When Gabi Jimenez, a French Spanish Romani painter, first heard several years ago that a major museum in France was planning an exhibition on Romani culture and history, he said he thought it would be “a mess.”

The story of the Roma, Jimenez said, has long been told by outsiders who depict them at best as itinerant slackers and at worst as unhygienic thieves. Past shows about Romani people have typically featured pictures of bedraggled children and women breastfeeding near caravans. “I told myself: ‘We’re going to get all the stereotypes again,’” he said.

Except this time, Romani people were shaping the narrative.

The exhibition — which runs through Sept. 4 at the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, in Marseille, France, and features some 200 artworks and objects — is billed as the first of its kind, bringing together contributions from multiple Romani artists and curators who share their culture on their own terms.

Called “Barvalo,” which means “rich” and “proud” in the Romani language, the show highlights centuries of discrimination and persecution against the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with over 10 million people. The exhibition also includes contemporary artworks that testify to a vibrant Romani cultural scene that has attracted renewed interest in recent years.

By giving Romani people the opportunity to reflect on how society has represented them, the show pushes visitors to reconsider their perspective on a long-marginalized group and recognize its contribution to European culture.

“Shows about Roma people have been very rare and have often excluded Romani direction or voice,” said Jonah Steinberg, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont and a co-curator of the exhibition. “We didn’t want to reproduce that. We had to make our show Roma-driven.”

The idea for the exhibition originated in 2014, after Steinberg visited the museum in Marseille, known by the acronym Mucem, and noticed that the Roma were “absolutely absent” from its galleries despite their centuries-long presence in Europe.

The Roma — a catchall term for several minorities sometimes known as Gypsies, Sinti or Travelers — are thought to descend from people who left the Indian subcontinent about 1,500 years ago and later migrated to Europe in large numbers during medieval times.

Settling across the continent, they have faced persecution ever since. They were targeted in pogroms and enslaved until the 19th century, then faced extermination by the Nazis. Today, many Roma people continue to live in segregated communities, with limited access to health care and education.

“I wrote to the president of the museum to say: ‘Look, if you’re going to purport that you’re representing all the people around the Mediterranean, it’s important not to exclude this important community,’” Steinberg said.

Acknowledging that absence, the museum embarked on the exhibition project. But to avoid reproducing the stereotypes that have long affected the Roma, it decided to work closely with Romani artists and scholars, as well as Roma community groups.

“We figured they were the ones who have the most intimate knowledge of the topic,” said Julia Ferloni, a curator at the museum.

In the exhibition, Romani artists reclaim their history through artworks that give their community a new sense of dignity. A tapestry by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, an artist from Poland who exhibited in her country’s pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, reimagines a scene from a 17th-century engraving depicting the Roma as vagabonds, instead using vibrantly colored, patterned textiles.

The show also highlights how stereotypes about the Roma clung on into 20th-century pop culture: Playmobil figures of bear trainers are displayed next to a midcentury textbook illustration of dark-haired women wearing rags.

“We encourage visitors to think critically,” Ferloni said.

That is especially true in the “Gadjo Museum,” a gallery that takes an ironic look at the Gadjo — the word for non-Roma in the Romani language — by reducing its history and culture to a few caricatures, including the club of prehistoric men and a cushion featuring Johnny Hallyday, the beloved French pop singer.

“It’s a mirror effect,” said Jimenez, who designed the satirical installation. “The goal was to reverse the gaze, to project the same kind of homogeneous, clichéd image that is attached to our culture.”

Ferloni said the exhibition had also prompted the museum to acquire some works of contemporary Romani art, including paintings by Ceija Stojka that memorialize the Nazi genocide of the Roma, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Steinberg, the anthropologist, said the exhibition coincided with growing enthusiasm for Romani art in Europe because people are “interested in asking how previously oppressed communities and societies speak for themselves.”

He pointed to the 2017 opening of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin, and the emergence of a new generation of Romani filmmakers. The recognition of Mirga-Tas, the first Romani artist to represent a country at the Venice Biennale, is also a sign of changing times.

“Too often, the Roma have been presented as not having something to display despite a very rich culture,” Steinberg said. “Today, there’s a kind of global recognition that their voices have been silenced and must be heard.”


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