Houses As Silver As Tents
Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
15 October - 15 December 2013
Review by Tomasz Jedrowski
‘Elusive visibility has long been the gift of the Roma, but if we are to effectively challenge the status quo, we now need to privilege the visible over the elusive.’ [Daniel Baker]
The latest show in Warsaw’s Zacheta National Gallery of Art is a journey into the notion of ‘Gypsiness’. Borrowing its title from Polish-Roma poet Papusza, ‘Houses As Silver As Tents’ makes a point of contrasting the perspective of Roma artists with depictions by outsiders. The result is powerful, an exercise - the first of its kind in Eastern Europe - of curatorial sensibility taking on social and cultural prejudice.
In the dim and oppressive light of the show’s first room, Hubert Czerepok’s blue neon ‘Nigdy Nie Bedziesz Polakiem’ (You will never be a Pole) glows from a naked wall. ‘Our identity is increasingly made up of negations’, the artist seems to say. With the neon’s letter ‘P’ bearing the nationalistic sign of the Warsaw Uprising and the letter ‘o’ doubling as an Iron Cross, it also confronts the visitor with ignored aspects of history such as the Roma Holocaust. Following this year’s violent attempts to expel Roma from several cities in Poland, the message rings more true than ever.
The next section could not be more different. In a bright space a range of images form giant, colourful collages on the walls. From afar, the themes seem familiar: the free Gypsy man, whether from a 19th-century drawing of a musician (Karol Mlodnicki, ‘Gypsy musician’, 1860) or a modern photograph of a barefoot man riding a horse (Jerzy Dorozynski, ‘Bareback, barefoot, to the waterhole’, 1960); the hot-blooded Gypsy woman, as in Tomasz Tomaszewski’s photograph of a Roma dancing in the street (strongly reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez’ 2001 video clip to ‘Ain’t it Funny’), or Bruce Weber’s fashion editorial for US Vogue featuring the Almodóvar actress Rossy di Palma pirouetting around a camp fire (‘Gypsy Soul’, April 1992, US Vogue).
Looking more closely, however, cracks appear in the clichés. Above Weber’s fashion shoot, small black-and-white photographs show Romas in the Belzec extermination camp. Below Tomaszewski’s lascivious dancer, a documentary explains the strict codes around female modesty in Roma culture. The outsider’s views are exposed as what they are - misleading and reductionist.
Which is why, presumably, the last room of this small show presents only Roma artists. The lighting is finally neutral, almost subdued, and the works speak for the complexity of the culture they come from.
Igor Omulecki and Payam Sherifi’s photographs, for example, contrast interiors of different Gypsy homes. These range from glitzy kitsch mansions to modest rooms adorned only with a portrait of the black Madonna of Czestochowa (Poland’s most venerated religious image). Next to the photos, in a glass case, mysterious dolls of devils and black cats made by Polish-Roma women’s groups refuse to offer certainty to the outsider.
Yet the rawest, most visceral demand of the show is made by English-Romany artist Delaine Le Bas with her site-specific installation ‘Kushti atchin tan’’ (Is this a good stopping place’). ‘You think you know who the real Gypsies are’ is smeared on the entrance of the large tent, surrounded by disfigured dolls. Inside, a chaos of tat and embroidered textiles: the ceiling is plastered with plastic posters of Cinderella (‘Don’t tell us who to be’), and like an echo of Czerepok’s earlier neon a Union Jack asks: ‘Proper British’’ At times the questions and issues may seem overly blunt: a child’s shirt, with frills and folkloric embroidery, states on its back: ‘Fear’. A European Union flag asks - ‘A Safe EU Home’’ But the anger, the fear, feel real and beg to be heard. This work, like this show, is a sophisticated cry for help which may just be the beginning of a dialogue, the beginning of visibility. In her poem about the silver tents, Papusza echoes this message.
I did not come for your food, says the opening line. I come so that you will want to believe me.