The politics of images
Research design and methodology
This project developed an online platform, which reunites the visual depictions of the Roma (also called Gypsies) of the current territory of Romania in the photo-archives and visual arts sources (paintings, drawings, graphic art, film, etc.) of the Europeana collections. We argue that the current discrimination and marginalization of the Roma communities throughout Europe, and in Romania in particular, are based on a long historical process, which proceeds from the slavery of the Roma in Romania up to the mid-19th century, and their subsequent assimilation as a marginal community. The project proposes to serve as an educational tool to be used in the classroom by high-school teachers and college professors.
Our study was guided by two research questions:
- How was the societal image of the Roma formed through staged photographs and visual arts’ representations (drawings, watercolors, paintings) in the 19th and 20th centuries?
- How does the stereotypical image of the Roma influence the current stigma and marginalization?
The research centers on these questions, that the investigation of the Europeana collection answers using several categories of representations: temporal (19th and 20th centuries), female versus male (the ‘gypsy woman’ myth), children, Roma portrayed as beggars or as different workers, poor versus high-income (only in the inter-war period and after 1990 and in private archives), specific elements versus the majoritarian population, victims of the Holocaust (Porajmos) etc.
The methodology used is the qualitative visual analysis of the images included in the archives and collections available through Europeana and data correlation of the representation of the Roma in a temporal perspective. The representations of the Roma in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries answer to a more generalized perspective on this community in Europe, but we want to stress the specificity of the Romanian case. Methodologically inspired also by the interdisciplinary focus of art and politics analyses (and specifically Jacques Rancière’s concept of dissensus), this project uses a digital platform that will most easily allow access to unknown visual representations of an underprivileged and highly discriminated community.
Most of the artistic representations favor the view that keeps the Roma in an underprivileged position. Moreover, theoretically this project is inspired by the research on photography (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger), as well as on the cultural studies and the issue of representation and the interpretation an image can produce (Stuart Hall). The power of images to construct political identities underlines our research of the images that represent the Roma and we refer to the conceptualization of the ”thinking image” (Walter Benjamin) or ”the pensive image” (Jacques Rancière), but take them as proofs nonetheless (”images in spite of everything” Georges Didi-Hubermann).
This project fills a gap in the theoretical approach to the visual representation of the Roma in Romania as it also provides a tool to construct more meaningful depictions of a dignified community through the better analysis of historical sources.
The web platform builds around a timeline of these visual representations of the Roma in the mainstream (visual arts and photographs) from the nineteen-century, and the slavery of the Roma in the Romanian territories, and throughout the twentieth century. The aim of this timeline is to provide an overview of the stereotypes these images have helped put forward in the construction of the image of an ”other”, “exotic”, or “romantic”, and the objectification of this “other”. At the same time it stresses the alternative understandings they could provide, for example by emphasizing the different types of Roma communities, and thus the diversity of a community stereotypically regarded as unified and marginal.
Historical terms (Gypsy versus Roma) and the limits of the investigation
As Éva Ádám observes, in the investigation of picture agency databases, the databases that include images of the Roma and Sinti show “how strongly stereotypes and clichéd thinking have shaped the image politics concerning Sinti and Roma and how much these prejudices influence all matter of representation. In order to conduct the investigation, there was no avoiding this predominant view” (Ádám). As the author observes, a discussion regarding the classification of images needs to accompany our understanding of the representation of the Roma. ”Who decides which picture bears the label “Roma” and on what criteria? What qualification do the people responsible for this classification have? Why are Roma visually reduced to images of poverty and a fashion style?” (Ádám) As in the case of the investigation of Éva Ádám we searched using the terms Romi, Roma, Roma people, Roma population or Roma minority but images of the city of Rome turned out. Our search using the terms Romania + Gipsies, Romania + Gypsy, Romania + Gipsy, Romania + Zigeuner, Romania + Gitan, Tsigan(s), Țigan/i, țigănci/ țigăncușă (Roma girl), Șatră (gipsy tribe), caravană (caravan), laie (group of nomad Roma), cort (tent), cai (horses), or using crafts and professions spoitor/i (house painters), căldărar/i (boiler makers), aurar/i (gold washers), ursar/i (bear leaders), lăieși (camp Roma), lăutar/i (musicians), costorar/i (mowing makers), ciurar/i (sieve makers), chivuță/țe (woman house painter), coșar/i (chimney sweep), sobar/i (stove makers) found more images.
