PRODUCING ROMA CULTURE WHILE REJECTING THE CONCEPT OF CULTURALISM
AN INTERVIEW WITH A ROMANI FEMINIST THEATRE GROUP GIUVLIPEN
by Salome Kokoladze
Salome Kokoladze: How did Giuvlipen start to emerge as a group?
Giuvlipen: The idea to have an established Roma Feminist Theatre in Bucharest came in 2014. There was a larger group of Roma actresses in Bucharest but we were not connected. Some of us met on various occasions, we had a lot of discussion about our first project as a group. Five of us, Mihaela Drăgan, Zita Moldovan, Vera Linguraru, Elena Duminica and Mihai Lukács started to work together at the beginning of January 2015. Our first performance together, Gadjo Dildo, started as a collective storytelling workshop where we discussed our experiences as Roma women in relation to Roma and non-Roma men and women. Most of the stories were hilarious and romantic but also tragic, in the sense of how Roma women were treated because they were Roma.
SK: As stated in your manifesto, Giuvlipen (“feminism” in Romanes) “is a feminist theatre group with, about and for Roma women, with the goal of contributing to the empowerment of Roma women in their living communities.” Why did you choose this specific form, theatre, to fight for feminist goals?
GP: Some of us have previous experience working in Roma women’s rights groups and all of us have a theatre background. We studied acting and work as professional actresses. Giuvlipen also had the goal of bringing together our previous projects. For example, we adopted two older performances: Del Duma – Tell Them about Me (a one-woman show from 2013 about early marriage and about four very different Roma women) and Razzing (produced in 2014 with the evicted women from the Rahova-Uranus community in Bucharest, most of them of Romani origin). These shows had a significant impact on the audience and after this experience, we have become more and more preoccupied with the cause of Roma women in our art projects. It also influenced our idea to have a Roma women’s theatre made by Roma actresses. To answer your question, we never separated our theatre practice from our activism, they grew together.
We also think that it is the right time for Roma art to become visible, theatre being our main weapon to fight for feminist and anti-racist goals. Our struggle is also at the level of representation since we are the only Roma theatre company in Romania. Even if the state institutions officially support theatre made by ethnic minorities (Hungarian, Jewish, German, etc.), they never figured out that there is a need for the Roma minority (one of the biggest ethnic minorities living in Romania) to have a theatre. So far, we have not received any funding from the Romanian state for our various projects.
SK: Storytelling can have multiple meanings and manifestations. I stumbled upon a quote the other day about storytelling by Petra Kuppers who said, “I am not interested in disclosure. I am interested in discharge.” Members of marginalized communities often have neither the space, nor the emotional state, nor the luxury to express stories in the form of disclosure; many times feminist stories come out as a “scream,” “nausea,” “discharge…” What does storytelling mean to your theatre group? Does this mean change when your stories are presented to different audiences (Romani or non-Romani communities)?
GP: Yes, we also think that beyond the educative role of storytelling, we have to reclaim the space with our bodies and voices. Roma art has always been marginalized because of the segregation of Roma people as a group. We, the Roma actresses from Giuvlipen, are interested to speak about our experiences through theatre as an answer to this marginalization, and also to speak against Roma and non-Roma patriarchy, which do not allow us to have our own voice. Even if our message is the same when we perform in Roma and non-Roma communities, the reactions are quite different. On the one hand, we produce a lot of introspection and self-awareness about existing situations in Roma communities. On the other, there is a certain curiosity about Roma women in non-Roma communities, a desire to know more about us and to hear our stories yet unheard. For us, it was quite a surprise to observe through our audiences how invisible Roma women actually were and how the simple fact of our existence was a novelty.
At the same time, our shows are not just using storytelling to create art. We want our performances to go beyond the activist framework, and we are looking for new forms to express ourselves and to create a new Roma art by women. We are willing to explore new frontiers, more experimental and contemporary forms of expression, which still talk about us, as Roma women, and address our audiences, Roma and non-Roma.
SK: What role do Romani literature and cultural narratives play in your performances? In your performance Invoking Sara Kali, we can see a male figure dressed in a traditional Romani women’s dress. I am wondering now about the definition of “Romani women theatre.” What does the word “woman” entail in your performances and to what extent do you challenge gender boundaries?
GP: The local Romani literature is scarce and not so accessible, while some of the cultural narratives do not resonate with our political views. So we work on them, and adapt them. We are in constant dialogue with the Roma culture and most of the time, we are forced to create new narratives to perform. Sara Kali, the Roma saint, was an inspiration to us: we took some of the traditional prayers and poems dedicated to her by Roma believers and we started to improvise from there. We wanted to talk to Sara Kali about Roma women facing double discrimination today in terms of individual and systemic racism and sexism, but also about Roma women who have to deal with patriarchy within traditional communities (especially in the forms of early marriages and no access to education for girls). Our performance also addressed this double discrimination as it appears in hate speech, clichéd representations and stereotypical perspectives on Roma women. We created a sort of dialogue with the voice of the oppressor, a white male mask. Regarding the literature, we were also very much influenced by Jean Genet’s articles on Angela Davis and the Black Panthers from “The Declared Enemy.”
