“Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history's floodlights upon them.” (Fanon, 1963: 35)
In Berlin later this morning, at the German Federal Foreign Office on Werderscher Markt 1, a significant moment will occur - what might be termed an ‘intervention’ - that has been a long time coming. First mentioned back in March 2015 by George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, and Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, the new European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) will finally be launched.
Irrespective of the weather, it will likely be a sunny and bright morning where Roma and non-Roma high-level officials, intellectuals, activists, artists and other professionals will gather to proclaim a ‘new dawn’ in the critique and understanding of previously accepted truths and wisdom, as well as the production of new insights and knowledge, regarding Europe’s diverse and heterogeneous 12 million Roma, Sinti, Gypsy and Traveller communities. Words will matter this morning, as will the sentiments, symbolism and funding that lie behind them.
In addition to motivational speeches from the likes of the aforementioned Soros and Jagland, as well as host Michael Roth, the Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office, there will be several notable Roma and Sinti contributions from the likes of Željko Jovanović, Chair of the Board of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, as well as artists and activists such as Timea Junghaus, Sead Kazanxhiu, Dijana Pavlović and Romani Rose.
Such a gathering of personalities and Roma/Sinti talent is impressive and clearly underlines the remit and focus of the new Institute regarding the requirement for suitable ‘spaces and places’ for Romani arts and culture on the trans-European stage. To be sure, this is not just a symbolic measure or gesture, but rather this Roma-led initiative powerfully strikes to the material heart of what Franz Fanon first discussed back in the 1960s in relation to the dehumanizing effects of colonisation and the urgent necessity of psychological, political and socio-economic liberation.
And it is liberation that is being demanded here, it is not a humble request; it is the invocation of a platform for cultural performance as much as a gallery for artistic displays. Indeed, it is no coincidence that an arts exhibition, “Transcending the Past, Shaping the Future”, is a crucial part of the Berlin launch event. Featuring several Roma, Sinti, Gypsy and Traveller artists from across eight different European countries, the exhibition will present to its audience a sense of the possibilities to come; where the ‘under-represented’ and the ‘marginalised’ can shift from an ‘othered’ periphery to a more ‘mainstream’ core.
What the celebratory launch event will perhaps deftly avoid, due to pragmatic necessity as much as polite convention, are the laboured and fractious details of the struggle and efforts to reach this climatic point in Berlin. It has been, by all accounts, a long and difficult diplomatic journey to get the Institute established. It has been met, every step of the way, by a cynical resistance from those who still somehow feel that the narrative, presentation and telling of multiple and varied Romani realities is best told by non-Roma ‘experts’ on account of the qualifications they hold and the positions they have acquired.
The challenge now, for the Roma Institute, is to try and imagine and plan for an intersectional and progressive future where external and internal pressures, tensions and challenges are fully addressed. Critical to the next few years will be the inclusion of Roma, Sinti, Gypsy and Traveller individuals and communities - whether artists and scholars or not - who have been systematically deprived of their education, knowledge, talents and agency.
To be sure, it is not just a sense of ethnic identity, of borders, of shared language that connects a scattered Diaspora; issues of gender, nation, class, sexuality, disability and other social divisions must be central to the pressing issues that the Institute engages with. These are affairs and concerns that are by definition as political and economic as they are cultural and artistic. It is often mythologised that poverty, exclusion and disadvantage have driven the very best of artistic enterprises. That this mythology stems from those who tend to abundantly possess resources and wealth is much less of a surprise. But it needs to be acknowledged that such material barriers have prevented and removed such artistic and cultural possibilities, debilitating those whose primary concern is trying to make a living with whatever means of production they can hold. As Bertolt Brecht famously penned in The Threepenny Opera: “First comes food, then morality.”
The launch of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin today is both a symbolic and material line in the sand. More than this, it is a paradigm shift with transgressive as well as progressive political potential. The incoming Board of the Institute is stating clearly that when it comes to knowledge, narratives and decolonising the past, Roma might just know best - or at least where to begin the deconstructions. This is not a controversial view and it should not be unwelcome. Within this realm of possibilities, there is, of course, room for productive and healthy debate and discussion. The Institute will surely embrace and critique the future, as well as decolonise the past, in its mission to create a forum for all European Roma, Sinti, Gypsies and Travellers to express themselves.
The stage is now set.
Colin Clark is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He is also a Board Member of the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. Colin.Clark@uws.ac.uk