Call the Witness
Interview with Maria Hlavajova

Issue no1
Feb - March 2020

Maria Hlavajova discusses the project Call the Witness, which adresses the situation of the Roma within European culture and society.The project has an exhibition platform in both BAK in Utrecht and in the Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, opening on June 1st.

—Sanneke HuismanFirst of all, why are you so interested in the Roma culture?

—Maria HlavajovaBack in 2007, when I curated the Dutch contribution to the Venice Biennale with the three-part project Citizens and Subjects, which included an exhibition by Aernout Mik in the Dutch Pavilion, I was approached by the Open Society Foundations to write an evaluation of the First Roma Pavilion (which they commissioned) that was on view in Venice the same year. I don’t think I would be alone in saying that that was the first time I had actively encountered works of art by artists who are working from within—and beyond—their Roma subjectivities, and I discovered the fascinating discourse unfolding around them. Through the diversity and vitality of the contemporary artistic practices by Roma artists which I was exposed to on that occasion, I was also confronted with my own prejudices stemming from both lack of knowledge and the pervasive stereotypes (about the Roma specifically, but also more generally) that penetrate our minds all throughout Europe. Of course it is on the basis of those stereotypes that powerful institutions—as much in the space of politics as in the space of art—legitimize their actions towards, and even against, the Roma peoples. A succinct statement by filmmaker Wim Wenders on the back of the catalogue of the First Roma Pavilion captured the urgency that appeared before me from this confrontation: “It is time to correct our image of the largest minority in Europe, which is still shaped by Gypsy romance and Gypsy kitsch. This misconception has lured us into the false belief that the misery which the Roma people were forced to endure for centuries was actually an act of self-chosen freedom. Let us clear our heads and open our ears and eyes to the creative potential of this first genuine European culture, which can only enrich our understanding of a future Europe without borders.” Not lacking in its activist impulse, Wenders’s statement suggests that we might need to choose, at long last, to look at the Roma culture as emblematic for the current condition of the world. And it spurred me to think about the exoticism that is pervasively brought to bear when it comes to discussions about the Roma, and how to put these questionable conventions under pressure. I strongly feel that a shift is needed from ignorance or occasional (mis-)representations of Roma subjects by others (in art and politics) to collectively creating a framework in which the Roma not only speak for themselves, but also where a dialogue can unfold with the “majority” society, if only symbolically this time in the space of art. The project of the Roma Pavilion is attempting precisely that. When I curated the Dutch Pavilion, the equivalent of your question about the Roma Pavilion was not asked in relation to the Dutch culture. I know that pointing out this parallel might sound a little absurd, as I live and work here, but just as much as Dutch culture, so too Roma culture can be seen as “an example” of a much larger condition in the West. As Giorgio Agamben has written, the figure of the “example” can be taken to reveal certain overarching injustices, blind spots, states of exception, and other areas of conflict that might be otherwise obscured by the powers that be. Let’s remind ourselves that we speak about a culture that has existed in our own “backyard” for over six centuries; indeed the Roma people are caught in the paradox of being at once assigned to the edges of mainstream society and at the center of this society’s discriminatory order of control. And although my interest in Roma culture is manifold, both in terms of aesthetics and politics, I thought that especially in the context of the national representations at the Venice Biennale, this could be an opportunity to actually look at ourselves through trying to understand this particular example from within our midst.

—Sanneke HuismanThe project is initiated by BAK. Did you also feel the urge for a project like this amongst Roma artists?

