Reading Photography


András Müllner

The Parenthesis as an Ironic Symbol of the Ghetto

About the Possibility of Ethnic Art and Its Critique, With Reference to the Intervention of the Sostar/Why {Roma} Art Collective, “Apertúra”, Summer/Autumn, 2014. (Excerpts)1

I consider the following story told in Ágota Varga's film Porrajmos – Gypsy Holocaust to be an instance of talking back. János Balogh, who lives in the village of Patapoklos and is of Roma heritage, is gradually getting over his mistrust of the non-Roma film crew and shows them a group photo depicting himself and his family members, taken by gendarmes before their deportation in 1944.2 János Balogh tells the story of how he encountered Gendarme Sárközi decades later.

The former gendarme was a civilian by then, and lived peacefully enough as a retiree in the Socialist system. He showed János Balogh his album full of deported people, not with regret and even less as an apology, just as a statement of sorts; perhaps he wanted to regain his long-lost power for a moment. János Balogh recognized his family members on one of the pictures, and when he asked the former gendarme, in vain, to give the picture back, he quickly grabbed it from the album and ran away with it.

From that moment on, Balogh, the survivor, became the owner of the picture which had always belonged to him, as in this case the picture is the property of the person who is objectified by the hegemonic power, represented here by the members of the Hungarian gendarmes. It is important to add that only the victims can be identified in the picture; the gendarme standing next to them has been cut off, and only the tip of his bayonet remains.

This absence created by ripping, and the place where the photograph deteriorates, or to be more precise, is destroyed, becomes an emblem of the trauma in Hungarian society's politics of remembrance. János Balogh showed the director of the film the people in the photo who were killed in the Porajmos, now as the owner of the picture, as the only person who has the right to display the picture. János Balogh's “stealing of the picture” is a paradigmatic case of talking back (or, to use a media anthropology metaphor, shooting back).

The other example of an art piece which talks back was created as an intervention by the Sostar Collective at the Trafó [an Arts and Performance space in Budapest - translator's note] in 2010 entitled Rewritable Pictures.3 Sostar asked the Ethnographic Museum for pictures representing Roma people, and the museum provided the group with a few images. These pictures were re-contextualized at an exhibition in the Trafó and by way of a video performance using a contact improvisation method, with the participation of the movement artists, two actors of the Independent Theater and a photographer.

Removing the photos from their context in the Ethnographic Museum, which employs ethnic categories based on the majority perspective, and placing them in a contemporary art context, reviving them in a performance during which the Roma and non-Roma participants constantly included the photographer in the improvisational game taking place in a room full of mirrors - these are all acts of resistance. The talking back which took place here is an instance of a self-aware mode of dealing with an ethnicizing collector's logic, and promises a new archival logic which does not ethnicize its subjects.

British history and post-colonial theory is also significant for the context of talking back, and I will discuss it here with reference to Stuart Hall's study New Ethnicities (1989). This digression is important in the present context, because its insights seem to me indispensable in interpreting the meaning of Sostar's activities, particularly the ethnic contract to be interpreted below. Hall's study defines two phases of black representation's pursuit of emancipation, which are created in the shift from a struggle over the relations of representation to a politics of representation itself.4

In the first phase, the term “black” in a political sense is coined during the process of integrating the groups which are participating in the resistance. The “black experience”, as a singular and unifying framework, provides an identity which bridges ethnic and cultural differences, and thus becomes hegemonic over other identities. We can translate this to Roma politics and note that female Roma representation or, for instance, Wallachian Roma representation is secondary as compared to general Roma representation.

In a cultural sense, this first phase is a criticism of the fact that the black community was positioned as an invisible and voiceless other in the dominant white aesthetic and cultural discourse. Black people were objects and not subjects of the positioning, and in order to change this, it was necessary to critique their fetishization, objectification and negative figuration. During this phase, the movement had two objectives: access to forming their image, that is, the right to self-representation, and the creation of a positive black self-representation. However, it later became clear that unified black representation primarily imposes the point of view of heterosexual black men to the detriment of all others; the heteronormativity and masculinity of the struggle for emancipation repressed other emancipatory needs. There is also a fundamental difference between the two phases due to a different linguistic understanding of representation. Hall claims that representation was considered mimetic in the process of giving voice to a general black experience: it was generally held that a group, the existence of which predates language, entered the discourse and recognized itself in the unifying term “black”. But mimesis, which has an unreflexive signifier: the copula, namely “is”, is always constituted discursively, even if that does happen to be the speaker's blind spot. Becoming cognizant and critical of this discursive reality is the beginning of the second phase of representation namely the politics of representation.

Thus, the turn in the politics of black self-representation came (and let us note that we can never treat this turn purely as a historical fact, we must relate to it more as a condition and a possibility) when unified black representation, which considered itself mimetic, revealed itself to be particular and constructed. This representation was driven by two hierarchies: on the one hand, from the outside, it was defined by white hegemonic projection before and during the civil rights movement; on the other hand, its dominance was achieved to the detriment of other sub-groups, and necessarily broke the silence by silencing others.

Let us add that even though it appears to be a historical necessity for these phases to follow one another, this does not mean that the second phase cannot criticize the first. This criticism is always relevant, as unlike mimetic representation, awareness of the discursive construction of representation is never self-evident, and always goes against hegemonic interests. The two phases are thus distinguished by the linguistic turn of the politics of representation. To anticipate the conclusion of the present study for a moment: the linguistic turn leaves traces in Sostar's conceptual parenthesis, or at least allows for this reading: Roma – {Roma}.

Rights held by: András Muellner | Licensed by: András Muellner | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive