New Archive Reclaims the Narrative of the Roma

RomArchive includes more than 5,000 objects that highlight the creativity and self-agency of the often-maligned group

Enrique Linares: "Zambra Gitana at the Roma Neighborhood in Granada." Postcard, Spain, 1910. RomArchive: fla_00026. Centro Andaluz de Documentación del Flamenco (reproduction)

The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, but they have long been viewed as outsiders. In centuries past, the Roma were enslaved and massacred; today, they are vilified by politicians, denied access to housing and subjected to racist attacks. Now, as Gero Schliess reports for Deutsche Welle, a new digital archive hopes to counter anti-Roma sentiment by highlighting the group’s rich history and culture.

Some 5,000 objects are contained within the RomArchive, among them photographs, video and sound recordings, and texts, which have been organized into several curated sections. The oppression of the Roma is a common theme across the archive; one section, for instance, features oral testimonies from Roma victims of Nazi persecution. But much of the collection is devoted to celebrating Roma creativity and self-agency: there are sections on the Roma civil rights movement, the Roma’s defining contribution to Flamenco, modern Roma visual arts and much more.

Originally hailing from India, the Roma spread widely across Europe, appearing in the records of most European countries by the 15th century. This widely dispersed group is more accurately referred to as the Roma and Sinti: the Roma dwell in eastern and southeastern Europe, while the Sinti live in western and central Europe. The term “gypsy” was applied to the minority starting in the 16th century, stemming from the mistaken belief that its members came from Egypt. Today, that label is considered derogatory.

The goal of the new archive is, in part, to dispel pervasive negative stereotypes about the Roma and Sinti by highlighting the “wealth of Romani artistic and cultural production—tightly interwoven with that of Europe as a whole, centuries old, lively and varied to this very day,” as a blog post introducing the project explains.

In turn, the RomArchive explores Roma and Sinti theater, literature, film and dance, revealing a diverse array of voices, both historic and contemporary. Visitors to the site can, for instance, listen to a performance by Romani jazz musician Robi Botos, or discover the work of Bronisława Wajs, also known as Papusza, the first Romani poet to be published in Poland.

“While ‘hegemonic’ archives have almost exclusively portrayed Roma in stereotypical ways, RomArchive focuses on their self-representation,” the blog post post explains. The hope is that this new archive will correct this erroneous narrative, and reflect the “heterogeneity of diverse national and cultural identities of Roma.”

RomArchive, which is available in Romani, English and German, was funded in large part by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. Many of the scholars, curators and advisory board members who contributed to the project are Romani or Sinti. Ethel Brooks, an associate professor at Rutgers University is among the board members who hails from Romani descent. The new archive, she said in a statement, “could become a really important way of reclaiming our practice, reclaiming our art history, reclaiming our culture.”

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