I Am Not a “Gypsy”

John Singer Sargent, “Spanish Roma Dancer” (c. 1879–1880), oil on canvas framed: 26 x 18 1/4 inches, picture: 18 1/4 x 11 1/4 inches (picture by QuickSilver Photographers LLC, courtesy the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork)

Just lately, on a heat autumn night in Washington, DC, my companion and I pulled up in entrance of the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork to attend a dinner celebration of the exhibition Sargent and Spain. As we acquired out of the automobile, I glanced up on the giant banner reproducing John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Roma Dancer” above the Gallery’s entrance. Along with her assured smile and welcoming pose, she seemed like a bunch inviting company into her residence. 

A number of of the work within the exhibition, which explores Sargent’s seven journeys to Spain and the artworks he created because of these journeys, depict Spanish Roma topics and their lives, beforehand and erroneously known as “Gypsies.” One that means of “Gypsy” is “an individual who engages in dangerous or unlawful actions” and derivatives like “gypped” or “gypsy cab” discuss with stealing and dishonest.

As a Roma scholar at Columbia College, I participated in an advisory group convened to border new narratives round these work. I additionally wrote wall labels for the exhibition during which I shared my responses to “Spanish Roma Lady” and the above-mentioned “Spanish Roma Dancer,” the exhibition’s signature picture. 

Two years earlier, when curator Sarah Money invited me to affix the advisory group, I hadn’t recognized what to anticipate. Roma in mainstream artwork and tradition are sometimes ignored or exoticized to the purpose the place they’re decreased to dangerous and distorted stereotypes as beguiling performers, wanderers, or thieves. Most often, there’s a disconnect between the museum world and Roma illustration. Would this time be totally different?

Curator and scholar Cristiana Grigore in entrance of the modified label for John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Roma Dancer” within the exhibtion Sargent and Spain on the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork in Washington, DC. (photograph by Vlad Predtechensky)

I used to be about to search out out. Collectively, the group comprising Roma and non-Roma advocates and students, artwork historians, and museum representatives discovered concerning the historical past and tradition of the Spanish Roma individuals by way of discussing texts and looking out fastidiously at Sargent’s work. Throughout these open discussions we debated: Was it actually essential to excise the derogatory time period “Gypsy” from the work’ long-time titles, or was historic custom extra necessary? Would the viewers even perceive the time period “Roma”? 

I strongly advocated the usage of “Roma” regardless of the discomfort and confusion it would trigger within the artwork world. For many who had by no means confronted stigma and exclusion, such modifications might sound superficial, however for these of us with out a voice of our personal, it had profound implications. Maybe the mere act of re-titling would break long-held misconceptions and engender a contemporary curiosity about who we actually are. “I hear you,” one of many Gallery’s representatives messaged me on the finish of certainly one of my extra emotional arguments. These three phrases reverberated in my thoughts for weeks and months to come back.  

When the work had been reintroduced to us with their new titles, the impact was startling. Taking a look at “Spanish Gypsy Lady” the primary time round made me really feel insignificant and remoted. The identical portray, renamed “Spanish Roma Lady,” made me really feel seen. It gave me a brand new sense of company and enthusiasm for the exhibition because the opening approached. 

John Singer Sargent, “Spanish Roma Lady” (c. 1879–1882), oil on canvas general: 29 x 23 5/8 inches, framed: 36 1/8 x 31 1/8 x 3 7/8 inches (© The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork; picture by Artwork Useful resource, NY, courtesy the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork)

Touring from New York Metropolis to DC to rejoice this main milestone was an emotional endeavor that took me again to an enchanted summer season 16 years in the past, once I visited the Gallery for the primary time. 

I used to be an enthusiastic scholar from Romania on my first journey overseas, able to have the time of my life. When my unique New York-bound flight was canceled, I opted, on a whim, to fly to DC as an alternative. That’s how I discovered myself, contemporary off the airplane, wandering the spacious hallways of the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork, in awe of its grandeur and wonder. 

At the moment, I had fully erased my ethnic id from my consciousness. The truth that I didn’t see a single point out of Roma individuals, their artwork, or their historical past helped me hold it suppressed. Rising up in Southern Romania, being Roma was a ticket to exclusion. Being seemed down upon was an excessive amount of for my younger self to deal with, so I pretended to not be Roma. 

My long-guarded secret would floor in full drive on the finish of that extraordinary summer season. When a pal misplaced his cash, I used to be terrified that I’d be blamed. I wasn’t, however the incident compelled me to confront my suppressed Roma self and all of the internalized stigma that got here with it. 

That incident turned my life the wrong way up and formed my present profession path, during which I’ve been reclaiming my ethnic id, framing it in new phrases, and questioning how we as Roma can redefine our place on the earth. Sixteen years later, a serious American cultural establishment has additionally taken on the problem of acknowledging and incorporating Roma narratives. 

Little did I do know once I visited the museum for the primary time that I’d return sometime to attend a dinner celebration, step inside and discover my phrases in the identical galleries I’ve admired in years previous. The opposite company would greet us warmly, and I might brazenly share who I used to be and my position within the exhibition with out worrying that they might not have any body of reference. Information concerning the Roma individuals was simply accessible on the partitions round us. 

The Nationwide Gallery’s novel method has elevated the work depicting Roma from unique curiosities to highly effective academic instruments. The Sargent and Spain exhibition balances the great thing about the artwork whereas additionally shedding gentle on the historical past, tradition, and aspirations of a individuals which were within the shadows for too lengthy. It was as if the Gallery had been telling the Roma individuals collectively, “I hear you.” 

The next day, I visited the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork once more with my younger son. The exhibition, open to the general public till January 2, has been effectively attended; the guests are taking their time to admire the work and intently look at the wall labels. Seeing this progress in Roma illustration within the arts was nothing wanting extraordinary. Within the years to come back, I hope extra Roma kids will be capable of stroll right into a museum, see their tradition represented, and say, “I, too, belong.”

Leave a Comment