We also searched using the geographical terms Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, Dobrudja, Transylvania, Bukovina, and the libraries: Romanian Academy and National Heritage Institute. Our search used also the names of photographers: Carol Popp de Szathmari, Anatole Magrin, Nicolae Ionescu (without any images of the Roma), Iosif Berman, Costică Acsinte (not on the Europeana platform), Josef Koudelka, Leopold Adler; and painters: Sava Henția, Michel Bouquet, Auguste Raffet, Ștefan Luchian, Nicolae Grigorescu, Camil Ressu, Theodor Pallady, Theodor Aman, Ion Andreescu, Octav Băncilă, Marius Bunescu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Iosif Iser, , Nicolae Tonitza, Cecilia Cuțescu Storck, Theophille Schuller, Nicolae Vermont, Jean Al. Steriadi, Ștefan Dimitrescu, Rudolf Schweitzer Cumpăna.
One of the issues with which we had to deal is the use of the term “Gypsy” in the original sources and in the captions provided by the archives of the libraries whose images are collected by Europeana.eu. We chose to keep the original titles and provide this contextualization for the historical use of the term Gypsy in the 19th and 20th centuries because we deal with artworks and historical sources. A second issue with which the project team had to deal with was the identification of the Roma in the images taken in the 19th century and the 20th century. In the case of certain images, the original identification which specifies the name “Gypsy” lacks the context or the specific explanation was problematic, as for example in the case of the photo by Carol Popp de Szathmari, “Millo – Barbu Lăutaru” in which the Romanian actor portrayed the musician Barbu Lăutaru. In these cases we decided to follow the original inscription of the author of the image or of the institution that archived the image but we cannot guarantee that the images always depict Roma.
Stereotypes versus truthfulness
In other cases, while the original identification of the image does not specify whether or not a Roma person is depicted, the specificity of the profession (flower-sellers), the clothes in certain cases, and of the posture in which she or he is shown made us decide it was a Roma person, and thus we included their image. Some cases are interesting because they provide an image with a context given by the original source, which constructs another reality.
For example, the image titled Țigan (Gypsy) from the period 1882-1897 realized at the studio of Kamilla Asbóth, the inheriter of Theodor Glatz, and archived by the National Heritage Institute in Bucharest has as a description “Gypsy dressed in a specific clothing of the Roma ethnicity, seated on a chair. On his head he wears a woolen hat. He is dressed with a torn shirt, a large-sleeved coat with tight pants. On his feet he wears sandals. On his shoulder he holds a wooden bat on which wickers are hanging. In his hand he holds three chickens.” At the same time, the Romanian style of dressing of the period was very similar, so what in fact helps identify this young man depicted in the image as a Roma person? It appears in fact that the two communities, the majoritarian, Romanian community and the Roma minority of the time were equally poor.
Historical recollections of the Roma of the Romanian territories evoke their slavery and the different ownership of slaves that existed (state owned, Church owned and owned by the boyars). At the same time, afterwards the diversity of the community and the different professions they had is acknowledged. The Roma were goldsmiths, wood makers (rudari), tinkers, bear leader (ursari), greengrocer (zarzavagii), nomads (lăieși) or settled Roma among which we find the musicians (lăutari) (Achim); locksmiths (meșteri lăcătuși), blacksmiths (fierari), farriers (potcovari), tinsmiths of vessels of brass (spoitori de vase de aramă), bricklayers (zidari), day laborers (salahori), horse sellers (geambași), chimney sweep (coșari), sellers of old clothes (negustori de haine vechi), of old iron (de fier vechi), sellers of newspapers and songbooks (vânzători de ziare și cărți de cântece), of different small things (de diferite mărunțișuri), shoe polishers (vâcsuitori de ghete), and for women: house painters (chivuțe), flower sellers (florărese), sellers of boiled corn (porumbel fiert), sellers of popcorn (floricele) (Glasul romilor).
While the Roma community saw a diversity of professions and typologies, the stereotypes through which it was portrayed include the eroticization of the woman body who is displayed for example with a breast showing. At the beginning of the XXth century postcards with Romania are sold with Greetings from Romania including Ursari (Bear leaders) and a woman gypsy shown with a naked breast.
