What Does the European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture Have to Do with the Roma Education Movement?

Members of REF’s governing board Andrzej Mirga (Chair), William Bila and Dr. Nicoleta Bitu, and REF Director Nadir Redzepi, attended the official launch of the European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture in Berlin on June 8, 2017. As members of an alliance of leading Roma creatives and professionals, they lobbied the Council of Europe member states and its Roma-related bodies over four years to back this groundbreaking initiative in cultural diplomacy that gained additional momentum with Germany’s financial and political backing in 2015.

It’s a glorious, long-desired achievement. Roma, Europe’s largest minority group without a country to call their own, have established an official embassy for arts and culture.

REF Director Nadir Redzepi emphasized, “Roma mirror the cultural diversity of Europe, always contextualizing within their neighborhood, region or country. Roma artists are part of local or national trends but at European level it is hard to grasp the contribution of Roma to European cultures and values, including its rich diversity. On the other side of the coin, the political and institutional backing of Council of Europe member states indicates the level of tolerance and openness towards Roma, meaning that the work and products of the ERIAC will always be part of European system of values.”

The European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture tackles that issue of visibility head on and overtly serves two purposes: to preserve and manage their own artistic and cultural production and to represent and portray themselves to the majority.

With Roma management heading this effort, the institute will open its doors in Berlin in the upcoming months, and this fundamental and overdue step made in early June creates a home to showcase the contribution of Roma to Europe’s arts and culture. Until now, Roma artistic production was a mirror lost in society at large, at best pushed into categories like art brut, outsider art or folk art and rarely making the legitimizing space of the white cube. 

Newly appointed director of ERIAC Timea Junghaus emphasized, “Roma have worked for three generations to make this happen.”

Ultimately, such an institute, long missing from Europe’s cultural economy of institutes, museums and galleries, aspires to dismantle bias and preconceptions about Roma aesthetics, creativity and artist production, while creating a space for authentic narratives of emancipation, identity and struggle against the odds. 

Fittingly, this historic occasion in Berlin – the culmination of decades of art and culture production by Roma that had been clustered in a few isolated national collections and initiatives until now – lends further legitimacy to the growing recognition of Roma as outstanding contributors to European societies, making space among the majority society for a fuller acknowledgment of their role.

But why did individuals from the Roma Education Fund lend their financial and moral support to this institute that only very marginally touches on issues of education?

Because such a groundbreaking development as the European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture sets the stage for the full recognition of Roma identity and rights, equally recognizing their achievements and contributions to the highest echelon of human talent and achievement. No longer can teachers or administrators claim that there is no place in the curriculum for a people allegedly with no language, no culture and no values of their own. No longer can government officials persist with arguments for policies that segregate children in schools because of their supposed learning disabilities when Roma are officially the equals of Mozart, Picasso, Joyce or Nureyev. No longer can the majority dictate what is Roma and no longer do Roma have to accept that judgment. 

When confronted with utter nonsense that has horrible real-world consequences like thousands upon thousands of children denied the chance to attend quality, inclusive education, REF and other activists simply can point home to Berlin, with branch offices in Brussels and Venice. 

Because we know without a doubt that in 12 years REF helped 10,000 Roma to go to university, helped half a million Roma children to attend school, and among this burgeoning working and middle class, if not elites, there will be a new wave of art and culture producers who will have a deep impact on how Roma are perceived, portrayed and represented.