Is there something like Romani art?
A Sinti artist in the gadje world?
In art we can find ways and means to express own ideas and
to go across boundaries.
We can focus here, on Romani identity how it is present in
art and how it is being expressed. We have knowledge about
Romani and non -Romani painters who are showing scenes of
traditional Romani life. We know famous painters who painted
portraits and scenes of Gypsies, like Italian famous painter
Caravaggio or German expressionist painter Otto Mueller, who
was again and again claimed to be a Sinto himself. (His models
were for sure.)
Everyone knows the most popular motive in the paintings,
on the carpets or textiles with Gypsy dancers on green fields
at the camp fire, between the caravans and horses. Very popular
motive especially in Europe.
The most outstanding example of this are the gypsy caravans
of Vincent van Gogh he had painted probably when he was in
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mèr – (at that time there
was no Gpysy Pilgrimage to that place yet. )
What I am trying to say:
When gadje are painting gypsies I do not speak of gypsy art.
But I am asking you as well:
is it enough to call something Romani art only because the
painter is Romani or of Romani background? When romani painters
of today are painting their own world, many of them are only
repeating the romantic scenes and clichés they have
seen and copied from non roma painters.
As long as I do not see anything absolutely specific in technique
or style of the art I will not call it Romani art. As long
as it is all copied from the gadje world.
I think, that we romani painters have to look and try out
something unique and undetachable from Gypsy/Romani identity
- something which can be found or put into the visual arts
In my work I have been trying to develop something different,
something new – but you have to decide for yourself
how far or close I have come to that goal. Its still a long
way to go.
(You see examples of my paintings in the display…)
What is Romani in arts, anyway? What kind of artistic expression
is there in Gypsy communities at all?
To explain what I mean we can focus here on the Gypsy music,
which gives us a picture of developing the Gypsy identity
during hundreds of years. This identity has very special character,
spirit and is a very important part of Roma life. The music
gives the possibility to express positive and negative experiences
of life (delight and joy on one, pain and suffering on the
other hand). The basis for the Gypsy music is the nomadic
life of many Romani groups during hundreds of years. Thus,
it is an important means to integrate different cultural influences
into Gypsy music and also into the different Romani styles
But why has Gypsy culture so far not achieved expressing
itself in visual art?
Our people has had actors, writers, singers, musicians and
dancers, but not painters.
There is no lack of motives and forms, of stories, neither
of colours, imagination or spirit!!!!
I suppose, The conditions of many Romani people didn’t
and today still doesn't give the chance to create Gypsy art
in the form of the paintings. This may be on one part due
to nomadic lifestyle of some of us. But also to living conditions
Whatever the reasons might have been: I do not think it is
accidentally, that only lately also in Roma communities throughout
the world people start to discover painting as a means of
Can it be that – like music – it also can be
a means of integration by finding an own identity also in
We have a rich spectrum of art motives and visual art inspirations
we can find in the handicrafts, the clothes and jewelry made
of different groups of Roma across the world.
But I'm not a scholar and I can speak about my experience
and encounter with Romani culture as Romani artist only.
I will try to explain what I mean from my personal point
of view, my personal art concept and will come back to a general
conclusion at the end later.
At this point I would like to tell some words about my Romani-
Sinti background to explain my personal art concept.
1 Holocaust The Common Heritage
The first basis for my art concept, is the experience of
my family in the time of persecution of the Sinti and Roma
during the Holocaust in Europe and all the racism and anti-ziganism
before, during and after World War II.
My father lived in the hide for many years but he survived.
I don’t know where my grandparents have been buried.
After World War II he broke with his tradition and there
was no other way for him but assimilation. My mother whose
parents were Kossacks on fathers side, and originally Belorussians
(on mothers side). All her family also suffered from Holocaust.
My father never talked about his roots and I understood why
there was such a silence about his roots, his past. Only 8
years ago I rediscovered my Romani roots. It was not easy
to speak with my father about his experience during the World
War II as Romani child. I saw, during the last years how strong
his cultural identity has been damaged and how strong grew
up what I call his Holocaust identity.
I inherited, on a non verbal basis, part of his Holocaust
identity which is therefore still apparent in my art and life
because I shared the experience of my father. Because of this
experience I was searching to experiment with new creative
ways to express what I believe to be the common heritage of
all European Romani: the holocaust. And this is also the link
to Jewish history and suffering. I try to emphasize the common
experience of the two people in my works. I learned this in
my intensive discussion with Jewish children of survivors.
But painting the holocaust, the trauma is not only a Jewish
topic. Its ours as well.
So this experience is common to very many of us as individuals.
But the most important is, that it common to all of our people.
click for Sample painting:
This is a Romani child of Austria who was taken away from
her family and raised by a gadje family during Nazi Occupation
she was taken away from her stepfamily and killed because
she was Roma.
