First Roma Pavilion
Biennale di Venezia 2007
The Room of Maps
“Damian Le Bas is a cartographer who is fully aware of the geopolitics of identity and representation and who has turned maps into places of experimentation into how diverse tracings could be combined and set in motion to see things differently.”
– Huub van Baar
In 2007 Damian and Delaine Le Bas helped organise and participated in the first Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the first edition of a performance and platform dedicated to giving voice to Roma art.
The ultimate goal of ‘Paradise Lost’ was to destroy the exotic stereotype of the “Gypsies” that has been prevalent in Europe since the 19th century and to put Roma artists on an equal footing in the international art world.
“I'm literally putting gypsies on the map.”
"The Damian of the pictures is in constant dialogue with a cast of bystanders, traders and grafters, with oppressive, but ridiculous and ephemeral authorities, and celebrities like the iconic Elvis, but above all with the recurring figures of his wife and son. The ultimate bystander is the one standing watching the drama in the picture. I don’t “see” Damian’s pictures, I watch them, eagerly but warily, half-hopeful, but also half-fearful of what will happen next, of what emotions might be stirred.
For Damian the first complexity is his own identity. Is he an underground musician who just happens to be a professional artist? When he is collecting scrap metal, could Travellers who comment, “Kushti to see you doing a bit of real work, mush!” be half right? He is the outsider who, curiously, seems to be at ease almost anywhere. He stands at the confluence of three diasporic currents, his own family Huguenot and Irish Traveller heritage and the English Romani heritage of his wife and in-laws. Sometimes the allusions to history are mythic – preachers in the forests, potheen in the hills or caravans from India, but more often they are in little details, of clothing or utensils utterly characteristic of their time, place and provenance (but you don’t realise this until Damian picks them out). Not least the cultural specificity is in the written words which are sprinkled across much of his work, sometimes to the point of becoming a torrent of concrete poetry. Phrases in Irish Traveller Cant or Gammon jostle knowingly with various dialects of Romani, and other European languages and argots, scoring witty points off each other. Possessing a linguistic facility that would be the envy of many anthropologists, Damian, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, “can talk with every Tinker in his tongue”. You don’t have to know the meaning of every last Cant word to find meaning in Damian’s pictures, however. It is not just every Tinker, but every watcher who will find himself addressed. The imagery of the family is universal, of man and woman, wife and husband, parent and child. The works of Damian and Delaine constantly quote from each other, take note of and respond to each other. They are not a joint artist, but the watchers find themselves the privileged observers of an ever-deepening relationship. You don’t need to know the details of their son’s achievements to see the sometimes perplexed but always committed development of the dialogue between father and son. The faces of the characters in this family drama are embedded in the clothes and limbs and flowing hair of the other characters, sometimes loving, sometimes angry, sometimes quizzical, always intimate, and always connected to their heritage by a myriad of peripheral details. Exhibition by exhibition, the images broaden their scope and strike deeper and harder. In the end, don’t look at these pictures for what they tell you about Damian and his family; look at them for what they tell you about yourself."
– Thomas Acton, Paradise Lost Catalogue, 2007
The first Roma Pavilion will open at the 52nd Venice Biennale on June 7, 2007. The Pavilion, located on the piano nobile of the 16th-century Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina, Calle delle Erbe, in the Canareggio district, will feature the premiere of “Paradise Lost,” an exhibition featuring the work of sixteen contemporary Roma artists representing eight European countries.
Following the grand opening festivities, there will be a panel discussion involving European cultural and political leaders, including Roma artists and commentators. They will address some of the fundamental questions and controversy inherent in this first Biennale Pavilion created along ethnic lines: Is a separate Roma Pavilion necessary? Is there such a thing as “Roma art”? Does creating a separate space for Roma artists help or hinder social inclusion?
World renowned film director Wim Wenders sees the Pavilion as an opportunity “to correct our image of the largest minority in Europe, which is still shaped by Gypsy romance and Gypsy kitsch.”
For centuries, Roma people have been romanticized by non-Roma artists, who have conjured up images of barefoot dancers happily banging on tambourines. At the same time, works created by Roma artists have been relegated to the level of kitsch by mainstream European arbiters of culture. The ultimate goal of ‘Paradise Lost’ is to destroy the exotic stereotype of the “Gypsies” that has been prevalent in Europe since the 19th century and to put Roma artists on an equal footing in the international art world.
According to Tímea Junghaus, curator of the exhibition, “It is our belief that the identity of the Roma serves as a model for a modern, European transnational identity that is capable of cultural fusion and adaptation to changing circumstances. This is how the invited artists represent themselves, and this is how they experience their Gypsy identity.”
The Roma Pavilion, alongside the Biennale's national pavilions, marks the arrival of Roma contemporary culture on the international stage and sends an important message: Roma have a vital role to play in the cultural and political landscape of Europe.