′We are the magicians′: Roma and Sinti artists create a bold vision from Berlin | Arts | DW | 22.10.2018
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'We are the magicians': Roma and Sinti artists create a bold vision from Berlin

A million Roma and Sinti people perished in the Holocaust, yet they remain the "minority of the minorities" across Europe. The Galerie Kai Dikhas, dedicated to Roma art, has become a vital platform to tell their story.

Galerie Kai Dikhas (Nihad Nino Pušija)

Artworks by artist Gabi Jimenez

Roma and Sinti people have often been cast as an exotic and primitive people who lead romantic, wild and unrestrained lives. Roma narratives — think Carmen, Franz Liszt and the paintings of Otto "Zigeuner" Mueller — have sometimes been well intentioned, but are often hostile. And Romani people have rarely been masters of their own voice.

In response, Galerie Kai Dikhas was established in Berlin in 2011 as a venue for Roma and Sinti art, and stories, a place to open dialogue and change perceptions of Europe's largest minority that numbers some 12 million people.

Read more: Roma cultural center launched in Berlin

"The idea of this gallery is that it is a platform for the artists of the minority in a way that the minority itself makes the image of the minority, where people talk about their own issues, their own perspectives on life," says Moritz Pankok, artistic director and founder of Kai Dikhas.

With its namesake a Romani word meaning a "place of seeing," the gallery is an open platform in which the wider community can engage in a dialogue with often marginalized Roma and Sinti people. It is also the world's only gallery to be exclusively devoted to such outsider art.  

Galerie Kai Dikhas (Nihad Nino Pušija)

'Performance Costume' (exhibited at Kai Dikhas in 2015) by Delaine Le Bas, a Romani or Gypsy Traveller artist from Britain. A regular at Kai Dikhas, her work featured at the first Roma pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Based in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Kai Dikhas has been part of a Roma and Sinti art renaissance that ostensibly began at the Venice Biennale's first Roma pavilion in 2007, when the "Paradise Lost" exhibition electrified the international art world. As curator Timea Junghaus stated in the exhibition catalogue: "A new generation of Roma intellectuals and artists is emerging; along with a new Roma consciousness."

Funded by Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros, the pavilion was radical in a number of ways. Boasting sixteen artists from eight countries, it was the first time in the history of the Venice Biennale that artists were profiled in a transnational pavilion.

Painting persecution

"We were really the first space for contemporary art of the minority of Sinti and Roma in Europe," says Pankok of Kai Dikhas' central place in the evolution of contemporary Romani art. "And I think this by now has led to a public awareness which has spread to many other places."

Indeed, in 2011 there was another defining exhibition in Berlin titled "Reconsidering Roma — Aspects of Roma and Sinti Life in Contemporary Art," in which Roma artists and Holocaust survivors, the Austrian-Romani writer Karl Stojka and his sister, the painter Ceija Stojka, focused on the devastating consequences of the Nazi genocide on their community — which wasn't officially acknowledged by the German government until 1982.

Ausstellung Reconsidering Roma Flash-Galerie (Reconsidering Roma/Moritz Pankok)

"Witch Hunt" by Delaine La Bas was part of the defining "Reconsidering Roma" exhibition in Berlin in 2011

Ceija Stojka, who died in 2013 and is known for her paintings of the death camps — but also for her Holocaust memoir, We Live in Seclusion — has since been fetching large prices in the contemporary art market. 

In May, Kai Dikhas presented an exhibition of Stojka's expressionist works that often depict the grim imagery related to the Holocaust. It was the seventh exhibition of Stojka's work put on by the gallery, and it coincided with a major Stojka retrospective at the renowned Maison Rouge in Paris titled "Ceija Stojka — a Roma Artist in the Century."

"There were hundreds of visitors, critics, collectors; the real Paris art scene was there," said Pankok. "And people realized that not only is Ceija Stojka a victim, or someone who [gives] her testimony of the persecution of the Roma during the genocide, but she is also just a great artist."

painting of a black monster-like figure leaping over a barbwire fence (Nihad Nino Pušija)

Ceija Stojka: The fear was great behind the barbed wire fence in the Auschwitz concentration camp (2009)

Close to home

Moritz Pankok, who hails from Mühlheim an der Ruhr in western Germany, was perhaps destined to found Galerie Kai Dikhas. He is the grand nephew of a Weimar-era expressionist artist, Otto Pankok, who won acclaim for his woodblock prints and charcoal drawings of German Sinti people.

"He was an artist that was persecuted by the Nazis and was branded as degenerate. His artwork was exhibited at this exhibition, 'Entartete Kunst' (Degenerate Art), in Munich," says Pankok. "He dealt with the Sinti, portraying the Sinti settlement on the periphery of Düsseldorf, which he continued to do during the Nazi period."

smiling woman on front of 10 euro bill (Peter Pichler)

Ceija Stojka was celebrated by the artist Peter Pichler when he featured the Roma artist in an "alternative" design for a 10 euro bill in 2014

After the war, Otto Pankok documented Sinti persecution at the hand of the Nazis. "Through his charcoal drawings he became the artist who documented the persecution, who made portraits of people who were killed during the Holocaust. Therefore he is known among Sinti." In 2010, Moritz Pankok organized an exhibition of his great uncle's work as part of a Gypsy-Roma-Sinti-Traveler month in Greenwich, England.

Read moreChancellor Merkel inaugurates a memorial to Roma and Sinti

'We are the magicians'

On October 23 Galerie Kai Dikhas will be showing works by Lita Cabellut, a celebrated Spanish-Sinti artist who also exhibited at the opening of the gallery in 2011.

A Catalan artist living in the Netherlands who grew up on the streets of Barcelona as a Sinti orphan, Cabellut's distinctive oil paintings — which include portraits of the likes of Frida Kahlo and Billie Holiday — have been exhibited internationally. "I am obsessed to paint humanity," she once said.

In an interview with the Southeast Review, Cabellut tried to inspire aspiring Roma artists.  "Ok, we are extraordinary, we have in our veins the magic of creation, we are the magicians in the space between one star and the other."

Ölgemälde mit Porträt von Camarón de la Isla FLASH-GALERIE (DW)

Part of a series of painting portraits of Spanish-Romani flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla by Lita Cabellut that were exhibited by Galerie Kai Dikhas in 2011

Such Romani spirit has infused her blossoming body of work. "She is commercially, I have to say, the most successful of our artists," says Pankok.

Callebut's large-scale figurative paintings recently featured in a Rossini opera in which she created the set design that included eight of her works. 

"We are going to present those eight large-scale paintings, and this will be done here in the gallery and upstairs in the documentation center of Sinti and Roma," Pankok explained. "It will be really a big exhibition. We will roll out a red carpet for this artist because she is the most successful contemporary artist of the minority."

Yet again, Galerie Kai Dikhas will be at the forefront of a rising art movement that promises to reveal important untold stories — and the magic of creation.

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