—Maria HlavajovaThe Roma Pavilion can only be carried out because there have been a multitude of projects by Roma artists unfolding all around Europe, and beyond, but it probably goes without saying that many of them take place “under the radar” of the dominant contemporary art circuits, which tend to either ignore these practices completely or insist on putting them within a narrow ethnicity-based framework. So the initiative of the Roma Pavilion is not BAK’s own—instead we are in the position to just bring certain energies and activities together and to try to build a challenging framework of visibility for these artistic expressions, however temporary this might be. As I mentioned earlier, in 2007 the First Roma Pavilion was realized as a Collateral Event at the Venice Biennale, and it brought together a number of artists, filmmakers, curators, thinkers, etc. from Roma communities all around the world with an exhibition titled Paradise Lost. Not having its own “national” patron like other Pavilions, which would ensure the continuity of the project in Venice, and suffering from a lack of available funds, the project at the subsequent Biennale in 2009 did not go through. Yet many grassroots initiatives became even more active instead, and one could observe a gradual shift from a number of scattered voices across Europe to a network of Roma practitioners developing a true transnational identity. Despite the myriad local problems the Roma have to put up with, a true global culture is being developed along the lines of solidarity—solidarity of an order that has been lost and is no longer known to us in the West. We at BAK found it of crucial importance to try and see if we—as an art institution, which has always cared about the notion of art opening up a possibility of imagining the world differently than how we know it—could add a humble contribution to the visibility of these energetic developments through the realization of the Roma Pavilion’s second iteration this time around. In practical terms, however, the concrete parameters for this initiative took shape at a rather late stage—only in autumn of last year. At that point the Open Society Foundations approached us and asked if we would consider such a serious undertaking. This invitation coincided with the discussions among Dutch politicians about the “problems” this country “faced” with the Roma. You probably remember how the alarming headlines in the Dutch papers appeared abruptly, taking many by surprise. These statements from politicians were apparently encouraged by the shocking and unforgivable actions of the French and Italian governments, among others, which did not shy away from expatriating the European (Roma) citizens “back” to their “countries of origin” or requiring ethnic fingerprinting, around the same time. We thought: even though this renewed “discourse” about Roma and Europe is so one-sided and negatively constructed, the situation might actually provide a momentum upon which one can build further and set in motion a conversation about—and in—the space of art in this context.

—Sanneke HuismanThe exhibition in BAK is part of a bigger project. What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

—Maria HlavajovaLong-term engagements with various issues at play in both art and society in our projects—which include various public moments alongside an in-depth research trajectory—are a distinguishing feature of BAK’s practice, through which we’ve carved out a space somewhere between an art center and a platform closer to what goes on in academia or in the field of advocacy. It is not different in this case. The project Call the Witness consists of a number of facets (the exhibition at BAK, the Roma Pavilion, the digital platform, etc.), all of which are embedded in a collective effort of a number of artists and thinkers. I see BAK as a platform for thinking—from, with, and through art—about the urgencies that we share in our age and in a time characterized by a profoundly unsettled sense of certainty about who we are as citizens and what the options before us to lead responsible and inspired lives are, or could be. If you think of the condition of things as a profound state of ambivalence racked with uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety, as postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha has written, for example, then the task of an art institution like BAK might be that of interlocution: the recognition of the need for exchange and talk, for conversation, discourse, and dialogue, as it “comes to constitute the human right to narrate.” It is critical that there be political and cultural institutions that protect the right to narrate—and the complementary right to be heard. This way, an art institution can help in making things not only visible, but more importantly, in making them public.

—Sanneke Huisman How does the exhibition in BAK relate to the Roma pavilion in Venice? For example: are the same works going to be exhibited?