Other stereotypes are present in the form of the association between witch and gypsy as in the painting by Theodor Aman, Vrăjitoarea (The Witch) or between fortuneteller and Roma woman. As Victor Ieronim Stoichiță shows, in western art, the consecration of this image of the Roma woman as a fortuneteller dates back to the end of the 16th century, beginning of the 17th century when the iconography of the fortuneteller is established (Stoichiță 2017, 192). This iconography establishes the eroticization of the image of the woman fortuneteller specific to those called at the time ”the Egyptians” (Stoichiță 2017, 192). At the same time, the commentaries of art historians of the time of paintings by important artists such as Caravaggio help construct the mystification of the Roma image. As Stoichiță notes, the contemplation of ”the Other” incites but marginality calms and the image of poverty needed to be isolated so as to be appreciated (Stoichiță 2017, 172).
More often than not, photographers and visual artists show the Roma community in poverty, and preference is given to traditional communities within the Roma diverse landscape.
Documentary photography of the 19th century as it appears in the works of Caroll Popp de Szathmari, Franz Duschek, Carl Koller, Kamilla Asboth, shows us a more diversified image of the Roma. Szathmari’s photos which represent the main corpus of the images included in the Europeana database, show a plurality of images of the Roma: Gypsy bear leaders, Gypsy cook, Group of gypsy (a family portrait in the studio), Gypsy from Romania (traditional clothes), Gypsy (portrait in the studio of a girl with naked breasts), Paparuda (Rainmaker photograph taken in the studio of a group of children and a woman). Szathmari also did several watercolors and drawings of the Roma.
Visual arts’ representations of the Roma in the 19th century included paintings, watercolors, drawings and engravings which repeat the same representations of the Roma. The first representations belonged to foreign artists. One of the earliest representations is that of Auguste Raffet, Family of gypsy travelling in Moldova (1837). Charles Doussault realized several watercolors in the mid-19th century: Cobzar/Musician (1844), Wallachia gypsy (1850). Janet Lange did a drawing of a Gypsy coachman and Theodore Valerio drew Roma in Gypsy from Arad (1860-1879), Gypsy from Lipova, Gypsy musician. Among Romanian painters of the 19th century, we can mention Theodor Aman (1832-1891) with Gypsy, Two gypsy house painters (spoitori), Peasants partying with musicians, Party with musicians, The kobza player, Portrait of a gypsy woman which have become emblematic for the representation of the Roma of Romania. Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907) dedicated several artworks to the Roma, such as The gypsy from Ghergani, Head of gypsy woman, Gypsy tents, A group of gypsy.
Nicolae Vermont, Dreaming
At the beginning of the XXth century, Romanian painters portray the Roma. They are also shown in landscapes with caravans, but not in other types of usual representations. Nicolae Vermont innovates because he has more realist portraits of those he chooses to portray. Most often, painters choose to show the same types of representations: the gypsy girl with a scarf (red or yellow), house painters (spoitori), flower sellers, or the fortuneteller. Among the main paintings of this epoch we can mention the paintings by Rudolf Schweitzer-Cumpăna (The Gypsy Girl, Violin player), Aurel Băeșu (The Gypsy Girl, Head of gypsy woman, Căldărarii), Octav Băncilă (The yellow scarf, Young gypsy woman, Caravan with nomads at sundown, Gypsy girl, Gypsy with red scarf, Gypsy girl with necklace and pipe) Ludovic Basarab (Portrait of a gypsy girl (sad), House painter, Nomad group), Cecilia Cuțescu Storck (Rainmakers, The orange seller/Gypsies in the garden, Flower seller).
Cecilia Cuțescu-Storck, The orange seller/Gypsies in the garden, Flower seller
Besides photographs and paintings, in the 20th century postcards showing the Roma were being sold with the tag Greetings from Romania.
What is interesting in the photographs realized for example by Nicolae Ionescu during the inter-war period and which are held by the Photo archive of the Romanian Academy Library in Bucharest but which were not digitalized by the Europeana.eu is that a more diverse perspective on the Roma minority was offered by this artist. He photographed flower sellers but not as typical representations of the epoch or of the previous period, but chose to show moments of shared laughs or to portray the beauty of the women selling flowers in the streets of Bucharest. He also portrayed the representatives of the Roma elite of the period.
Costică Acsinte’s photographs from Slobozia offer a unique glimpse into the lives of a Romanian community in the inter-war and post-World War Two periods. Owner of the Foto Splendid Costică Acsinte photo studio, the artist made portraits of his fellow citizens, we see small children, families, their weddings, their death, all sorts of celebrations, but also group portraits of the women working in a tailor’s shop, newspapers’ sellers, the apprentices of a cobbler workshop. Among these portraits there are also pictures of the Roma of that community, but this time they are not portrayed as in the previous decades in stereotypical hypostases, but on the contrary, as part of the community. Some group portraits show the Roma of the community as part of Jazz Group in 1943 in Slobozia.
