In the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself at two exhibitions that explore the issues and abuses faced by Roma communities. Firstly, at Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush at Rivington Place in London, and then The Bucaneers at the Stade Hall in Hastings, East Sussex.
With the recent controversy stirred up in the media by Channel 4’s offensive BFGW adverts (I can’t even bring myself to spell it out) and the eviction of the Traveller Community from Dale Farm in Essex, fresh debates have ignited on how racist attitudes towards Gypsy and Traveller communities are still seemingly tolerated in the UK. In light of this it is refreshing to be offered a different lens to look at these communities.
Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush – a group exhibition of lens based works by artists that displays the diversity of Roma culture and alludes to the cultural erasure of Roma people that continues today.
Alongside iconic photographs by Josef Koudelka, which introduces the exhibition with a series of melancholy monochrome portraits of Czech gypsies, are powerful works by internationally renowned artists who document the Roma communities with sensitivity for their subject. Santiago Sierra’s Teeth of the Last Gypsies of Ponticelli, is a series of large-scale shots of anonymous mouths, a bizarre yet highly effective, tribute to a displaced group of individuals. Multi-media work, Lety by Christiano Berti was a stand out piece. The work documents an event in 2009 that follows two Slovak Roma singers as they visit a commemoration for the victims of the concentration camp at Lety, in the Czech Republic. The juxtaposition of video footage of the singers on their journey with photographs of the pig farm that now stands on the site of the concentration camp created a potent piece.
Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush is presented by Autograph ABP the exhibition continues at Rivington Place in London until 28 July. There will be a series of events 12-14 June around representation and the media with speakers including scandalised photographer Elisabeth Blanchett and Romany poet and writer, Damian James Le Bas.
And speaking of Damian James Le Bas brings me on to an exhibition by his parents, Damian Le Bas and Delaine Le Bas…
The Buccaneers was a fleeting, fantastic, anarchic show, tucked away in the recesses of the newly built Stade Hall, running for a mere seven days. Combining colourful costumes, large collages, family photographs and performance documentation, the exhibition felt like wandering in to a cave of treasures. Each artwork beautiful in its own right and when combined with the works around it made more striking.
Damian Le Bas and Delaine Le Bas are a husband and wife artistic duo that take distinctive approaches to the work but combine their talents to make curious artworks. As they both studied at St Martin’s School of Art in the eighties and have shown at Venice Biennale, I find it hard to call them ‘Outsider’. Though the term could apply to the fantastical worlds they evoke through their work, it feels a bit of an unnecessary label. For me, Delaine’s textile works were particularly interesting – something of the reclamation of feminine pursuits in such a forthright and provocative way that doesn’t come across as twee as say a Tracey Emin.
Although Delaine and Damian both tolerate the Outsider label, their self-definition is far more interesting, titling previous shows with similarly provcative names such as, The Outlaws. In this show they’ve opted for the Buccaneers, apt for the locale of Hastings and its history of smuggling, but also in alluding to their own anarchic, wayfaring ways and their plundering from the artworld and popular culture, as can be seen in some of their reworking of old paintings, Disney characters, and Daily Mail articles.
I would have loved to hear Damian and Delaine talk about the exhibition, particularly as they spoke with curator Angela Kingston who first introduced me to the work and I would imagine would have chaired a lively and fascinating conversation about Outsider Art and how they navigate the definition.
The exhibition also included a discussion with Simon Costin from the Museum of British Folklore, a dedicated organisation championing the often forgotten heritage of the British Isles. I for one am a great fan of the Shell Grotto in Margate, and am delighted to discover there’s a Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall thanks to the BMF – lest we forget the eccentricities and mysterious rituals of our ancestors, or acknowledge the variety of folk practice still alive in the UK today.