On view at l’étrangère gallery in East London is the first ever UK solo exhibition by the Polish Roma artist Krzysztof Gil. Entitled Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted, the show takes as its point of departure the contested practice of ‘Heidenjachten’, literally – gypsy hunting – the legally sanctioned hunting of Roma people for sport that took place throughout Germany and the Netherlands from the seventeenth until as late as the nineteenth centuries.
Both legally and socially marginalised throughout their history, Krzysztof Gil’s family originates from the Burgetka Roma community who settled in the Polish region of Podhale in the fifteenth century – at a time when Roma peoples were dissuaded from following their traditional lifestyles for fear of severe punishment or enslavement. Their persecution was then codified in law, as the sixteenth century was marked by anti-Roma legislation passed by the then Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, which meant that any Roma individual captured anywhere throughout the imperial territory could be subjected to torture and extermination. In 1530, Roma were legally banished from England, and in 1540, from Scotland. An official sport in seventeenth century middle Europe, the ‘Heidenjachten’ were a form of public entertainment – organised by the authorities and often with cash prizes awarded for a hunter’s success.
Despite the at once horrific and disturbing nature of this practice, many Roma believe their ongoing state of persecution to be both inevitable and unavoidable. Tellingly, as the artist notes, in Roma culture, there is no reflection on history – it is as ephemeral and transient as their way of life. Whilst the history of gypsy hunting might exist in official records, its specific practice is not explicitly part of Roma self-awareness.
A diverse yet stateless population of approximately 9 to 12 million people, Roma people speak many languages, practice different religions and have varied customs. A culture that places great weight on language as a marker of identity, Roma traditions are passed down orally through the generations, through songs, stories and folklore that are contained within their community. When asked why Roma history was only spoken and not recorded in writing, the Romani poet and singer known as Papusza is said to have replied: “There is too much pain and too many tears in this history.”
As such, their lives do not exist within the narratives of mainstream European history (at least beyond the stereotype of mystical, exoticised poverty), and, importantly for Gil, nor in western art history. For obvious reasons, Roma are left out of the inherited histories that come from those with wealth and land – and the attendant development of visual culture that documents power and visibility.
Yet the experience of centuries of persecution manifests itself vividly, and for Gil, his objective is to document and retell these narratives of violence, and in so doing draw attention to their place within both historical and contemporary consciousness. As a fine arts student at the academy in Kraków in Poland, Gil’s teachers tried to convince him that his heritage belonged in the past, and that is was not an appropriate (read: contemporary) subject for his practice. In his work, then, Gil takes up this challenge: how to represent and reclaim these forgotten and often painful histories of displaced Roma people, in a way that is both relevant to his culture and authentic to his artistic voice.
At l’étrangère, the notion of being hunted has been used by the artist with powerful effect. The installation, entitled TAJSA Yesterday and Tomorrow (2018) is a shelter-like construction made from raw canvas, animal furs and fragments of wooden planks and connected with threads, ropes and bone glue – imitating the simple, humble and temporary houses erected by itinerant Roma communities throughout history. Stepping inside the structure is a visceral experience: the dirt floor (with soil transported from Poland) under foot, and pungent, animalistic smell assail the viewer’s senses. Inside the shelter hangs a traditional talismanic object made from human hair and wax, surrounded by a large panoramic tableau that, by the light of a slow-moving spotlight, teases out a procession of hunters, animals and human corpses, drawn with white chalk on a black background. More than a little disquieting, a pervasive sense of fear has been brought into the installation with claustrophobic intensity.
Gil’s cast of seventeenth century characters have been inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), in which Dr Tulp presents a public dissection to members of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The drawings of the hunters’ trophy heap, which includes a deer, hare and bird, perversely resembles the aesthetisised paintings of the Dutch still life tradition.
Played inside the installation is a soundtrack that juxtaposes the remote history of hunted Roma people with Gil’s own family history and the contemporary moment. The sound component consists of a recorded conversation between the artist and his grandmother, in which she tells the story of her father, who was murdered in post-WWII Podhale after making remarks that called into question the quality of work of his Polish colleagues. His death was concluded to be an accident by doctors and the authorities, and the perpetrators went unpunished.
Gil interviewed his grandmother as part of his PhD project that researched Roma stories, at a time that coincided with his own increased public presence as a kind of poster boy for ‘good’ or productive Roma members of Polish society. The vitriol and vandalism with which his advertising likeness was met inevitably left Gil feeling wholly persecuted, a kind of modern-day gypsy hunt.
The period connections to the seventeenth century are obvious, yet it is also Gil’s sensitivity to materials – the fur, fabric and wood of the shelter, the ornate costumes of his figures – and their tactility that creates a link with the Baroque painting tradition, and what it asked of the viewer. In a reaction against the fixity, stability and feigned classical order of the Renaissance, Baroque painting wanted to grip its audience with theatrical extravagance, believing that art should communicate with direct and emotional involvement. In the second room of the gallery are Gil’s series of portraits in the style of the Old Masters, which overlay notions of self-commemoration and the transience of life onto the experience of the Roma.
In this exhibition, Gil presents a historical form of temporary accommodation in the gallery space – which has itself been packed down and transported, piece by piece, from Kraków to London, mimicking the peripatetic journeys of Roma people. The wider ramifications of the notion of shelter then links the past with the present, and to the millions of people around the globe who seek shelter in temporary accommodation; the transitory experience of migrants, the marginalised, and anyone made to feel unwelcome in their homes, whatever form they may take.
In Romani language, the ‘tajsa’ of the work’s title is a word that means both yesterday and tomorrow, a compressed conception of time that is significant within Roma culture and also provides a guiding structure for Gil’s installation. As he says,
“Romani language does not have separate words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. Instead ‘tajsa’ is used in different combination with other words to describe the notion of either ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. By taking ‘tajsa’ out of context, I treat it metaphorically, as an expression of the past and the future at the same time. History informs the future, and we still live with the consequences of the laws that were enacted in the seventeenth century.”
‘Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted’ by Krzysztof Gil is on view until 5 January 2019 at l’étrangère, 44a Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3 PD. For more details visit l’étrangère.
Words by Annie Carpenter.
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