The Ganges River in Mazovia? Polish Roma Today
#language & literature
#photography & visual arts
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Polish Roma Today, Preparations for the new Roma exhibition in BWA Tarnów, photo. Jola Więcław / BWA Tarnów, Preparations for the new Roma exhibition in BWA Tarnów, photo. Jola Więcław / BWA Tarnów
It's been 50 years since the Polish Roma were forced to settle down and abandon their centuries-old vagabond lifestyle. Despite the fact that the traditional Roma way of life has, to a large extent, vanished, Roma culture has been a growing inspiration in the Polish art scene.
In March 1964, the communist authorities started the procedure of registering Roma families. On March 23, 1964 officials and militia paid a visit to many (temporary) Roma houses – from then on, it was required that every Romani family should have a proper registration. The whole procedure was designed to change the traditional nomadic lifestyle of Roma, who travelled with their carts across the country. Officially, it was said the whole procedure was a way of inducing a ‘productive, sedentary lifestyle’ amongst the Roma population.
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These administrative efforts turned out to be very effective. Within a couple of years, the centuries-old travels by horse-drawn carts – the so-called Romano drom, or the Roma Way – ceased almost entirely. The Roma were offered residence in tenement buildings in towns and cities of the People's Republic. However, this often entailed social and psychological problems, as the Roma were simply not used to this new kind of life.
The Ganges River in Mazovia
This dramatic story was shown in one of the best Polish films of 2013, Papusza, directed by Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze, which tells the story of a friendship between a Roma poet, Bronisława Wajs, called Papusza, and a young Polish writer, Jerzy Ficowski, who joined a group of Roma travelling across Poland immediately after World War II. Ficowski went on to become the most important ethnographer of the Roma culture in Poland, publishing books on traditional Roma customs, language, history (one of the most important fields of Ficowski's scholarly activity was chronicling the Roma Holocaust of WWII), as well as translating Papusza's poems into Polish.
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Ficowski's books still remain a valid resource and source of inspiration for young scholars, as he was able to observe and interact with the traditional Romani culture right before its ultimate disappearance. He would later compare his fascinating experience to discovering unknown tribes in the rainforest of South America. But, as he emphasized, his discoveries were made here and now, that is, in the middle of the 20th century. He would also compare this magical Romani reality which he discovered to a river flowing through time and space, but also on the edge of society and outside history – a ‘Ganges River’ flowing through the Polish Mazovia region.
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It seems today that thanks to the painstaking work of people like Ficowski, Poland is rediscovering the heritage of Roma, and that this culture has been gaining the adequate representation which it has long deserved – with numerous exhibitions and new books, as well as the aforementioned motion picture, which turned out to be a big box-office hit.
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Part of the Roma exhibition ‘Houses as Silver as Tents’ at Zachęta, Warsaw, 2013
Roma exhibitions, like the one in Warsaw's Zachęta in 2013, Houses as Silver as Tents (also shown at Muzeum Współczesne in Wrocław) have been informative and inspirational, especially in the way they approached contemporary issues of Roma exclusion from Polish society. This was also the case with the earlier exhibition Kwestia Romska: Projekt z Większością (The Roma question: Project with the Majority) in Konin, one of the traditional sites of Roma settlement after 1964.
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This was also the case with the 2014 exhibition Tajsa in BWA Tarnów. The curators of the show, rather than presenting art that is ‘finished’, decided to arrange for the proper circumstances for art and creative experiences to take shape. To this end, the Roma experience seems extremely well-suited, with its mobility and sense of openness to whatever circumstances may arise. As the curators shared:
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The strategy ‘for today’ is often an interim activity using materials that are available or recycled. Does it pertain only to the Roma experience? [....] We are interested in anything that comes about through the experience of extemporaneity and the present perspective, both of which are the results of the need or necessity to move on the part of Roma and Travellers.
They emphasize that the Roma identity is also the identity of today's migrant, traveller, and last but not least, European – open to fusion, searching for possibilities to realise one's needs, adapting to new space and place, cosmopolitan and mobile.
Read more about the exhibition (in Polish) here.
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Written by Mikołaj Gliński