—Maria HlavajovaThe Roma Pavilion is in fact an extension of sorts of an already existing initiative under the title Call the Witness by curator Suzana Milevska (Macedonia), who curated the research exhibition that is currently on view at BAK. Milevska’s idea is based on the concept of “Kris-Romani,” a traditional Roma court as well as a forum for conflict resolution and the mediation of disputes, which exists within some Roma communities. This concept allows us to create a platform in which Roma artists and Roma communities are not just spoken about or “represented” through some fantasy work by others, but where they can speak for themselves by “bearing witness” to their own urgencies, and contributing “testimonies” about both failures and successes among and around them. Taken as a point of departure and building on this core idea and the group of artists in the exhibition at BAK, we developed a concept for the Roma Pavilion. Yet rather than a traditional show, Call the Witness in Venice is more a “makeshift” exhibition that evolves over the course of three preview days of the Venice Biennale. The Roma Pavilion takes place on the premises of the UNESCO Venice Office, which in the course of the Biennale will continue its normal activities in the conference rooms that are at the same time our project’s venue. We took this set of circumstances to the test, and inspired by some of the features of Roma culture—such as provisionality, improvisation, and contingency—we developed a concept which we feel is challenging the traditional notions, if not tired platitudes, of and about exhibition-making. The Venetian “palazzo” of our hosting institution, with its stiff atmosphere of past glory and current administrative uses, first had to be radically transformed. This is realized through an architecture intervention by Dutch artist Aernout Mik, who based his concept on a work by artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920–2005) entitled Design for a Gypsy Camp (1956–1958), one of the foundations of his famous New Babylon project. Constant developed the work upon the invitation of the artist Pinot-Gallizio, who offered his land to the Roma families in Alba, Italy. It was supposed to function as a “nomadic settlement” for these families who were driven from the region, yet it was never realized. Constant, however, took his fascination with the Roma further in his work and thinking, suggesting that in fact we must learn from their way of life, as we all will be, like the Roma, “becoming nomads once more, wandering over the earth, not looking for rest but for dynamic motion.” Even back then, he also drew lines and connections between fate of the Roma and the refuges or migrant workers who were beginning to shift and redefine the contours of post-war Europe. What struck me about this was the powerful act of generosity of artists as it stands in contrast to harsh political reality. Fifty odd years later, there seems to be little if anything that the majority population has adopted from this generous spirit of artistic experimentation and intellectual thinking about the exemplary way of life of the Roma people. Through basing the site of the exhibition in this project, we hope to recover at least some of it for our generation. So within this architectural environment, first a number of works by Roma artists (amongst which are the artists in the BAK exhibition) will be installed as testimonies of sorts—ensuring their right to narrate and to be heard. Then the series of live testimonies starts to unfold. Other artists, theorists, and activists—of both Roma and non-Roma origin—will be joining the effort gradually in the course of the three preview days. Through performances, lectures, readings, interviews, or screenings the space will transform: filmed, these performative gestures will enliven, one by one, screens scattered around the space—and will also be added to the project’s digital platform. But the “witnesses” will also leave behind various objects (spontaneously and at their discretion); these could be works of art or other material “ephemera.” Take Daniel Baker, for example, a Roma artist and theorist based in London who has been important in putting together the series of testimonies. The inaugural lecture-performance, which he delivers with artist Paul Ryan (himself non-Roma), titled Mirror Mirror, will in some way depart from his PhD thesis, in which he put under pressure the very notion of the “Roma art.” What is it? Is it art by Roma? About, or even for, Roma? The format suggests the delivery of two academic papers, which reflect upon Roma art from two theoretical positions: American semiotics and social anthropology. Within and alongside these apparent lectures are visual and performative elements that tease out a number of aesthetic and political issues concerning Roma people through cultural representation. Some traditional objects we customarily connect with the Roma culture will be used as “props” as it were, and after that, they are added to the show. Or take artist Ferdinant Koci: he will observe the “proceedings” of the Roma Pavilion during the testimonies, and register each of the contributors in a drawing, like a courtroom artist would do; this is not unlike what he does on the streets of London, where at times he offers quickly-drawn portraits to passers-by in exchange for a modest fee. In parallel to the series of testimonies, Koci will install his own modest installation on site, testifying to the solidarity unfolding around him. Thus—depending at which moment you choose to visit the exhibition—different constellations will be presenting themselves to the Pavilion visitors. The opening will take place at the end of the live program, “freezing” things as it were, till the end of the exhibition on 9 October. I already mentioned that both Roma and non-Roma artists contribute to the Pavilion, as I believe, that without recognition of each other’s position and without a dialogue, there is no way forward. But also, I thought that within the context of the national representations in the Venice Biennale, the extra-national character of the Roma Pavilion offers an invitation and a possibility to in fact make it everyone’s. And it is not only artists who contribute the testimonies; it’s also thinkers, activists, politicians, writers, and others (writer Salman Rushdie, a Romani studies scholar Thomas Acton, or Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe Maud de Boer-Buquicchio are among them), whose work belongs to what we would call “exemplary practices”—not unlike the works shown—all of which dedicated to Roma issues. These shifting protocols put the curator in a rather awkward yet provocative position. In truth, exhibition-making is in most cases merely about the juxtaposition of objects in a controlled environment. Here in the Roma Pavilion, however, no matter how well prepared the context—such as the exhibition environment and the list of contributors—the project is consciously based on the notion of chance and entanglement. Performatively—and I am as yet unsure how this will work—I would like to make a gesture of withdrawing from a position of that person with control and power to define the outcome, and literally let the exhibition “install” by itself through chaos and entropy, following its own needs and rhythm.

—Sanneke HuismanWas it hard to realize the Roma pavilion on the Venice Biennale? To me, the Biennale looks like an organization that is not very open to projects like these because they are too controversial. Is that true?

—Maria HlavajovaLet’s put the fact that everything is hard to realize at the Venice Biennale aside: in fact the Biennale is one gigantic circus in a city that has more to do with Disneyland (…without a hardware store! Where to get the nails you need to install the artworks that you forgot to take with you from wherever you come from?!) than with the world it takes as its subject. Yet many still feel it is the world’s prime exhibition, which, despite all of its problems, is potentially a platform for visibility. No one questions that the Venice Biennale is a mirror of the neoliberal project in the field of art, if not directly its art double. It’s inextricable link to both ideologies of national representation and the market, and its indulging in commodity production, the consumption of spectacle, and the distribution of culture through entertainment it mirrors (despite many good intentions and a few exceptions) typifies the neoliberal model par excellence. One should not forget that this logic readily consumes even critically-oriented endeavors, turning them into a welcome, harmless outlet of oppositional voice. In the absence of any alternative I can see at this moment, I consider it important to continue taking a position in this context nonetheless. Not only does the project of the Roma Pavilion serve as a platform for the Roma artists to speak up, it also critically confronts the racial prejudices around and in us. Moreover, the Roma Pavilion has the opportunity to perhaps open up a discussion about a possibility of existence outside the “product/propaganda” dichotomy, two stultifying tendencies that came to define the field of contemporary art, serving the neoliberal imperatives of late. The Roma Pavilion is a transnational—if not extra-national—Pavilion, free of the burdens of national representation or even nationalist ideology like few are. And it can hardly be seen as a vehicle to spur a shopping spree of the collectors arriving in Venice on their yachts. The possibility of opening up a niche occupied by neither the market nor the (nation-)state, might, despite the conceptual controversies it establishes, present significant opportunity for thinking differently about art for us all.

—Sanneke HuismanIt looks like the political implications of the subject are of major importance for the exhibition and the pavilion. If so, does this mean the artistic quality is less important? From this point of view, how did you ensure artistic quality?

—Maria HlavajovaTo genuinely engage with this question I feel I would need to return it back to you and ask: what is it precisely that you mean by “artistic quality?” I suspect that the imperative of ambivalence that haunts the art world and keeps it out of sync with the world proper is at play here. How would you envision the task of ensuring artistic quality whether in a Roma, Dutch, American, UAE, or any other Pavilion?! What interests me about contemporary art is how it constitutes, both poetically and politically, a relationship to the world around us. Any work of art that I tend towards must simultaneously tell me something about the world that I would not know otherwise and trigger me to imagine what else might be possible, or at least inspire me to believe that the possibility of a better world is out there. The works of the Roma artists in this project do precisely that, and in a powerful and disarming manner. One way of reading the stories that they tell is to see how they in fact expose how our western democracies discriminate against the Roma peoples in our own backyard and on our behalf. What is amazing to realize is that the works themselves are free of both the direct accusations and of self-victimization, yet the emotions they lay bare are about the mammoth dedication to fight for human dignity. I do not see how one could think about these or any other aesthetic practices without thinking through their political implications in the contemporary world.

—Sanneke HuismanAfter the exhibition in BAK and the Roma pavilion in Venice, how do you see this project continuing in the future?

—Maria HlavajovaWhat is really important, I think, is what happens “in-between” the Roma Pavilions, thus outside of the high-end platform of the Venice Biennale. The globally evolving network of the Roma artists will undoubtedly continue to flourish into a mature platform of exchange, despite the hardships and immense difficulties, and I am sure we will hear more and more from the remarkably interesting artists in this community. I am however not naïve, and I see that a lot of further work has to be done, on both sides of the equation. But what I hope for myself and for BAK is to engage with the Roma artists and other professionals throughout a variety of our projects, all of which are committed to tackling the urgencies of our time. And hopefully the world of tomorrow, having embraced differences through measures of equality, will allow us to safely “lose” the label of “Roma art” which in the world of today is a critical prerequisite for emancipation—the work before us.

Call the Witness

bak, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht
22 May - 24 July

Roma Pavilion
La Biennale di Venezia, 2011
Palazzo Zorzi, Venice
1 June – 9 October 2011

Posts 1 — 1 / 1
27 May 2011

Well, it's a simple fact that most stereotypes have their basis in reality. Perhaps if fewer Roma committed themselves to lives of crime and parasitism, non-Roma opinions would change.

Share this Article:
|Back to Top
Related | Most read
Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2020