Brno artist Kateřina Šedá creates global art on the periphery. She is the only Czech to have had an exhibition of her own in the super-prestigious Tate Modern gallery in London – where she exhibited the almost entire village of Bedřichovice, which had been brought from the East for Western money. A year later, she was the first to adapt the idea of basic, unconditional income from theory to practice when she made the folk in Bedřichovice spend a day “unproductively” getting to know their surroundings and each other. She became famous for her project for the final round of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award where she let her grandmother reconstruct – by memory – the ironmonger’s shop where she worked long ago. Šedá won the award.
While criticism of Šedá s artistic work as manipulation has occurred before, it has stayed mostly within the artistic community. Upon publishing a tour guide to an excluded location of Brno that the locals derogatorily call “Brnox,” she ran into a wave of criticism even outside of artistic circles. The reviews published on the website Romea.cz have accused her of prejudice and perpetuating majority stereotypes about the Romani. Apparently, Šedá does not know the conditions, she does not understand the causes of social exclusions and she has no idea how hard it is to face prejudice in your daily life. And besides, her whole motivation is kind of suspicious.
Is she really that racist?
One definitely has to be cautious when “talking about the Romani” in the Czech Republic. The good folk of Bedřichovice or the Brno district of Líšeň – where Šedá has worked before – have not faced genocide in the past, nor are they the target of neo-Nazi marches “against the maladjusted” and neither do they encounter racist slights on a daily basis. Their peripherality does not push them into the role of discriminated, second-class citizens and their “being on the fringe” is hardly comparable to that of the Romani. Understanding a locale “inhabited primarily by Romani” requires more finesse and tact than working with people within the “normal” periphery. And Kateřina Šedá’s appearances in media do not make it exactly clear whether or not she is aware of the difference.
The reviews of her book have often made do with the method of picking out the most shocking and controversial bits and then describing how the Czech racist would understand the book. According to them, a famous artist’s prestige will only add legitimacy to existing stereotypes. As a result, for most critics the book has melded with this assumed method of reading – and stopped existing on its own. For example, a review published by H70.cz, the website of the literary journal Host, was titled “Kateřina Šedá and her circus: are they men or animals?” The reviewing sociologist resorted to psychologizing in the review: “Even the introductory section called ‘Step right in’ makes us realize that for Šedá, the whole project is one big show – a zoo or circus of sorts where one can watch and describe the exotic habits of curious, human-like creatures from the perspective of the enlightened, city folk,” making it clear the author intends to shoot Šedá down and assuming the worst of her intentions. “The Romani are depicted almost as wild animals who, unaware of the direct consequences of their primitive behavior, require the patronage of a wise woman well-versed in their customs,” the sociologist continues with suggestive irony, creating the impression of Šedá having written an intentionally scandalous, racist report.
Šedá’s book is a mosaic of images and scenes, which leads to a quick rejection of the whole work as a racist pamphlet.
But that is not the case. Šedá has tried to paint a complex picture of the locale and its inhabitants at which – despite the numerous, problematic parts – she has succeeded. The resulting book is a mosaic of images and scenes, which leads to a quick leaf-through and equally quick rejection of the whole work as a racist pamphlet. But the book is not explicitly racist; many of the critics failed to get to the problematic parts, making do with the author’s supposed racism. Jan Stejskal’s review at Romea.cz even used Šedá’s admission that her parents used one of the streets in the locale as a synonym for “mess” – turning Šedá’s reflection of her own prejudice into an argument against her. The same text describes a new kind of sophisticated racism that Šedá is supposed to represent; Stejskal has compared her to the infamously anti-Romani politician Jiří Čunek before, the difference being that Šedá is apparently even worse since Čunek needs voters so that his racist statements are at least understandable.
White and cretinous
What was considered to be the most problematic part of her book was the so-called “street foraging;” paragraphs written in the question-answer style, focusing on topics as diverse as riddles, games, or ways of spending Christmas. These sections gave reviewers the impression that Šedá simply treated people like idiots, asking them often absurd questions and then publicizing their even more absurd answers. However, in many cases, it is those questioned who manage to ridicule either the questioner, the question asked or some other “white” premise she takes for granted. Šedá lets both the Romani and the non-Romani of the locale speak and the results are not pretty. We hear a lot of racism from the Czechs, Romani sharing the stereotypes about the Romani and even the funny answers betray the hard facts of social exclusion. The “authentic” responses from the street reveal a great sense of humor . While it is resigned or (auto)stereotypical, it is above all humanizing and cannot be read in a top-down “let’s laugh at the uneducated gypsies” way – because there is also a good portion of “gypsies laugh at gadjos” and “gypsies laugh at what the gadjos think of gypsies” included.
The bit on “street foraging” was the part that – according to the critics – needed an explanation or a commentary focused on the structural causes of the described phenomena, or at least something distancing the author from the racist reading of the text. But such an explanation would not change much: it should be clear enough that the author picked the contents based on wit and catchiness. The hundreds of people and thousands of answers “foraged” create different ways of understanding the locale and the situations alone. On the other hand, the lack of commentary is extremely visible in the chapter on education: the situation in local schools is described by a teacher who is presented as an expert authority figure, while her statements raises questions as to whether she possesses the competency to work with children in an excluded locale. Her one-sided view is not balanced; even given the unhappy situation teachers often find themselves in, the absence of an opposing view that reflects the issue of how Romani are structurally disadvantaged in the Czech education system is painfully obvious. Furthermore, Šedá herself has referred to this teacher as an authority on the conditions in Romani schools in various interviews.
The more distrust, the more shouted accusations of defaming the Romani, the more the other side will be pushed into the defensive – and the worse will things be.
When debating the book, the political scientist Pavel Barša spoke of the picturesque image of the common man in literature and the way he saw it in this work. He also talked of the mistrust this – according to some – attitude to the inhabitants of the Brno Bronx created. But in the end, he continued, the book shows mainly that there are various, different people living in the locale so it cannot be said that the book just confirms stereotypes. Brnox, as a wider artistic event, can help mutual discussion: “The more distrust, the more shouted accusations of defaming the Romani, the more the other side will be pushed into the defensive – and the worse will things be.” The suspicion that Šedá is not laughing with the people but laughing at them is one we should, according to Barša, try to overcome: comparing Šedá, who might not be aware of the consequences of her statements from time to time, to Jiří Čunek – who realizes those consequences all too well – is looking for obstacles where there are none.
Translation by Michal Chmela.
Featured photo by Marcel Musil.
This article was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.