Central European University, 2015
In conversation with Nikola Ludlova (MA, Department of History, CEU, Hungary) & Emilia Rigova (Pedagogical Faculty, Matej Bel University, Slovakia)
Ludlová & Rigová:Could you describe your research interests, your dominant preoccupation in your work?
Jelena: My interest is mainly defined by social power relations, gender issues, minority issues, activist art, mostly poetry and performance, politics and philosophy of art, also philosophy of language and metaphysics recently become sources of inspiration.
Ludlová & Rigová: Could you reflect on your position as a woman and/or as a Romani woman in the academic environment, and at the Department of Philosophy where you have been studying? I am interested in your reflection on power relations in the predominantly white male and highly prestigeous and competetive working environment. How the social relations in such a specific environement get nuanced and complicated by factor of ethnicity and gender?
Jelena: Academic environment is for me the place of desire and not belonging. My general feeling of academia is feeling of otherness, loneliness and self-dependency. I would say that lack of social and educational capital was very difficult to overcome, especially at the end of my BA studies. I would especially stress overwhelming feeling of helplessness at that time due to the fact that I was not able to get the help I needed in my academic surrounding, but also feeling of not belonging and distance from other young Roma women and men who were at that time graduated, and what I understand as absolute silence, or some form of inability to talk about and share their experiences and troubles of going through the process of finalization of their studies. Also, I was somehow sad because of the confirmation of this sense of loneliness and the feeling of being the first one on the “unknown territory” when I find out that I am actually the first Roma student on the Department of Philosophy on the Central European University (CEU), from the time it was established. This was especially troubling having in mind that CEU actually has Roma Graduation Preparation Program for young Roma, making them good candidates for MA studies.
Academia for me now on my MA studies stays very lonely place with many frightening unfamiliarities which take more of my resources comparing to my colleagues, often with less results. This had, and continues to have very demotivating and depressing effects on me, and I believe this is crucial deterrent to young Roma from pursuing MA and having a career in academia. Even when multiculturalism, ethnicity, race, gender and other similar issues are present in university statements and official documents I would generally say that I strongly feel disturbing impotence of the academia to contribute to social change. Not so much due to open hostility, but just by the way things are done by the people who cannot escape their social positions and often face difficulty seeing or thinking differently, which would be crucial for the change of the “old boy” practices and the legacy of it, that stays in this way unrecognized and invisible. Needless to say this is not just the case with Roma students, although it can be seen as a telling sign for example for prevalently Eastern European context that I am the first one to be enrolled on my Department now on MA studies.
However, I do not believe that just the presence of staff or student body that is more diverse is enough. I should mention that from my experience, we can just take it as an experience of a Roma activist, or probably more relevant, as ordinary Roma student, with Roma academics, man and women, although they are also not very numerous, and who, I guess, thought that this argument of the bare presence and their identity somehow legitimates their own view of social change in and out of the academia and the ways toward it. I felt this practice as really discouraging and hazardous, especially in international context, which can also even be seen as further deterrent to young Roma academics devoting their academic work to Roma issues, for which they are often paradoxically accused for by the same people.
Ludlová & Rigová: How do you relate to or conceive of the designation Romani Art? What are its characteristic features? What are the limitations of such designation? How do you imagine its further development? Is the eradication of the designation possible? Are there instances of work that undermine this label? [If you do not feel u want to discuss the labeling of the art production by Roma, you can respond instead to the question: How do you relate to the labeling of any intellectual work by Roma (be it Roma who self-identify as such, or who have been ascribed such an idenitity) as Romani production (Romani writers, journalists, singers… etc?
Jelena: Any designator puts boundaries, determine and exclude, I guess that is next to referral its most important function, so how I understand, what you ask is a wider question of the boundaries of knowledge, our conception of self, our identities which is very hard to answer. I think usually in public discourse you would have certain corpus of ideas under this name, mostly referring to self-identified Roma, who would usually have some reference in their work on the life of Roma people, self-identified, or not. And main actors in the public discourse and the artists would, of course, write their own narratives of Romaness. So, how I see it, we end up with a lot of copy-paste strips and clips, a lot of referentiality and stories but I would just say that to me it often seems that unifying criteria here would include reference to poverty, outdoor life, colorfulness, dirtiness and other composite objects from the categories of otherness and orientalism. So, it is very difficult to escape E. Said here. After reading at least some of his work its just very hard to think about naming and categorizing in art without this horrible resonance of historically unjust, and, if we accept there is something like a truth or truths about who Roma people are, untrue constitutive practices which just end up adding to the stereotypes.
Now, lesser problem here is the content about which people can actually argue, more important issue for me is the fact that this is mostly done in the opaque way, where politics of naming are in fact blurred, while usually there is a practice of employment of identity as a transparent surface and a direct source to ontological truth, and this is when the practices get really power inflated and for me more corruptive.
For example, my poems were really not recognized as typical Roma poems, I do not write about things related to Roma with a romantic, pathetic, archaic stand, I am very aware of how I represent the image of Roma women, and I would say my activist poems are not easily „digested“ poems, not really “apposite„ to occasions of 8th of April, well, at least how it is usually celebrated, and they are not recognized as the part of Roma Art by people who are decision makers and creators of cultural politics related to Roma in Serbia. My first book of poems was actually published by very old traditional Serbian publishing house. But then my work developed in different and experimental ways in collaboration with the group of feminist poets lead by Dubravka Djuric, and poems that are less narrative, more abstract and overrule boundaries of genres are just not recognized as poems “apposite„ to the mainstream discourse of poetry in Serbia, so my work is mainly visible and recognized in really narrow circles of activists and more alternative poets.
