Call the Witness

The project Call the Witness puts under pressure the hegemonic regimes of representation as well as internalized strategies of self-representation that are imposed upon individuals through biopolitical structures dominant in our contemporary world. Thus it might be obvious that certain questions such as the following need to be asked: Who has control over the means of representation and who has the power to reproduce and distribute certain dominant cultural and moral principles? Or to give a more concrete example, who has the freedom to erect a platform from which Roma artists and Roma in general could utter their urgent statements of self-determination and act as agents of empowering the Roma minority?[1] However, the internalization of the regimes of representation, identification, self-essentialization, and racism create a threatening vicious cycle, from which one most urgently needs to seek a way out.

The curatorial concept of Call the Witness attempts to rupture this closed circle. Some aspects of the project were necessarily incited by the urgency to address recent cases of individual and collective displacements, evictions, and deportations of Roma citizens from their homes in many European countries. In light of the current neoliberal capitalist advance and its thirst for cheap or even free land, these political maneuvers should come as no surprise.[2] It is also important to point to the severe breaching of human rights that is occurring, and ultimately to search for new methods for recognizing and fighting against the constatives and performatives of contemporary racism that are re-contextualized through an evocation of certain racist contexts from the past.

The title and the main theme of the project Call the Witness were informed by Romaniya, the Roma Law that structures community life, and Romani Kris, the judicial tradition of informal and unwritten justice codex still existing in some Romani cultures. Within this framework, testimonial “performances” allow anybody to be a witness in a proceeding if one feels that there is an urgency for his/her testimony to be heard for the sake of truth and justice.[3] Thus the starting point for the exhibition is the figure of the contemporary artist as an instantaneous witness of his/her time, a figure who through art works and artistic research methods courageously unravels what social, political, and cultural institutions usually conceal or overwrite. Obviously the artists presented in this exhibition are not to be seen as passive viewers or mere conveyors of traditional Roma crafts and art practices. Rather they act as catalysts of events in solidarity with people who not only inspired their art works but are also encouraged to become agents of their own self- empowerment through producing and positioning their own narratives, as opposed to being labeled and encoded by rigid political and social structures of identification. These wit- nesses did not wait to be “prepped” and “called” to a witness stand on a raised platform in order to swear an oath and give their testimonies, as is the practice in formal western courts of law. They rather understand the role of the witness informally, a conception that allows for ad hoc testimonies.

Canada Without Shadows / Kanada Bizo Uchalipe (2010–2011) is a project that developed as a collaboration between the two members of chirikli collective, Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić and Lynn Hutchinson Lee. This sound art installation is the result of a complex research undertaking in which the artists archived and juxtaposed various found and created sounds in the form of urban and natural soundscapes consisting of overlaying poetry verses, written and spoken by the artists, and spoken testimonies of five displaced Hungarian Roma women who fled Europe to seek refuge in Canada. The “whispering” voices convey the poetic transpositions of the promised imaginary land, Canada, starting from different subjective experiences. They partly re-enact the multilayered community memories, cultural and ethnic displacement, precariousness, family joys and laments, testimonies of shame, and birds’ songs as a metaphor of hope. The sounds of the turning wheels of Lee’s family vardo (caravan)—mirrors shaking, the sounds of playing with puppets, and her father’s breath— are intertwined with the Sijerčić’s “dreams” of Romani children’s laughter and the sound of bombs in the Bosnian Roma ghetto. Canada has no “shadows,” no known pre-history of racist outbursts, and thus it attracted many Roma families to settle there (as did Lee’s father long ago) but new legal hurdles prevent many from receiving the desired refugee status.

Milutin Jovanović’s semi-staged documentary Migration (2011) addresses the artist’s interest in the lives of the dis- placed inhabitants from the former Roma settlement that used to exist under Belgrade’s Gazela Bridge. We are invited to follow the story line as it evolves through the eyes of the artist’s friend Gagi, one of the residents of the new Roma set- tlement where some of the evicted Roma families were forced to move after the Gazela settlement’s destruction.[4] Gagi’s genuine aspirations to shoot a documentary about his neighbors’ unfulfilled expectations make him an active and compassionate witness of the everyday struggles of the inhabitants. Trailed by Jovanovic’s own camera, Gagi borrows a video camera and starts to shoot his film in the labyrinth of narrow streets and tinny container-homes. However his search for “witnesses” who would testify about the tough living conditions in the new settlement turns out to be difficult and often futile: the potential witnesses have been silenced by a warning not to speak publicly about their difficulties coping with the challenges of daily survival.

