Reclaiming The Voice: The Roma in The Art World

Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka, 2015. Photo by Akos Stiller

Zuzanna Hertzberg: Who is Anna Mirga?

Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka: I’m an academic researcher, with a PhD in Anthropology, and an activist. These two identities are strongly intertwined. Since 2018, I have been the deputy director of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), a role that is very important to me. In broader terms, I identify as a woman, a Roma, and a Pole.

My father is an all-Roma from the great, great Mirga clan from Czarna Gora, a family that many people in Poland and abroad know. But my mother is Polish, so I am half Polish and half Roma.

It seems to me that there is no such thing as half this, half that, but rather 100% different identities coming together. So I am 100% Polish and I am 100% Roma, I am a woman and I think that is also a very important part of my identity.


Some people don’t like to be called ‘Polish with Roma roots’. And instead you prefer to say “100 percent Roma”.

Yes, although I am not hypersensitive. When we talk about professional functioning or in the context of artists, for example, it is much more important. Gosia Mirga-Tas, my cousin, is very right when she says that we should not talk about Roma artists, but about artists of Roma origin. Because this adjective ‘Roma’ immediately puts you in a certain category of work, in a certain field of art. But these artists, who also have a Roma background, are artists first and foremost. They are and should be understood and positioned in the context of contemporary art.

It is first of all art done by the people making art. However, if a given person raises minority cultural issues and her identity is an important factor in her art, then I think the use of such a term is justified. On the other hand, in the art practice of some people there are no visible references to identity. Then I wouldn’t use that term. Do you agree with this distinction?


I don’t like terms like ‘origin’ and ‘roots’ because I’m not a plant.

Origin is often something that is pointed out to someone, a kind of stigmatization. To this day, a term exists in the Polish language: ‘przyznawać się do bycia Żydem’. This literally means ‘to admit to being a Jew’ and is clearly associated with taking on some blame: we admit to something that is kind of guilt.

Yes, I agree, especially in the Polish context. In Poland, we have somehow erased the multiethnic and multicultural origins of our state and the history of how Poland, Polish society in general, was shaped over the centuries. We have always been intercultural, or multicultural, but the previous century changed and erased this diversity, and a unifying discourse has been quite prevalent in recent years. For that reason, it is very important to emphasize that we, Poles, can also be Roma, Jewish, Tatar, and so on. This is crucial.

Is it possible to distinguish some components defining the cultural identity of a Roma person from Central and Eastern Europe?

There are quite a few common elements of Roma cultural identity in general. This is significant, because there remains a tendency to fragment us, as well as to consider the diversity and multiculturalism of the Roma diaspora, as a hindrance to our being recognized as a nation, or for us to define ourselves as a group that stands in solidarity with each other. As a matter of fact, the Roma community or diaspora is extremely multicultural, multireligious, and multilingual. Factors such as social status, the question of class, and lifestyle also play a big role. We are a culturally diverse community, but there is plenty we have in common. For us, this diversity is a natural part of our reality. It is more difficult for the gadjo [gadjo, or an outsider—a person who has no Romanipen—eds.] to understand how it all works. When we interact with each other, this is obvious to us. We share a unique background that separates us from the non-Roma world. When it comes to a common, Central European identity, I think there are some elements that are mainly related to recent history or post–war decades, and the fact that we are a group that grew up during communism. Homo Sovieticus and Roma culture are inextricably linked, a combination of cultural identity and the political situation in which we were raised.

Ceija Stoijka's exibition „We Were Ashamed", ERIAC, 2023. Fot. Esra Gultekin

Ceija Stoijka's exibition „We Were Ashamed", ERIAC, 2023. Fot. Esra Gultekin

Could you tell me how ERIAC came into being?

To tell the story of ERIAC, we would have to go back a couple of centuries. What is distinctive of the Roma community is that, for a number of centuries, we were not able to control the narratives and representations that related to us. This implies that the majority of our knowledge regarding the Roma is a narrative crafted from an outsider’s perspective. According to these narratives, there exists a hierarchy, namely, the superiority of the mainstream society over the Roma culture. Since the Middle Ages, there’s been deep-rooted stereotypes, stigma, and notions of inferiority, lower status associated with the Roma culture. These have been passed down and perpetuated through culture and art, including fine art, such as opera—here, for example, it is worth noting Bizet’s Carmen. Religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, monarchies, and, later on, state institutions, and academic research have also played a part. All these elements that make up the popular knowledge about the Roma have always been dominated by the point of view of the majority, or an intrinsically external perspective.

Regrettably, as a result of these narratives, a profoundly stereotypical and stigmatizing perception of Roma culture has taken root. This is hurtful to us and forms the basis for discrimination, i.e., the existence of xenophobic attitudes, a specific form of racism directed at the Roma. During the post–war period, we’ve seen the rising tide of Romani emancipation and the formation of emancipatory movements. This came about in response to the Romani Holocaust, the peak of the persecution of the Roma people in recent centuries [which is also referred to as Porajmos, eds.], but also as an expression of the growing awareness of a certain community-based, transnational, and cultural identity.

This process can be observed in the sphere of politics, in the election of leaders of the newly founded groups and associations, but also in academia and art. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was important to regain control of these narratives and representations, to talk about who we really are, where we come from, and what our culture and identity really are. 

Because we are a stateless nation, we do not have museums, ministries of art or education, nor institutions that could formulate this kind of top-down narrative that would be created with a certain respect and knowledge. Decades ago, there was an idea to create something resembling an embassy of Roma culture. This would be an institution created by the Roma and for the Roma, through which we could create these kinds of counter-narratives. It would be our rebuttal of the majority’s stereotypes, stigmas, and hurtful portrayals. ERIAC was formally established in 2017 and in January 2018 opened its doors as an official institution with a headquarters and an exhibition space. From the start, our mission was to fight against antigypsyism on the one hand, and on the other hand….

Ceija Stoijka's exibition „We Were Ashamed", ERIAC, 2023. Fot. Esra Gultekin

Sorry to interrupt. People may not be as familiar with the term ‘antigypsyism’. Could you please explain this term? I know that within the Roma community there are different approaches to this, whether antigypsyism, which implies the exclusion of all people considered ‘Gypsies’ by majoritarian societies, is the right term. However, most Roma people, at least the ones I know, accept that it should be antigypsyism.

Antigypsyism or antiziganism is a very important term. It is an ideology and a form of social practice, a particular kind of racism directed against people of Roma ethnicity and all others who are in any way identified as Roma or ‘Gypsy’. Antigypsyism has been shaped by hundreds of years of creating such stigmatizing narratives and depictions.

Could you tell where did the term ‘Gypsy’ came from, because it was never used by the Roma community itself.

It is worth noting that the word ‘Gypsy’ is an exonym, that is a word that was imposed on the Roma by others. It is linked to a kind of confusion regarding where the Roma come from. The Roma, importantly, come from India. In the year 1000 or so, we emigrated from northern India and migrated towards Europe. But when the Roma reached European territories in the early Middle Ages, it was not known exactly where they came from. So, there was confusion and people thought the Roma came from Egypt—Egypt, Egyptian to gypsy. The term Gypsy became a kind of label to designate an entire community. However, many of us find the word Gypsy offensive—mainly, because it is not a word we use to describe ourselves. We have our own language—Romani language—which is derived from Sanskrit and is an Indo-European language. And in Romani, we refer to ourselves as Roma. Roma in Romani means ‘we, the people, the Roma’ (Rom—meaning man or human, Romni meaning a Romani woman). It’s a matter of a certain respect to recognize how we define ourselves. Secondly, the word ‘gypsy’ has many negative connotations, implying illegality and irregularity—as in, for example, the word ‘gypped’—and has become a highly stigmatizing, offensive label. In the Polish language, for example, we have the verb ‘cyganić’, which, as we know, colloquially means ‘to deceive’.

Thus, antigypsyism bases itself on the term ‘gypsy’ which triggers rather negative associations. And as a social issue, as ideology, as racism, it manifests itself on many levels. On the one hand, it has an everyday dimension—the Roma face various kinds of prejudice and discrimination. On the other, it has an institutional, structural dimension, for example Roma people’s exclusion from certain fundamental rights, and institutional injustices.

