This lecture considers the question: what is the story of the recent emergence of contemporary Roma visual art? Sociology calls the production of visual art “representation,” but when artists call it “bearing witness” it suddenly becomes more urgent. Bearing witness is an action that requires an active subject. For centuries, visual art bearing witness about the lives of Roma/Gypsies/Travellers has existed, in which they have been only the passive objects of representation. But in the past few years, the emergence of a new Romani art has identified the missing subject and invited it to step forward. When you look into one of artist Daniel Baker’s mirror pieces, you see a human subject: yourself. When you take a photo of one, you create your own unique new work of art, anchored to the memory of your own time and place of contemplation. But Roma/Gypsies/Travellers cannot bear witness without raising the question of why that witnessing was suppressed for 500 years. So the story of how Roma art has suddenly burst upon the international scene, and its presence at the Venice Biennale, is untellable unless we also re-shape the historical narrative of the marginalization, brutalization, intermittent genocide, and exclusion of Roma from European history. (Thomas Acton)
THOMAS ACTON (born 1948) is a sociologist, activist, writer, and educator. Acton is an Emeritus Professor of Romani Studies, University of Greenwich, London. He was one of the organizers of the first World Romani Congress (1971), and among the initiators of the international Romani Union. Acton was also an early contributor to the journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. He has been awarded the title of OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to education after a lifelong of teaching, research, and activism in the field of Romani culture and civil rights. Edited publications include: Travellers, Gypsies, Roma: The Demonisation of Difference (with Michael Hayes) (2007); Counter-Hegemony and the Post-Colonial Other (with Michael Hayes) (2006); and Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity (with Gary Mundy) (1997). Acton lives and works in London.