Anyhow, it might not be a bad thing. In a way, I never saw my work belonging to any strict corpus, as I never saw myself as strictly and only Roma women. I am not sure if I would like to be labeled by the canon of Roma or Serbian Art. Still I would say there are some elements that are present like feminist issues, Roma issues, power relations, violence, social justice and also theoretical aspects, playing with language, genres, philosophy etc, so I cannot say my work does not belong to any corpus of ideas or that it can belong to just any corpus of ideas. So, we can call the piece of art Roma art just on the bases of the criteria that self-identified Roma created it. This might suffice, people would often do this, but when I think of it, I do not feel just as Roma, neither is that always prevalently present peace of self-concept when I write, how I see it. Otherwise it would be very deterministic account, like your Roma identity predefines everything you do, and this is how stereotypes would work. But, fortunately, or unfortunately for some I guess, things do not work like that. My basic intuition goes into more complex direction when we think about humans, as for many other people I think. So, we might use or not use the criteria that self-declared Roma made it, but even in this case we would just level down the concept of a person, and probably the art. Of course, it can be conjunctive account. We can say some art is Roma art, and at the same time it can belong to the corpus of Serbian art, but usually Roma art named based on this criteria is considered to be in a disjunctive relation, and its interesting to see the power of this otherness resonating across the Europe. As I mentioned, very generally speaking, another criteria to call the art – Roma art, I guess, can be inherently work related and refer to certain topics, the way it is presented, technology, production or some other features of the work. In that sense also we should be careful about the canon related to these issues and for poetry idea of the transparency of language was really important for example. And this is something what I am contesting from time to time in my work, and this is not acceptable by the canonical models of poetry.
Ludlová & Rigová: What makes the art produced by people self-identified as Roma the Romani Art? Do you see any specificities in it, where are its borders, what does constitute the crossovers? Is it a question of topics and/or of visual language?
Jelena: This question I see as continuation of what I just wrote I think. Different things can be considered as Romani Art, depending of the idea of the name givers who Roma are, and what kind of art they make, what “clips” from their lives and interpretations of these, have more legitimacy over another so to say. And It cannot be a practice of established strict boundaries for me for sure, but since I acknowledge at least in some way my value ladeness I would just say that for me more valuable as Romani Art of self-identified Roma would be the one that contributes to more differentiation and more complex imaginary of the Romanness.
Ludlová & Rigová: In case you refuse the label of Romani Art as limitation or simply unacceptable, could you argue why? Can you provide an example of a piece (pieces) that topicalize a Romani identity, culture, subjects, history, etc. and contrast it with different topical works?
(please provide photodocumentation and statement of the copyright grant of rights)
What is the counterpart of the Romani Art? Is it the Czech Art or generaly „Non-Roma Art“ (i.e. the art of all the artists in the world except of that of Roma), the European or the World Art? The term Romani Art implies the act of stripping an author of his/her other national identities (Czech/Slovak/Hungarian/British/Polish). Romani artists in the Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, the Great Britain can and often do identify as Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Britons… Still, their work, regardless of its form and content, is invariably being treated as the Romani Art. In what is the term „Czech/Slovak/Polish/Hungarian/British Art,“ though similarly vague, different or comparable with the term „Romani Art“? Notwithstanding the dubiousness even of this designation, it is worthy to ask whether the work of the Czech/Slovak/Polish/Hungarian/British artists, who at the same time identify as Roma, can our should be subsumed under the label of Czech/Slovak/Polish/Hungarian/British Art, eventually why not. What is your view on that question?
Jelena: Being as it is that all Roma people are citizens of some national states, but still their Roma identity, whatever it means, holds, and is somehow distinguished from their citizenship, it seems to be just obvious to me that something related to that existence would need some differentiating culturological counterpart. Now, this of course is just in a way limiting notion as it appears to be additional to the identity in relation to citizenry. This is, of course, if we consider that it is an addition actually, since sometimes it seems like people would rather just annul the dominant culturological contexts, and in many ways these are very much intertwined and already very hard to distinguish. But, basically, it is limiting to put this work under the label of national boundaries, to put it under the label of Roma Art or any label at all, so for me it is basically just the question of politics of labeling. If works are labeled, we should be concerned about who is doing that, how, under which conditions, whose work is labeled, what labels actually stands for, how is this negotiated etc.
Ludlová & Rigová: How does the designation the Romani Art function in the society? Who is authorized to designate a piece of art as the Romani Art? Is it an artist himself/herself, the lay or expert audience, grant donors, media? How the ascription of the attribute Romani to the art production relates to the arbitrary act of ascription of the Romani ethnicity and/or identity to the authors?
Jelena: To understand the politics of ascription I found useful institutional idea of culture. On this account narratives are defined by the most influential and powerful actors in the filed of culture, be that cultural institutions, media, donors or whoever. Grand narratives of knowledge are certainly inherently power permeated and if I understood Lyotard they operate perversely, naturalizing themselves. If we grant this, as with educational institutions, we can say institutions of culture operate in the same manner. I as a poet do not exist in a public domain if I am not granted by the relevant agents, which does actually manifest not just on the symbolic level, but has concrete performative consequences. If your art is not “digestible” by canonical corpus of ideas you will have difficulties claiming your art as an art, that is “proper” and “real” art, or as Roma art for that matter, or again as not just Roma Art etc.
Ludlová & Rigová: How do you relate to the labeling of any intellectual work by Roma (be it Roma who self-identify as such, or who have been ascribed such an idenitity) Romani Art?
Jelena: As I can identify myself as Roma women, I think I would accept labeling of my art as Roma art in some contexts, dealing with some issues that I would on my own criteria put under Roma Art. That is as long as I can determine what that means and if I actually can choose if I would label it, and at the end be free to change the meaning or unlable it in some sense. Something like that, I am still in the process of making up my mind about this.
Thank you for your participation
Ludlová & Rigová