream culture.
There is a tremendous amount of talent and potential resting within Roma communities – and the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture will provide a platform to promote, exchange and scale up the many and diverse expressions of Roma artistic production. It will become a space from which counter-narratives about Roma contributions and ethnic pride will be presented. The creation of the institute is also timely – at a moment when a wave of nationalistic and xenophobic attitudes is sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe and other regions of the world, it is essential to promote alternative stories, replacing the negative discourse on minorities with a more positive one.
Hopefully, over the next few years the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture will succeed in showing the Roma culture for what it really is – a collective, diverse and beautiful part of Europe’s cultural legacy, and a patrimony of national cultures and histories, which needs to be cherished and protected.
Photo (c) Gosia Mirga Artist by Piotr Malceki
Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka is a Polish Roma scholar and activist. She is co-founder of the Roma Educational Association “Harangos” (Poland) and the Roma Youth Association “Ternikalo XXI” (Spain), as well as a member of International Roma Youth Network “TernYpe” and the Alliance for the European Roma Institute, the coalition of Roma artists, activists and scholars at the initiative of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture