Politics and Contemporary History in Germany – Panorama

Pictures and Images of the Sinti and Roma

Photo installation, Nihad Nino Pušija, Roma Pavillon, Venice Beinnale, 2007 (photo: © Binder & Haupt)

German culture can’t be reduced to pictures of rutting stags hanging on the living room wall – nor can Sinti and Roma culture to gypsy kitsch

For years the construction site between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate has lain idle. Most passersby never learn that, in 1992, the German parliament passed a bill to build here a “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under National Socialism”, because the information panel is blocked by a site fence. This state of things seems symptomatic of the prevailing lack of knowledge and ignorance about the Sinti and Roma, who are estimated to be the largest minority in Europe, amounting to 12 million people. The young Hungarian art historian and Roma activist Tímea Junghaus wants to broach this scandal about the memorial by means of an intervention. At his and the upcoming 2012 Berlin Biennial’s invitation, a Sinti and Roma “Council of Elders”, including survivors of the concentration camps, will meet at the site and, by their presence, demonstrate for the right to have what happened to them recognized.

The designation “Sinti and Roma” may be considered as a cohyponym, an umbrella term, that comprises groupings such as Kalé, Ashkali, Manoush, Lovara, Irish Travellers, English Gypsies, etc. The term “gypsy”, on the other hand, though some Sinti and Roma use it in an affirmative sense, has a racist background, particularly in connection with the Nazi murder of Sinti and Roma. There is a minority in Germany that calls itself German Sinti and has lived there for over 600 years, that is, long before the emergence of the German national state. They are an integral part of German society and have German citizenship. The total number of Sinti and Roma living in Germany is estimated to be 120,000 people. Their lives are as different as those of the majority society, not only socially but also individually.

Goodbye to stereotyping?

The art historian and Roma activist Tímea Junghaus | photo: © ERCF Berlin 2012 Still, representations of “gypsies” circulate a uniform and rather negative image of the Sinti and Roma that edits out cultural diversity and heterogeneity. The attributions “itinerant” and “criminal” have not lost their effect. In addition, there is the cultural and linguistic invisibility of the Sinti and Roma. Yet despite the lack of role models there is a large number of Sinti and Roma lawyers, doctors, scientists, scholars and artists. Fearing social stigma, only a few international stars have admitted to their Sinti and Roma background: Charlie Chaplin, Yul Brunner, Greta Garbo, Serge Poliakoff, Ron Wood, Marianne Rosenberg, Drafi Deutscher and the “Bomber of the Nation” Gerd Müller all have Sinti and Roma roots. A new generation of Sinti and Roma academics, which includes Tímea Junghaus, has gone on the offensive against this stigmatization and opened a self-confident discourse on emancipation, identity and difference.

New and here to stay

Exhibitions of contemporary Roma art such as Second Site in London in 2006 and the first pavilion for Roma art at the 2007 Venice Biennale, entitled Paradise Lost, reflect the development of Roma art today. But apart from the Roma museum in Brno, which does not specialize in the visual arts, there is not yet a permanent institution dedicated to Sinti and Roma art. In Germany the rise of a new generation of Sinti and Roma culture has borne fruit: in addition to the Theater Rroma Aether Club, the Kai Dikhas Gallery (“kai dikhas” means “the place of seeing” in Romany) has recently opened in Berlin. And parallel to the 2012 Berlinale, the director Katalin Gödrös has launched the International Romani Film Commission. Gödrös has brought together European Roma filmmakers, who signed a petition in which they formulated fundamental theses for a transitional Roma film strategy. The signatories include the well-known directors Tony Gatlif, Ivor Stodolsky, Katalin Barsony, Hamze Bytyci, Damian James le Bas, Dejan Markovic, Lidija Markovic, Sami Mustafa and Judith Stalter. This development, however, may run the risk that the artists who have here openly avowed their background soon end up in a new ghetto, that of a particular culture.

Exemplary careers?

Susie Reinhardt, “Hoo Doo Girl” | photo: © Christiane Stephan The folkloric tradition of the Sinti und Roma, which corresponds to the well-known “gypsy” stereotypes, continues. By contrast, there are the lives and works of several exemplary artists. There is, for instance, Susie Reinhardt, born in 1962 in Hamburg, distantly related to the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, psychologist, journalist, book author, musician and DJ, who thus pursues the life of a metropolitan intellectual with the most multifarious professions, a kind of life that has been raised into a modern role model. As member of the girl band Hoo Doo Girl, whose repertoire includes rock ‘n roll, blues, zydeco and stax soul, she has dealt only rather peripherally with gypsy culture. With the dedicated label Trikont, she has issued a compilation of contemporary adaptations of Django Reinhardt’s musical motifs, for which Hoo Doo Girl supplied a track.

An entirely different biography connects the photographer Nihad Nino Pušija, born in 1965 in Sarajevo and two-time participant in the Venice Biennale, with the musicians Kefaet und Selami Prizreni. All three came to Germany as so-called “tolerated refugees from the sub-states of former Yugoslavia”. Pušija, now in possession of a permanent residence permit, has been documenting for more than twenty years the life of the Roma throughout Europe. He learned only recently that his own grandmother was a Bosnian Roma. The main figures of his frequently exhibited latest series of works, Duldung Deluxe (Deluxe Toleration), which portrays Roma young people from Kosovo and Serbia before and after their deportation, are the Prizreni brothers, Kefaet and Selami, who grew up in Essen. Their careers as professional rappers in Germany came to an abrupt end in 2010, when they were deported to Kosovo. Since then they have lived there in terrible conditions.

Some day the term “Roma art” will become obsolete, for in the long term what really matters is “to expand both our own horizon and that of a broad public, so as in the end better to understand life, the condition humaine”, as Jana Horváthová, Director of the Roma Museum in Brno, recently put it in an introduction to an exhibition series for the Kai Dikhas Gallery.
Matthias Reichelt,
born in 1955, is a freelance writer and exhibition curator based in Berlin.

Lith Bahlmann,
born in 1966, is a freelance writer and exhibition curator based in Berlin. She is editor of several artist catalogue monographs and exhibition publications, including “Out of Bosnien” (2005), “Der Blinde Fleck” (The Blind Spot) (2008), “Reconsidering Roma” (2011), “Das schwarze Wasser – Das Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus ermordeten Sinti und Roma” (Black Water – The Memorial for the Sinti and Roma Murdered under National Socialism) (2012).

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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