Antigypsyism also features some faux-positive elements, that is, a whole realm of romantic stereotypes about Roma culture. The notion that all Roma women are beautiful, incredibly sexy, and amazing dancers, that all Roma are musically gifted and that we are like free-spirited, colourful birds, and so on. A set of positive stereotypes is also a manifestation of antiziganism.

Ceija Stoijka's exibition „We Were Ashamed", ERIAC, 2023. Fot. Esra Gultekin

Ceija Stoijka's exibition „We Were Ashamed", ERIAC, 2023. Fot. Esra Gultekin


Yes, we are exoticized, objectified (especially women), and sexualized.

Let’s go back to art field, the work of ERIAC and artists with Roma identity.

Because the development of Roma art has only accelerated in recent years, there are just a few truly incredible artists who have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world. In the post–war era, up until the 1970s, there were a very few well-known names, especially in this part of Europe. We could mention the work of Tamás Péli, whose work was exhibited at Documenta in Kassel in 2022. Péli was a Roma artist from Hungary who created a unique iconography and style of representing Roma identity. In his work, he referred to Roma myths and our culture in general. He created a monumental painting that decorated an orphanage in Hungary, which depicted the legend of the origin and birth of the Roma people and included various themes that are closely related to Roma culture and to Roma tales. The painting, comprising four large panels, was dismantled when the orphanage building was turned into a hotel. For many years, neither Roma people, nor the world at large, had access to this work. ERIAC, among others, was one of the organizations that demanded the reinstatement of Péli’s monumental painting.

A couple of years ago, ERIAC conducted a survey of Roma art. We contacted two kinds of cultural institutions in Europe: ethnographic museums and contemporary art museums. We approached about 70 institutions, asking them if they had Roma art collections, what they had in these collections, and how were they catalogued. It transpired that, for the most part, objects of Roma culture are not put on display, but rather hidden away in storage, in warehouses, with no access for Roma people and non-Roma people alike. On the other hand, the corresponding catalogue listings are often wrong—for example, they attribute authorship to the person who acquired the object. Sometimes, there is no acknowledgement of Roma authorship at all, no name of the artist, and we do not even know exactly from which community the artwork was obtained. The very fact that there exists such a collection of Roma culture, which does not belong to us, but is in the hands of various states and remains hidden from everyone—this is a big problem.

Tamás Péli, 'Birth', BTM Castle Museum, Budapest, 2021

I would like to continue with the theme thread of ethnographic museums and folklorization. On the one hand, there are some anniversary occassions, precise moments during the calendar year, when a given minority can gain visibility and space in the majoritarian society. Often these are anniversaries, festivals of a particular culture that are not organised by the community itself, but by someone else, and the whole narrative is constructed from outside. On the other hand, I remember that Gosia Mirga-Tas, a great artist who is reapropriating the image of the Roma community and giving it visibility, was offered until recently to exhibit mainly in ethnographic museums. What is the situation today and how is the functioning of Roma people in the field of art changing?

The very phenomenon that artists of minority backgrounds were for many years able to find themselves only in ethnographic museums is, unfortunately, a reality that lasted for a good few decades, not only in Poland but in the international space in general. Contemporary art museums, on the other hand, are for people who are of majority origin.

Roma have struggled for many years to be recognised as contemporary artists. And even those who graduated from art academies still had a very big problem exhibiting in the majority space. This has started to change a bit in the last few years. A breakthrough was the creation of the Roma pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The exhibition ‘Paradise Lost’, sponsored by the Open Society Foundation, was curated by a Roma: It was the first time that Roma art was exhibited in Venice’s most prestigious space for culture and art. Among the artists who exhibited were Delaine Le Bas, Kiba Lumberg, Nihad Nino Pušija.

I would like you to refer to Gosia Mirga’s artistic practice of an adequately looking at people from the Roma community, from her own family. Gosia is the person through whom the problems and the very existence of this community gain visibility. This also contributes to the discussion on attitudes one takes when it comes to recovering and presenting the image of one’s own community in general. How do you feel about it?

Gosia Mirga-Tas is of course our superstar and we are all incredibly proud of her achievements and her creative process. Herstories are important to her, which she researches in archives, whether state or family, and she also often collaborates with local Roma artists. It’s important because it’s a form of appreciation of other artists. It’s a reflection of our identity and how we function, because we are a ‘very social community’ – in the sense that we live close to each other, the role of the family is crucial for us, and very often this level of family solidarity is translated more widely, to the international community.

We very often look inwards to the community to create our own narrative as a counter-narrative to the majority one.

As it is not obvious to many people why it is so crucial that the curator who builds the narrative of an event should also be a person from the very heart of the described minority, I would like you to elaborate on this.

I think that is crucial. The fact that the curator is the person who has a very strong influence on how the exhibition looks in general, in what context the works are produced and presented, what interpretation is given to the work, is not always obvious to people from the outside who don’t operate in the art field.

Apart from 2007, the year of the Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the landmark year was 2022. For the first time, we had a Roma artist representing our community in the Giardini. Gosia Mirga-Tas, an artist of Roma origin, represented the country for the first time. And the Polish national pavilion was the de facto Roma pavilion. This was a huge event in the contemporary art world and in our smaller Roma world. And it kind of went downhill as people in the contemporary art field, curators, institutions, museum professionals and other artists started to notice how good art was being made by Roma.

This coincided with changes in the majority space. Increasingly loud critical voices of women, minority groups, the increasingly present issue of the return of works and objects stolen during the colonial conquests. The decolonial discourse that began to operate in the contemporary art field also emerged in the context of Romani art.

I would like to touch on the subject of art as a tool of recording one’s experience and testimony. It seems to me that a woman artist who should be better known, but does not have the visibility and recognition she deserves, is Ceija Stojka. Could you tell us about her?

Ceija Stojka is one of the most celebrated heroines and iconic figures of the Roma world in general. She is a Roma woman from Austria who survived three concentration camps. She managed to escape, but a large part of her family perished during the Holocaust. Following the war, she found art was a form of therapy, a way to cope with the immense trauma she had experienced during the war. At the age of 50-something or 60, Stojka began to paint—she documented her experiences, images, and scenes from the camps. These are incredibly poignant, very expressive paintings that do away with a number of taboos. For example, she often depicted naked bodies, while for the Roma nudity is considered taboo. She also started to write. Her works are very distinctive, and often contain passages of text or poetry. Sometimes this poetry appears on the painting itself, sometimes on the back of the canvas. This is incredibly poignant poetry—very lyrical, but also incredibly dramatic. At some point, Stojka also started working on her memoirs, in which she described what happened to her, her family, and other Roma people she met in the camps. She is an important figure in the Roma community and contributed to the recognition of the very existence of the Roma Holocaust. For many years, the Roma Holocaust was not recognized at all. Up until the 1980s, the German government claimed that the Roma who were killed during the war died because they were “asocial”. The Germans maintained that the basis for their extermination wasn’t ethnic or cultural identity and that the Roma were not part of their plan for the Final Solution. It was only in 1982 that the German Chancellor admitted that Germany was to blame for the Roma Holocaust, that it was indeed a full-scale Holocaust. Their aim was the total extermination of the Roma people.

It is also worth mentioning that the first memorial to the Roma Holocaust only appeared in Germany in 2012. Many decades after the war, the world is only beginning to recognize that the Roma were to be, like the Jews, one of the two groups to be wiped off the face of the earth. I think that all minorities, all discriminated against, subaltern communities that are pushed to the periphery and treated as inferior, can identify with a shared sense of injustice. Because these colonial forms of governance are familiar to us. And if we add to this the multidimensional character of our identities—including gender identities, for example—these elements come together, and our acts of resistance, but also mutual solidarity, are even stronger.

Delaine Le Bas, 'Transgressing the Past' ERIAC, 2018

Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka has conducted comparative research on community-based Roma projects in various countries in Europe and Latin America between 2013 and 2015 as a scholarship holder of the Open Society Foundation’s Roma Initiatives. She is the co-founder and member of the Alliance for the European Roma Institute (ERI) and Deputy Managing Director of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC).

Zuzanna Hertzberg is an interdisciplinary artist, art activist, and researcher. Her artistic practice comprises painting, textile-based works, and interventions in public space. Her work addresses the intersection of individual and collective memory. In 2018, she received her doctoral degree from the Faculty of Graphic Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She is a co-founder of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Bloc and a board member of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. 


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