Artist Kiba Lumberg (with Kaarina Majander, Free Zone/ Vapaa Vyöhyke) created the comic strip book Crazy Artist Diary (2010–2011) in direct response to the double bind and troubled relation of the artist towards the representation of Roma in contemporary Finnish society but also towards Roma self-representation. In a rough, ironic, and often sad way her work touches upon the issues that a Roma woman artist faces when her lifestyle, sexuality, and appearance do not fit into expected rules of behavior. On the one hand she is not accepted by her own traditional Roma community for being too liberal, and on the other hand she cannot fulfill the expectations of the Finnish cultural context because she is perceived to be overdetermined by her Roma background. In both cases, “crazy” is the adjective that is often assigned to her and it sticks all too easily. The artist’s gender and sexual orientation, underscored by her profession as an artist and her culture, are interwoven and create a manifold identity full of inner contradictions. Yet life on the edge of these two worlds could be exactly the space where a new subjectivity is born, a loudly speaking subject who testifies about her disenchantments, while simultaneously constructing her singular destiny with confidence.

Marika Schmiedt devoted her work VERMÄCHTNISLEGACY (2010–2011) to artist Ceija Stojka and her offspring. Stojka is a Roma woman painter, musician, and writer from Austria. She is one of the few living survivors of the Nazi Holocaust who lived through all horrors of internment in the concentration camps Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen, and who experienced the most severe consequences of racism even after the end of the Second World War.[5] The main issue that Schmiedt explores in the work is very similar to a question asked by philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “What is the juridical structure that allowed such events to take place?”[6] In pursuit of an answer to this question, the artist interviewed different generations of Stojka’s female descendents who constantly face the need to renegotiate the past as they live with her silent “testimonials” of those who cannot testify. Such fragmented oral micro-histories may, of course, significantly differ from macro-historic documents. While fighting historical amnesia, these testimonials warn us both of racism’s eternal return and of the aporia of the “proxy witness”: the survivors’ testimony as “a potentiality that becomes actual through an impotentiality of speech […] an impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking.”[7]

Artist Alfred Ullrich’s series of photographs are exhibited as documents of an older performance entitled Pearls before Swine. The original performance took place on 13 May 2000 in the Czech Republic in front of the former Roma concentration camp Lety, which was run solely by Czechs during WWII; since the 1970s, the site has housed a swine farm. The artist threw pearls from a necklace belonging to his sister onto the ground through the farm’s locked gate and in front of the memorial stone in homage to his relatives and other Roma who were interned in various concentration camps.[8] The artist’s action and the title of the work point to the absurd and disturbing attempt by the Czech government to overwrite the history and existence of the Lety site, and to erase any public memory related to the concentration camp and the horrors that took place there by simply covering it up with a different kind of “dirt,” thus desecrating the memory of Roma who suffered there.[9] Another work by Ullrich, Dachau, Landfahrerplatz kein Gewerbe (2011), consists of a street sign warning that itinerants are not allowed to trade or peddle in the area, but in the work the inscription is crossed out. This simple action highlights how seemingly neutral regulations in fact enforce the segregation of Roma travelers from others. Thus discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is preserved through language and visual public memory, something that gives way to reinforcing the already existing stereotype of Roma people as “exotic” creatures full of wanderlust.

The photo-novella project Venice Mahala Opus (2011) by Nihad Nino Pušija is imagined as a kind of a personal archive- report on the complexities of the development of the Call the Witness project. His artistic responses to different stages of the discussions, varying from intense political and theoretical challenges to humorous and anecdotal observations, are actually digital photo-collages made of documentary photographs and recorded statements by the participating artists and other collaborators (researchers, artists, curators, etc.) involved in the project’s development. Through juxtaposition of different sources and strategies of cross-referencing,Pušija’s series of fold-out postcards in leporello format addresses many of the sensitive and complicated questions that were generated during this project including: what kind of institutional powers are still used by gadje (non-Roma individuals) to keep the “subaltern” from speaking?; who owns the copyright to Roma history?; and who is entitled to make art about the Roma?

The artist and educator-activist Tania Magy was initially invited to present her on-going project La Caravane-Musée The Museum Caravan, a structure in which she lives and travels, in the exhibition. The caravan is a kind of alternative institution whose art collection consists of Magy’s own art works as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and films by other Roma artists (including Gabi Jimenez, Gérard Gartner, Bruno Morelli, Tony Gatlif, Laura Halilovic) who contributed their works to this participatory project as an act of solidarity and in support of its educational, but also cultural, social, and political endeavors. Magy is committed to organizing different art, educational, and curatorial activities for the communities hosting her caravan; these include informal classes for Romani children on the representation of Roma in the arts, a kind of institutional critique of art history. In the course of the dramatic political actions in France in August 2010, the artist herself became an immediate eyewitness of the destruction of Roma camps and the overnight deportations that were undertaken following the French government’s orders, based on a personal memo from the French president Nicolas Sarkozy.[10] The movements of Magy’s caravan were subsequently subjected to strict controls and ultimately forced to suspend its activities. It is no accident, then, that in her newly proposed project for the exhibition, Les voisins n’ont bien dit The neighbors said nothing, she addresses the issues of lack of solidarity and empathy with those different from ourselves, both during the Holocaust deportations and today.

