The Roma mobilize their own knowledge: this is a paradigm shift. Interview with Tímea Junghaus

A new center for Roma art and culture is examining how knowledge about the Roma is created and disseminated throughout history.

An international centre of Roma culture will open in Berlin in September. Supported by the Council of Europe, Open Society Foundations, and the German Foreign Ministry, the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) will host exhibitions, conduct scientific research, and support the work of local Roma organisations across Europe through lobbying strategies, encouraging the dissemination of information and fostering cultural mobility. The high regard in which this institution is held was apparent at the launch ceremony in June; held at the German Foreign Ministry, the event was attended by, among others, George Soros, Thorbjørn Jagland (Secretary General of the Council of Europe), and Hartmut Koschyk (the German Federal Commissioner for National Minorities).

Tímea Junghaus, the Institute’s executive director grew up in Budapest’s 8th district [a district with high poverty and crime rates – Transl.], curated the Roma Pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, and is a researcher at the Institute of Art History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Kata Benedek: In your work, you put a lot of emphasis on postcolonial theories which examine the effects and consequences of colonization. How can we apply these theories to the Central and East European region?

We need to examine how knowledge about the Roma was created and disseminated throughout history.

Tímea Junghaus: Many would question the applicability of these theories to the region, and whether the Roma can be considered a colonized minority. As a curator, these contested theories have been part of my work since the early 2000s. To put it simply, I work on making power imbalances and the mechanisms of Orientalisms visible. Edward Said, one of the most important postcolonial theorists, talks of Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the [East].” By this, he means that we need to examine attitudes toward the East – and minorities such as the Roma – and explore how knowledge about the Roma was created and disseminated throughout history, and what kind of infrastructures are available for self-representation by the Roma, and so on. As we examine these asymmetrical relations, we discover that practically all exoticization and romanticization of the Roma tells us much more about the fantasies of the majority than about the Roma themselves. We can also see that as in historiography, so the histories and arts of minorities are largely unrecognized in art history too. Postcolonial theories are not only useful in the theoretical dimension; they also offer practical suggestions on how to recognize and fill our cultural blind spots.

What role does art and culture play in the decolonization of power relations?

Art and culture offer concrete practices for decolonization.

What I see is that the problems, and oppression, which are felt by society or which proliferate on the surface of societal discourses appear much earlier in the arts. It is much more liberating when artists, creative individuals, or public personas are working on reconciliation and progress, or on ways to replace established histories with new knowledge, and then make them visible. Critical theory – including critical cultural studies, feminist research, trauma theory, Critical Roma Studies, and so on – makes power structures visible and acknowledged. In my opinion, to understand cultural products, it is crucial to know their historical and social context. Art and culture, however, goes one step beyond: they offer concrete practices for decolonization. These may include ways in which we can leave fossilized structures behind, or make their lack of sustainability visible, and subverting these structures by stirring them up or reversing them through feminist tools, for example.

The foundation of the ERIAC was announced this June. The Berlin-based institution wants to be an international platform for European Roma culture and art, and its explicit aim is the creation of knowledge about the Roma by the Roma themselves.

The Institute’s goal is to make visible the best of the Roma’s cultural products. We’ve been working towards this for three years; the best minds of the global Roma intellectual scene have invested their own time and resources. These experts come mainly from four areas: first, arts and culture, second, Holocaust research, third, media and publishing, and fourth, a network of more than 600 Roma organizations across Europe. The Institute’s work will be distributed in these areas. We will do our best to take the best work of Roma organizations, researchers, artists, and experts, and present it to a European audience in order to positively transform the image of the Roma.

Are social work organizations also included in the above mentioned 600?

The Roma mobilize their own knowledge – this is an important paradigm shift.

They probably will be, but the ERIAC is a cultural institution, and as such, it wants to strengthen Roma identity and pride through exclusively artistic and/or cultural means. One of our most important ambitions is Roma leadership, so that members of a majority haven’t established a foundation and found a couple of Roma faces – but that the Roma themselves initiate an institution, mobilize their own knowledge and resources, and insist on the institution’s Roma leadership in the future, too. This is an important paradigm shift.

Reports on the Institute have found it problematic that the majority of Europe’s roughly 12 million Roma live on the peripheries of Eastern and South European societies. As such, for these communities, an institution based in the centre of Berlin is completely beyond their reach geographically, economically, and culturally as well.

From the initial lobbying for the establishment of this Institute, the majority of the team have been  Eastern and South European Roma intellectuals. Despite the fact that everyone speaks multiple languages and has multiple diplomas, they consciously try to maintain a direct relationship with local Roma communities and to keep themselves informed about the complex layers of local problems. The goal is to tighten this network and find the best cultural and artistic projects. In Berlin the Institute is able to receive the necessary support for its aims, whether this support is political, financial, or infrastructural.

This is a very complex and ambitious project. How can you ensure that the work of ERIAC remains visible, and that the cooperation between small organizations develops organically?

In the areas of arts and culture and knowledge creation we would really like to work together with the most important European institutions. For example, the Holocaust and remembrance section will begin their work by concentrating on respectfully commemorating forgotten sites of memory, on researching the Roma resistance, and on the Roma Holocaust in education. Furthermore, we would like there to be a periodical with the aim of developing Critical Roma Studies as a scholarly discipline. Similarly to African American Studies in The United States, we need to write alongside the critical turn in cultural studies, alongside feminist theories, trauma theories, postcolonial and decolonization theories, in order to use these as tools in the decolonization of knowledge of the Roma. Our task is also to inform over 600 Roma organizations of the most important experiences and discourses in our field, and to make the Institute’s most important achievements available to them, in order to offer them ideas, tools, and expert support for their work. Last but not least, the whole Institute is based on a membership structure – thus, it is these organizations and experts who nominate the people who will make up the ERIAC advisory board and eventually decide on the Institute’s precise program.

Are you worried about political obstacles?

We aren’t worried – we are fully prepared.

No. Politically, the ERIAC is widely supported in Europe. We aren’t worried – we are fully prepared. It’s an institution with a cultural and artistic agenda; though it is inevitable that it will also contain political aspects. However, by no means does ERIAC want to censor or suppress the discourses of Roma communities, which presupposes occasional clashes with politics. We are prepared for these arguments; there is enough knowledge, and diplomatic and political strength within the Institute to prepare us for tackling even stressful situations with poise and sensitivity.


This interview originally appeared in Magyar Narancs, and has been translated and republished with their kind permission.
Featured photo courtesy of Tímea Junghaus.
Translated by Anna Azarova.


Kata Benedek
Berlin based freelancer art critic from Hungary.