In February of this year, a storm of controversy raged around Channel 4’s poster campaign advertising the second series of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, which featured the strapline “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.” The London Gypsy and Traveller Unit expressed their concern – and that of those it represents – that this crass slogan was a pejorative and vulgarising depiction of the Gypsy communities, and furthermore argued that the first series was far from the nuanced exploration of Gypsy lifestyles that Channel 4 claimed it to be.
These debates highlight the importance of Autograph ABP Gallery’s new exhibition, Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush. It aims to offer a subtle exploration of these diverse communities, their cultures, and the conditions in which they live. Several of the artists exhibited here, notably Nigel Dickinson, Cristiano Berti, Alfredo Jaar and duo Yervant Giankian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, achieve this aim in compelling and moving photograph and video work. Others, such as Elisabeth Blanchet, Josef Koudelka and William Ropp, offered more problematic representations of their subjects.
Nigel Dickinson’s series of photographs are highly individuated portraits with detailed captions, offering a three-dimensional perspective on Roma people across the world. These portraits are very direct portrayals of ordinary people in ordinary situations, shown confidently on their own turf. They feel true to life, and real – to the degree that any photograph can be said to depict the ‘real’ – and unmediated by a mythologizing or romanticising lens.
Cristiano Berti’s work Lety, composed of both video and photographic work, documents the voyage undertaken by two Romani singers, siblings František Ďuďa and Martina Ďuďová, to take part in a commemoration of the Holocaust held near the site of a concentration camp where 1,309 Romani were interned during WWII. The video piece, whose subtitles conveyed the sometimes melancholy reflections of the brother and sister on their life – made all the more challenging by physical disability – and their relationship, also included footage of them singing some traditional Roma songs. It was a great pity that – at least when I visited – the soundtrack was not turned on, as this would undoubtedly have enormously enriched the poignant story of these two singers.
Meanwhile happily Alfredo Jaar’s video piece, Du voyage, des gens, was equipped with headphones. In this short work the camera focused on an anonymous Roma woman sitting on a busy square playing a violin-like instrument, with the soundtrack looping the monotonic lament with unremitting repetitive urgency – at times almost unbearable to hear. Passers-by ignore her while close-ups show her impassive face. Towards the end the camera pulls out showing the front façade of the Pompidou Centre, filling the screen, while the Roma woman is reduced virtually to a pin-prick, dwarfed by the Pompidou’s imposing architecture. This powerful depiction of the ignored outsider takes its name from a twist on former President Sarkozy’s description of the Roma people living in illegal camps on the Parisian outskirts (‘Les gens du voyage’, or people who travel) whom he ordered to be repatriated in 2010.
Four video works by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi are compelling, dreamlike montages featuring four different traveller communities. Nocturne, shot in Yugoslavia in 1995, shows a community/family party where music is playing and women dance amongst seated guests. The handheld camera jerkily and surreptitiously records the events from outside the building, blurred through apparently rain-spattered glass or plastic. Here the roles are reversed as we, the viewers, are the ignored outsiders, exiled from the cohesive group within, looking upon the vision of a community unified in celebration. In the three pieces that followed, from the Frammenti Elettrici (Electric Fragments) series, edited and manipulated archival footage feature people on the move in pre-war 1970’s Afghanistan, a colonial hunt along “Gypsies Road” in India from the 1930’s, and Gypsies returning to post-war Italy in the 1940’s. In all three the heavily slowed down frame rate, tinting and framing adjustments all serve to compel the viewer to really examine these images, to carefully observe the usually ignored or disparaged people on whom they focus, to reflect upon how they portray their subjects and the often nefarious ends to which such images have been put, exoticising their subjects as an alien ‘Other’ or emphasizing prejudicial attitudes.
The exhibition features a number of magnificent works by Josef Koudelka, a Magnum photographer who spent 8 years taking portraits the Gypsies of his native Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s. These black and white portraits are masterful and exquisitely beautiful; they give a uniquely personal insight into the community they depict but their romanticized, aestheticized perspective on people living impoverished and downtrodden lives is unsettling. One portrait, Gypsy, Svima, Slovakia, is a painterly photograph of an uncommonly beautiful, naked child with tousled black hair, which irresistably put me in mind of a Renaissance putto.
William Ropp’s portraits, pigment prints on aluminium, are also highly aestheticized portraits with a quasi-religious sensibility which left a bad taste in my mouth. I fail to see what such images, whose unusual technique rendered them unnecessarily melodramatic and impotently contrived, tell us about their subjects.
Elisabeth Blanchet’s photographs of Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers in the UK, were equally troubling. They immediately reminded me of “Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, which I had not seen but the furore surrounding which I was well aware of. Subsequently I have learned that Blanchet’s photographs were those used in the poster campaign – but as she explains on her website, the slogan was added without her prior knowledge and to her absolute dismay. But even without the slogan I find these images problematic. Unlike Nigel Dickinson’s work, Blanchet’s portraits focus attention on the stereotypical and superficial aspects of their subjects, who play so knowingly and exaggeratedly to the camera, that the pictures possess an outlandish, pantomimic feel. Rather than gaining insight into people’s lives, I feel these photographs offer a theatrical spectacle that only distances the viewer from the subjects.
Despite its less edifying elements this was an absorbing, thought-provoking exhibition with compelling work of real substance. At a time when, as Amnesty International reports, Roma people are ‘existing predominantly on the margins of society [and] are among the most deprived communities in Europe’; at a time when the disparaging terms “Gippo” and “Pikey” are still used freely in both school playgrounds and amongst adults alike, it couldn’t be more pertinent.
Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush is open from 25 May – 28 July 2012 at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place.
This review was originally published on Urban Times here.