Agamben’s mythical figure of the homo sacer, who, reduced to “bare life,” could be killed but not sacrificed, might not be viable as such in contemporary societies. However there is still a great population of individuals (citizens and non-citizens alike) who are made invisible and are silenced by isolation and the violation of their basic human rights. The expelled, the displaced, the ghettoized, the imprisoned, the war refugee, or any free but marginalized Roma are the speaking subjects in Call the Witness: the Roma artist’s subjectivity is the witness, and he or she speaks for the ones who cannot speak.[11] One pressing question to be asked is how Europe is to negotiate the newly formed Roma subjectivities when social and political functions are always already “marked by the split between the referent and symbolic,” to quote philosopher Julia Kristeva, and when speaking subjects are divided between the past overburdened by annihilation and obliteration and the yet uncertain future. Agamben’s “right to be sacrificed” is not what this amounts to today: it is rather the right to live on equal ground with the majority regardless of one’s ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or cultural background.[12] Even if one may not be capable of transcending racism (as political geographer Arun Saldanha has argued)[13], or of unraveling all inherited contours and inflexions of representation, one should take on board the responsibility to utter one’s own testimonies against injustice and discrimination; to decipher and unsettle new instances of racism, in all its disguises; and to denounce them loudly and use any possibility to call for radical action that affirms solidarity in difference, cohabitation, and compossibility. The role of the contemporary artists-witnesses in the exhibition is thus not limited to uttering anti-racist testimonials and highlighting injustice, but it also suggests how artistic expression and agency might play a role in affecting change both within the artists’ own communities and in political institutions and judicial systems in the struggle to right the racial bias, social inequalities, and (mis)representations that characterize our world today.


[1] Perhaps some clarification of the term “Roma” and its uses is called for here. It was accepted in 1971 during the first truly transnational Roma congress, which took place in Orpington (near London), in order to circumvent the derogatory connotation of the labels “Gypsy” or “Tzigani.” Today it serves as an umbrella term for many different names that various Roma communities use for self- designation, but is not accepted by some of them.

[2] Because most of the Roma do not possess legal property documents (even after having lived for decades on the same piece of land), their land is instead appropriated “legally” and becomes available for development and gentrification, “urban regeneration” in the neoliberal parlance. Racist outbursts and riots usually facilitate this process, which resonates with philosopher Hannah Arendt’s statement from_ The Origin of Totalitarianism_ that racist ideology helped to legitimize the imperialist conquests of foreign territories and the acts of domination that accompanied them.

[3] See Walter O. Weyrauch, “Romaniya – An Introduction to Gypsy Law,” Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture, ed. Walter O. Weyrauch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 1–11.

[4] The Gazela settlement was destroyed on 31 August 2009 by the Belgrade City Assembly; 114 of the families were forced to move to 6 sites on the outskirts of Belgrade to live in metal containers, while the other 64 families were transported to parts of southern Serbia. See “Serbia must end forced evictions of Roma,”Amnesty International, 10 June 2010, online at:

[5] Some Roma activists use the term “Poraďmos” instead of Holocaust, but others contest its use for its offensive meaning in Romani language: “rape.”

[6] Giorgio Agamben,_ Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life_, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 166.

[7] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), p. 146.

[8] Alan Levy, “The World Has to Know,” Prague Post, 17–23 May 2000.

[9] See Huub van Baar,“The Way Out of Amnesia? Europeanisation and the Recognition of the Roma’s Past and Present,” Third Text, vol. 22, no. 3 (May 2008), pp. 373–385.

[10] The controversial expulsions from France of nearly 1000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria provoked significant international criticism and were seen by many as a severe breach of international human rights laws on discrimination. See Kim Willsher, “Orders to police on Roma expulsions from France leaked,”, 13 September 2010, online at:

[11] Agamben, Remnants, p. 146.

[12] Suzana Milevska, “The Eternal Recurrence of Racism – Some reflections on the return of racism in European culture,” springerin, vol. XV, no. 4 (Autumn 2009), pp. 25 –29.

[13] See Arun Saldanha, “Reontologising race: the machinic geography of phenotype,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, no. 1 (2006), pp. 9 –24.

An essay by Suzana Milevska, the curator of the group exhibition Call the Witness, on view at BAK from 22 May till 24 July 2011. For more information regarding the exhibition, as well as the collateral event of the same name, organized within the framework of the 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2011, see here.