Call the Witness

In the years 1956–1958, artist and architecture visionary Constant Nieuwenhuys developed Design for a Gypsy Camp, which was a remarkable proposition of hospitality towards the nomadic Roma people. Driven from various parts of the Piedmont region, Roma families were offered refuge by painter Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio on his land in the city of Alba. Constant was invited to create a concept of existence based upon the way of life of the itinerant people, proposing it not only as an example of living for the Piedmontese Roma but even more radically, as a new way that one—indeed everyone—needs to inhabit the world. Here, the Roma people were seen as emblematic of the larger condition of the world in which we live. Today one could say that like the Roma, we too are caught as if simultaneously inside and outside of the hegemonic order, “… becoming nomads once more, wandering over the earth, not looking for rest but for dynamic motion” (Constant). Envisioned as an open system of mobile elements and spiraling wires on a circular platform, Constant’s model put forward a radical invitation to otherness and embraced alterity as a pivotal prerequisite for the possibility of another, better world.

Fifty-odd years later, there is little if anything that the majority population has learned and adopted from the generous spirit of artistic experimentation and intellectual thinking about the exemplary way of life of the Roma people. Instead in today’s Europe, members of the Roma community, whose fate links to other outcast populations living on the margins of western society—from guest workers to refugees—are fingerprinted for purposes of ethnic registration; forcibly repatriated “back” to their “countries of origin”; or are the subject of local databases compiled to track Roma inhabitants in many European countries, to sum up but few of the political events of recent months.

This situation, so it at least seems to me, presents the field of art and intellectual practice with renewed urgency. The exhibition Call the Witness, which includes works by seven extraordinary artists who actively work from within and beyond their Roma identities, is our response to such urgency. The works take up the role of “testimonies,” which in their own languages bear witness to past sufferings (such as the Holocaust) and of present and future anxieties (related to the struggles mentioned previously), which seem to so intimately relate to the very existence of the Roma in our world. Yet each of these artists actively speculates about another possibility, and from within the Roma subjectivity proposes that we imagine how things could be otherwise.

The exhibition and a reference room, which offers insights into Constant’s “witnessing” of the example of the Roma way of life as a model worth following, are part of a research trajectory leading to the realization of the Roma Pavilion in the context of the Collateral Events at the 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2011, organized by BAK. Commissioned by the Open Society Foundations and hosted by the UNESCO Venice Office located in the Palazzo Zorzi, the Roma Pavilion will emerge into a makeshift exhibition over time through the flux of additional testimonies—works of art, performances, talks, and conversations by and with artists, philosophers, and politicians, in which the situation of the Roma and Roma art are considered as emblematic for the world today, in order to speculate, in soldarity, about more hopeful futures.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved in the realization of this exhibition, in particular curator Suzana Milevska (who developed the initial idea and the title Call the Witness, which laid the groundwork for the realization of the Roma Pavilion in Venice); art and architecture historian Tom McDonough; the entire BAK team; and last but not least, the participating artists for sharing with us their truly inspiring and meaningful work.

Maria Hlavajova

A text accompanying the group exhibition Call the Witness, curated by Suzana Milevska and 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.