2 Crossing and Melting and integrating
I'm using symbols, ornaments, designs, metaphors, patterns
from all over the world, when I encounter a new country or
culture (I travel a lot), every time I take something with
me and integrate that in my art works. The concept of melting
the cultures and symbols of religions and styles and ethnics
and nations of the world is both a demonstration in search
for a new, cosmopolitan, universal identity as for an own
I call it Crossing Borders
It s our ability to integrate everything to a certain extent
Like into our language we draw words from all the languages
we meet but still give it our Romani touch that’s what
I try to do in painting.
For example, my painting 'Fatima's Hand' (which I made after
my travel in the Middle East (including Israel), the Maghreb
and India) it is something like a composition of some universal
symbols on canvas.
The hand it is the symbol of protection and security and very
popular in different countries in the Moslem world and also
the Jews know it as Hamsa. The Indian elephants, the wheel
which is present also, as Indian chakra and there is Christianity
and more symbols of bridges between cultures.
I think this is not an artificial concept, but one which
derives when cultures meet and melt, and people encounter.
This for me is Romani style.
click for Sample
painting: Fatimas hand>>
3 The Indian Roots
- Intensity and vibrancy
This is also part of the common heritage, but it is the vibrant
and lucky part of it.
I use very strong colours, because the colours have a big
importance in my life. The connection to the Indian aesthetic
culture is very strong here.
I spent much time in India on many stays and I saw how important
is the language of colours, every day for the people in India.
It is aesthetic old tradition of Romani people to use and
to celebrate the life with strong and intense, vibrant colours.
But its not only the colours, it’s also the forms,
the personnel, it’s the clothes and the music: I have
found the same Gods in India as I found in the black goddesses
or saints of the Gypsy pilgrimages for example in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mèr
in Southern France. And of course also the technique I have
found in India
for Sample painting: Sara
in a Snailhouse>>
4 The Hiding and Survival and Justice
These topics are not styles or techniques or colours, like
the holocaust, they are stories which belong to our identity
The old Egyptian child god Ihi was hidden like my father
and he survived like my father. It is actually the never ending
story of survival in ethnic cleansing as we call it today.
It is the story of Moses and the Jews and the story of the
persecution of Sinti and Roma in Europe which happened 6o
years ago and still has not come to an end.
So Ihi and Maat, the old Egyptian goddess of fairness and
justice I use for symbolising the genocide of Sinti and Roma.
But also for the traumatic survival.
Survival and search for Justice are very central topics in
my word. I could have taken any other symbols for that- but
I took the Egyptians – its just a play of words with
the word Gypsy.
click for Sample
What does all of that mean for the question whether there
is Romani Art or not?
We Roma lost totally the visual art concept in their culture
when we lost India. We could or should try to rediscover and
reacquire that visual tradition of India. This is my personal
program of art, my personal concept – but it is also
a proposal to my fellow Roma painters.
That way Romani art can do a lot for shaping our identity
out of our old history, from the heritage of holocaust and
the incessable discrimination.
And also from the role Roma have always played in the world:
mixing and encountering totally different cultures.
What for example Aboriginal art has achieved is still a way
to go for Romani painters. Here you can study that recognition
of visual artists can do a lot for identity and self esteem.
But this was a long way to go:
There was promotion, there was help and of course also the
art market always looking for something new to digest.
6 An artist in a gadje world
But we are still far away from that. We don’t have
assistance. As Romani artists we suffer from discrimination
in the art scene.
So Romani art – always talking of visual art - is just
at the beginning. And to be art it should not only a traditional
art, an art of an ethnic minority.
It took a long time I found a way to express my post-traumatic
experience. Few years ago my life changed and the process
of awareness to be romani- sinti artist started. I can say
I made good experience as Romani artist in India, the home
country of my ancestors and I've got lots of hospitality from
Indian people. I've got the feeling that India is also my
And I'm welcome there as Romani woman with my Romani Art.
The tradition of Indian society is the integrating religious
and cultural trends. In this regard I experienced the European
cultures to be more arrogant and dogmatic in a way of integrating
different religious meanings and cultures.
I have much respect for the culture of my ancestors. But
I have also the respect for the Holocaust identity, and with
this special identity of the European Roma I found my second
home in Israel. In Israel I found more security and understanding
for me as a child of child survivor of the Holocaust than
in Europe or India.
Our ancestors, our grandfathers, mothers, children we make
a experience of permanent discrimination from generation to
generation. We have to live with this traumatic and posttraumatic
illness. My wish is to be respected in my Holocaust identity
to live in security and to have a home.
As Romani-Sinti artist it is no easy to live in Germany.
I live in Berlin for 22 years. The German culture is part
of my culture. My relation to this culture is very heavy and
problematic. The confrontation with posttraumatic experience
of Holocaust of the 2nd and 3rd generation of children wake
up the negative emotions and reflections of non Roma, non
Jewish part of European society.
Like the European, American, Australian, Indian visual artists
and painters we have the right to manifest our Romani identity
and belonging to Romani culture and tradition. But if we are
German, French or Indian Romani artists, if we want to be
respected with own Romani identity, we have to produce paintings
which reflect our special identity. This means our history,
our descendance and our topics.
Still I believe that paintings as well as music and language
can and will be a means of shaping Romani identity.