Acerca de la discriminación que aun sufren los gitanos en Europa del Este. Aunque menos violenta que en Rumania o Bulgaria, en Hungría la situación de la minoría Roma sigue siendo de alta vulnerabilidad.
The New York Times
February 6, 2008
In Hungary, Roma Get Art Show, Not a Hug
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
BUDAPEST — A show of contemporary Romany art just closed on Sunday here at the National Gallery, Hungary’s grandest museum. The exhibition was the latest nod to Europe’s most despised, and this country’s largest, minority. It came and went uneventfully, which itself was an event, considering the rise this autumn of the Hungarian Guard, a right-wing extremist group, which has made much news dressing up in paramilitary outfits recalling the Nazi era, ranting about “safeguarding national culture and traditions” and marching on a village against what it said was Romany crime there. Nobody is quite sure how extensive the group is or whether it is just good at grabbing headlines.
But the Roma were perfectly sure what “safeguarding national culture” meant.
Around the same time that the guard held everyone’s attention, a Slovak-Hungarian artist named Ilona Nemeth decided to put up bright yellow signs along a stretch of Kiraly Street in a traditionally Jewish but now ethnically mixed part of the city. In the languages of the local residents she posted questions based on the Bogardus Social Distance Scale, which measures the willingness of people to engage in social contacts: passersby were asked (to ask themselves, in effect) whether they would welcome so-and-so, from a different ethnic group, as a tourist, a colleague, a spouse, a fellow citizen.
Authorities from the district ordered the signs taken down hours after they went up, saying the project had stirred trouble where there hadn’t been any. The Hungarian news media jumped on the brouhaha, as they had jumped on the rise of the guard, and a local rabbi, among other neighborhood leaders, took up the artist’s cause. But as Ms. Nemeth reflected the other day, by then the work had produced “a media monologue and not a public dialogue.”
She added: “The Roma are not part of society here. Most of this society thinks they are not our problem. We’re not trying to understand them.”
Ms. Nemeth’s work resurrected age-old questions about the uses of art in shaping politics and public opinion, in this case concerning the Roma, or Gypsies. (The term isn’t considered pejorative here.) An answer of sorts then came with the show at the National Gallery.
The exhibition turned out to be a mess, but an emblematic one. Over the years various surveys of Romany music and art in Hungary have been organized at the Museum of Ethnography and at the Hungarian Institute for Culture and Art, from which most of the pictures at the National Gallery came. This show followed a multinational Romany pavilion at last summer’s Venice Biennale, shared by savvy conceptualists and folk artists, catering to the all-devouring art market.
The National Gallery exhibition, less high-concept, looked more like a flea market, much of it fairly awful, and heavy on self-taught artists with compelling life stories. The pictures included street portraits with drawings about the Roma killed in World War II and Chagall-like fantasies in candied colors.
Arranged in a long, numbing row, the art was assigned to attic galleries so unlike the large, gorgeous rooms for mainstream paintings downstairs that an outsider couldn’t help wondering if the installation had been intentionally devised as a metaphor (Roma here cast as “Jane Eyre” ’s Bertha Mason in the attic of Hungarian society). One evening not long before the show’s end, when closing time was still 30 minutes away, bored museum guards, anxious to get home, hastened out the two or three remaining visitors, trailing behind to make sure no one doubled back, and switching off lights along the way.
Agnes Daroczi, a Romany sociologist and arts advocate, defended the show as part of a long Romany cultural project. She recalled that when Hungary was under Moscow’s thumb, Roma weren’t even acknowledged as an ethnic group, and many of their small farms were bulldozed to promote collectivization, spoiling centuries-old customs. In that difficult climate a Romany intelligentsia emerged.
“We thought if we could gain a foothold in culture and the arts, then we could move closer to gaining human rights,” she said. The first Romany art show she put together was in the early 1970s. “Culture became an artistic tool in a political fight,” she said.
