Zeljko Jovanovic: This year’s success is just the beginning, Roma culture at the Venice Biennale transcends national borders

Eugen Raportoru and his painting at the exhibition (Venice Biennale 2022) (PHOTO: ERIAC)

This year Venice Biennale is a great moment for Roma culture. The exhibition of Roma artist Małgorzata Mirgy-Tas in the Polish pavilion is not the only example either.

In the city center, an exhibition of the famous Roma painter Eugen Reportoru also takes place in a palace dating back to the 15th century, surrounded by the waters of the Venetian canals. “This year, something extraordinary happened,” said Zejlko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundation. Roma Initiatives Office and chairman of the board of directors of the European Roma Institute for Art and Culture (ERIAC) declared at the inauguration of the exhibition, which, together with Timea Junghaus, executive director of ERIAC, is one of its curators.

“If you believe in it, every effort will produce results. Our participation in the Biennale is a promise, despite all that is currently happening with the war in Ukraine and the threat of a nuclear conflict,” said Jovanovic.

According to Junghaus, Roma culture is exceptional precisely because it transcends national boundaries and calls for multinational participation. However, in the long history of the Biennale since its opening in 1895, this is only the fourth time that Roma artists have been hosted there.

Curators of the exhibition Zeljko Jovanovic and Timea Junghaus during the opening ceremony of “The Abduction from the Seraglio” at the Loredan Palace (PHOTO: ERIAC)

The first time was in 2007, during an exhibition of contemporary Roma artists entitled “lost paradise” took place at the Biennale. This year’s exhibition entitled “Abduction of the Seraiglio” is the result of a collaboration between Eugen Rapororu, a 60-year-old Romanian painter of Roma origin, and activists who are women, Roma, and well known to the younger generation, such as the award-winning actress, director and screenwriter Alina Serban and the talented and versatile artist and founder of the Giuvlipen Theater Company in Bucharest, Mihaela Dragan.

The entire exhibition is designed as the interior of Eugen’s childhood home in the 1960s and 1970s, with his large format paintings being his own take on the tapestries that were once a frequent decoration of domestic interiors in Romania. . Above a double bed with a colorful bedspread hang the tapestries that adorned the painter’s childhood home.

The subject of these tapestries, after the singspiel of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, hence the name of the exhibition. Above them is an image of “The Last Supper” from Leonardo da Vinci’s original.

“An image of ‘The Last Supper’ is quite often an element of interior decoration in Romania”, explains the young curator of the exhibition, Ilina Schileru, who is not Roma herself. “Actually, it was interesting for me to learn how much Roma households in Romania resemble non-Roma households. People in our country love this picture, and often they don’t even know who painted it. It is a symbol of faith and unity, a dinner where many people gather.

Alina Serban performing in the exhibition “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (PHOTO: ERIAC)

Most of the exhibit’s equipment and props would have been found at flea markets by the artists. These include books, an old record player, paintings, period furniture, photos and porcelain.

The curator met Rapororu during her studies at the National University of Art in Bucharest. She had just finished high school and Eugen was 45 when, as an already recognized artist, he decided to complete his artistic training by enrolling there.

After Raporturu approached Shileru to collaborate on this year’s Biennale, their ideas have joined forces in an interesting project that challenges viewers to demolish prejudices and transform their mindset through art and creativity. . Dragan and Serban then perform feminist voices in part of the project that resonates with the themes of this year’s Biennale.

“I agreed with Eugen to invite famous women and give them carte blanche. It’s up to them how they enrich the exhibition,” said the young curator.

Mihaela Dragan blesses with flower petals in the exhibition “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (PHOTO: ERIAC)

Dragan and Serban shatter stereotypes through their performances without ever giving up on what makes Roma culture unique. Dragan, dressed in distinctive clothing, speaks her lines in verse.

She goes through the accessories: crystal balls for divination and tarot cards, incense and roses. She talks about discrimination, marginalization and stereotypes of Roma, the sexualization of Roma women.

Dragan invests his verses with his belief that one can change one’s destiny, calling for healing and love. She emphasizes the power of women and speaks to them.

“Get up women, all women get up,” she recites. In the next room, Alina Serban distributes paper cones filled with sunflower seeds to visitors.

The seeds recall a story of his parents, marked by prejudice and racism. “You’re lucky to have a bastard in your stomach. Otherwise I’d jump on you with my boots,” she quotes a police officer saying harshly to her pregnant mother as she was selling sunflower seeds.

“To me, sunflower seeds mean community. Security. Unfortunately, the Roma community is seen from the outside as uneducated. So I invite you now: be uneducated with me,” Alina tells visitors, drawing the audience into her world and offering seed-filled cones as a sign of solidarity.

“The Abduction from the Seraglio” opened on April 22 and on this occasion many personalities and journalists gathered in the entrance hall of the Loredan Palace. Among them were Dijana Pavlovicactivist and politician living in Rome; Ioanida Costache, filmmaker, violinist and writer; and the Roma-American activist and university professor Ethel Brookswho then all contributed to the exhibition with their own performances.

In his speech, Jovanovic expressed the hope that Roma will be able to get their own permanent space at the Biennale in the future. “This year we are experiencing an exceptional situation,” he said.

“However, there is a need to break this dogma that only people who have their own state can have their own flag. We are not done,” he said.

“This year’s victory is just the beginning,” Jovanovic told visitors to the exhibition. Speaking to Romea.cz, artist Eugen Raportoru said: “We have a lot of talent and we have a lot to say to the world through our art. We need to be seen, we need support and we need people to understand who we are.”

Helen D. Jessen