Contemporary Roma art and self-representation
In what concerns the self-representation of the Roma in Romania there are three important moments: the inter-war period, when a Roma identity begun to be imagined, the 1970s when this identity was institutionalized, and the period post 1990 when appeared more clearly distinct Roma artistic voices. Contemporary Roma art appeared only in the 1980s, until then being rather an “art about the Gipsy”, in 1985 being organized the first world Roma art exhibition in Paris, while in 2007 was organized the first Roma art pavilion at the Venice Biennial. More recently were created the European Roma Initiative and European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin.
Anca Pușcă (2015, 135) in what she calls “the aesthetics of violence” points to a change in the representations of the Roma after 1990. She argues that “from a tolerated marginality of Roma groups, that allowed nonetheless for constant contact with majority groups, creating a sense of symbiosis, albeit a controversial one, to an increasingly violent reaction to Roma occupying new, and often more central spaces in our communities.” At the same time, as the author observed, “this transition from occupying marginal spaces to increasingly central spaces that have traditionally belonged to the ‘majority’ is an important move in the political ‘affirmation’ and ‘redefinition’ of Roma groups. The violence with which it is often met is perhaps a sign that it is working. By focusing on the ‘aesthetic’ aspect of this violence (…it) argues that new representational forms, such as photography and fi lm, are key to this renegotiation of the spaces that Roma groups inhabit, and along with it, their political positioning” (Pușcă 2015, 135).
The most interesting example for our project discussed by Anca Pușcă is that of “Roma rights photography” which “acts as an openly political tool aimed at creating positive spaces and frames through which Roma groups can be ‘ seen’ and claim ‘visibility’”, but points also to its “limited ability to present a new ‘face’ of the Roma, and in the process re-negotiate a more equal position in society on ‘their’ behalf” (Pușcă 2015, 132, 115). Anca Pușcă quotes the example of the project RomaRising coordinated by Chad Evans Wyatt which includes portraits of over 250 Roma professionals from across Europe and Canada and one of the galleries is dedicated to a series of portraits of Roma from Romania which include the portraits of Mihaela Drăgan, a playwright and performer and Adrian Furtuna, who is a researcher, etc.
In our research concerning the visual representations of the Roma we also found several contemporary artistic projects, which counterbalance the stereotypical image of the Roma community. A similar project to that of Wyatt is Roma Body Politics, which included the exhibition No innocent picture. This exhibition incorporated portraits of ”Roma scholars, diplomats, public figures and intellectuals who posed as models for Déri Miklós’s psychoanalytical photographic portraits” and then ”undertook to embody a well-known Roma stereotype” such as ”the ‘Gypsy girl’, ‘the ghetto dweller’, the ‘gangster’, the ‘Gypsy musician’, the ‘Gypsy Madonna’, the ‘King of the Gypsies’, the ‘fortune-teller’, the ‘voivode’, etc.”
In Romania, the project Urban Roma by Crina Marina Mureșanu includes over 300 family photos of the artist’s personal collection and of her friends’ private collections from the Bucharest neighborhood of Ferentari. The images show Roma from Bucharest in different moments of their lives from the late 1950s to the 1980s and, as the website of the project mentions, they show normal moments of their lives without the usual stereotypes, or the exoticism used to represent them.
Achim, Viorel, The Roma in Romanian History (Budapest, New York: Central European University Press, 1998).
Ádám, Éva. “The investigation of picture agency databases – on poverty, musicians and the invisibility of discrimination”, https://blog.romarchive.eu/?p=8518.
“From the history of the Roma” signed by the editorial committee, Glasul Romilor (newspaper published by the General Union of the Roma of Romania, and since 1934 the Association general union of the Roma of Romania directed by the voevod Gh. Niculescu 1934-1940, it published 12 issues), Year VII, no 1 (April 1941), page 2.
Pușcă, Anca, “5 The ‘aesthetics of violence’ Roma/Gypsies visibility and the re-partitioning of the sensibile” in Post-Communist Aesthetics Revolutions, capitalism, violence (Routledge, 2015) 113-138.
Roma Body http://gallery8.org/romabody
Stoichiță, Victor Ieronim, Imaginea celuilalt Negri, evrei, musulmani și țigani în arta occidentală în zorii epocii moderne 1453-1800
Urban Roma, https://urbanroma.wordpress.com/about/
* Special thanks go out to Gelu Duminică for several observations concerning the historical evolution and sociological understanding of the Roma minority of Romania.