Industrialization had by then produced jobs for some 85 percent of Romany men, roughly the Hungarian average, and by the late ’70s, Romany culture had also come to be linked with a new liberal opposition to communism.
But with the transition to democracy that began in the late 1980s, and the collapse of state industry it caused, Roma found themselves first to receive pink slips. The figures speak for themselves. Roma make up an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the population. Romany unemployment now tops 80 percent; the national unemployment average is 7.7 percent.
In 2005 the World Bank, the Open Society Institute and other organizations initiated in Hungary and eight other countries a program for what’s being called, in typical Euro-speak, the Decade of Roma Inclusion, to improve Romany education, employment, housing, human rights and health care. Last year the government here adopted a plan to carry out that agenda. But Romany children, as they have for generations, still find themselves often segregated in schools and made to play in separate playgrounds.
“In the permanent fight for emancipation, we’ve shown the beauty and diversity of our culture,” Ms. Daroczi said about the art shows over the years. But clearly they have had little if any practical effect on daily life for Roma in Hungary.
One recent morning I found Jeno Zsigo, president of the Roma Parliament, a nongovernmental Romany rights group, looking deeply forlorn in his office in the city’s part-Romany Eighth District. He was mourning the fate of an arts camp he had run for hundreds of Romany children, whose operation has been suspended because, like the parliament, it has run out of money. He blames official indifference.
“Romany art goes on display as a favor,” he said. “There are a lot of talented Romany artists, but the question is still whether there is going to be any real acceptance and integration.”
Gyorgy Kerenyi, a journalist and radio producer who in 2001 started Radio C, the country’s first Roma-run radio station, put the situation in a wider European perspective: “It’s not violent here, like in the Czech Republic or Romania — the Hungarian Guard seems like a small thing — but most Hungarians are prejudiced. The situation hasn’t really changed much in 20 years. The European Union, which is afraid of Romany migration to Western Europe, shakes the hands of Eastern Europeans who start some initiative or sponsor some show, but it’s all window dressing.”
He recalled Romany excitement when Radio C started, finally giving Roma their own voice in the media. “It was like in a Kusturica film,” he said, laughing. “A cavalcade of people showed up, friends, kids, gangs, tucking their heads in to say hello or just to see how it all worked.”
Radio C caters to Romany listeners. Mr. Kerenyi remarked that, for the general Hungarian public, the popular television program “Megastar,” Hungary’s “American Idol,” has probably made the biggest impact: it has lately catapulted several Romany singers to national stardom.
“These were Roma who proudly said they’re Roma, and the program showed their families at home like other families,” he said.
Which still left open the question of the effect of the National Gallery show. Wim Wenders, the German film director, has said that Europeans like to comfort themselves with “the false belief” that the misery and isolation of the Roma is “actually an act of self-chosen freedom.”
You hear this often in Europe. Roma are casually dismissed as criminals and outsiders. The Romany art show, in a similar vein, let skeptics write off the work as primitive or, worse, charming, while functioning as a sop to the national conscience.
Confronted by that thought, Peter Szuhay, from the Ethnological Museum, who put the exhibition together, fell glumly silent. Over the years he has organized what would seem from their catalogs to be intelligent, sensitive shows documenting Romany life — contrasting how Roma are portrayed by others with how they depict themselves. These exhibitions have multiplied over the years as the plight of Roma, despite his efforts, has worsened.
Mr. Szuhay was in the musty loft of his split-level office in the museum, surrounded by peeling paint, fluorescent lights and stacks of papers. He has spent 28 years accumulating the collection that surrounded him.
“You have authentic personalities among these artists, whether they’re academically trained or self-taught, which is a division we’re trying to overcome,” he said. “I want to show how important the Roma are to Hungarians, to make clear they’re like the rest of us.”
Noble sentiments, and true. But the goal today seems as remote as ever. Meanwhile, Mr. Zsigo’s children are still waiting for their summer camp.