Sara Kali, the mythical character, the saint not recognised by any church, was worshipped especially by Roma women over centuries for offering them strength and compassion. We felt the need for such protection but also the need to offer the Roma audience some sort of spiritual safeguarding and blessing when they face everyday racism, discrimination, scapegoating, sexism, homophobia and hate (what we call in the performance “the roaring lion that wishes to devour me”). It is an ever-changing performance. We first performed it in English in Vienna for a queer feminist festival (Kvir_feminist_actziya) and then for the International Performance Association’s festival in Bucharest. Later, we translated it in Romanian and adapted it a lot for a performance as part of the “Congregation of the Castoffs” hosted by the Salonul de Proiecte/National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. For this last performance we collaborated with Paul Dunca, a local artist, choreographer, dancer and queer activist. We realized that our invocation talks to different oppressed groups through its poetry, if we take into consideration that we are addressing Roma, queer or trans people, and more specifically, Roma LGBTQA+. We tried to break the strict gender roles and the heteronormativity of some Roma traditions through this performance by working on both a queer imagery & sensibility and Roma traditional motifs taken together. In Gadjo Dildo, we explored this topic even further by having a Roma lesbian character who addresses the homophobia of her community and the problem of strict gender roles in more explicit terms.
SK: One of your performances, LA HARNEALĂ (Razzing), regards the topic of forced evictions of Roma people. This is still a huge problem today. What role do you think feminism has in fighting against such unfair governmental practices?
GP: When we started to get involved as artists and activists in the struggle of the evicted Roma people, we noticed that the women were the most affected in this process of eviction as mothers and wives who had to take care of their children and do all the housework under even more difficult circumstances. Women were the most active members of their communities (much more visible than the men) in organizing protests, mobilizing their community and increasing awareness of their situation. Some evicted and to-be-evicted women from the Rahova-Uranus community came up with the idea of collaborating with us in order to have a theatre show about their experiences. They knew that art could be used to expose and discuss oppressive situations, to explain in a humorous way their fight against the real estate sharks and state institutions, and to find new allies in their protests against eviction. In this way, solidarity and working together with these women in their own community was a feminist goal in itself. We all think that feminism has a lot to learn from these Roma women living on the margins of society, in the most precarious conditions, and we think that feminists have to stand on their side in a more active way.
SK: One of the points in the HYSTERIA manifesto is that “HYSTERIA is a collective borne from juxtaposing and interlacing multiplicities of feminisms that react to histories of subjugation.” What can feminists learn from listening to the voices of Romani feminists, and what does feminism mean to you?
GP: Our feminism is doubled by our constant fight against racism. Feminism and anti-racism are not two separate struggles for us, but one and the same issue because we feel and experience sexism and racism in a specific way, which cannot be figured out unless one is a woman from a discriminated ethnic group. Because of that, we think that “Romani feminism” should be used as a specific term by itself, not as a version of other feminisms or Roma activism. We feel very much connected to “Black feminism,” “womanism,” “intersectional feminism,” “Third World feminism.” We resonate a lot with these movements, their histories and their ideas. If by “feminism” you mean “white feminism,” we think that feminists can find ways to use their own privilege to be our allies,to show concrete solidarity and to give us some space to talk about our specific issues. They can learn not to use a general point of view, which at the end of the day excludes us. We see feminists as our sisters and we are troubled when they are silent in situations of aggression against Roma women, lesbian or trans women (especially when this aggression takes place in social movement bubbles), or when we are accused of constantly playing the victim. Unfortunately, in the society where we live, many Roma women are the direct victims of patriarchy, classism and racism, whether we want to see it or not.
SK: How do you go about challenging patriarchal and heteronormative views within your community without perpetuating the stereotype that Romani communities are “essentially” homophobic/patriarchal?
GP: This is a good question because we always have to balance between how much we speak about the oppression that Roma women face in their community, and not perpetuating negative stereotypes about Roma people as a homogenous group. We always try to provide context when we speak about these things. Homophobia and patriarchy are not just problems of the Roma community, they are problems of our society as a whole.
When we hear, for example, that the violence of Roma men against their wives and daughters is our “cultural problem as Roma people” because we are “uneducated” or “wild” or “something in our blood makes us aggressive,” we try to explain how false these racist views are. Of course, gendered violence is very present in educated, white middle-class groups and in non-Roma families as well. Homophobia is not specifically a Roma issue either, we can see its ugly faces in all social groups. Various recent studies and surveys unfortunately show a worrying backlash and an increase of homophobia, especially among teenagers in Romania.
Even if through our performances we produce Roma culture, we reject the concept of culturalism. We do not think that we are determined in our actions and thoughts only by our culture, understood as a closed and organic entity. Historically, Roma communities isolated themselves mainly as a form of protection against the racism of the non-Roma population, and we see this tendency grow when the rejection from society increases. When the larger group in which we live opens up and sincerely welcomes us, we accept the offer.