There are approximately ten million Roma gypsies in Europe and they have lived among us for more than 800 years. We know little about them and, in the best of cases, that little consists in stereotypes and, for the most part, prejudice.
This book is a partial account of research lasting nearly two years based on a stunningly simple premise: knowledge is the best way to undermine racism. Because this is what it is and has been for centuries when people talk about the Roma communities.
This project was obstructed, sometimes violently, and strongly in Italy which has in recent years been waging a war against the Roma people (in the last four years, there have been 278 evacuations in Milan alone, source: tg3).
Yet the project conducted with European financing involved four research groups – L.A.N., Laboratorio Architettura Nomade, Naples; Asociata Pentru Tranzitie Urbana, Bucharest; London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London; T.A.M.A., Temporary Autonomous Museum for All, Greece – and drew on experts, students, curators and photographers, working with numerous institutions and universities at home and abroad. Simply approaching these people and their world is stepping into a minefield.
The Roma occupy the interstitial spaces of our cities and lives. Their settlements are always on the outer edges, in areas that the Gaje (us, i.e. 'the others' to their eyes) do not want, places abandoned or on the boundaries. Their activities – the surviving traditional ones of tinkers and rug merchants plus the very contemporary ones such as cleaning, IT technicians and collectors of sundry materials, perhaps managed by Internet companies – lie on the outer edges, less for the type of service and more for the pretence required of those managing them. People must not know the businessmen are Roma or even that their office is in a camper in a nomadic camp.
The Roma have developed both a huge capacity to adapt and an equally strong attachment to tradition. This is something that happens often in "different" communities and it becomes a means of survival.
One of the reasons behind our fear seems to lie in what they represent: our potential future – see the fate of tens of thousands of Americans who lost their homes in the recession and the car and trailer settlements on the edge of Los Angeles, or the rows of tents on pavements – and the reference to a past of humanity that is unknown to us. A worrying reflection of an uncertain present. Then, what is an extraordinary contradiction in a global world of constant movement: nomadic or semi-nomadic life is seen as destabilising compared with the resident model of the large majority in the Western culture.
The resident model came to a height in the last century and survives in other forms in this century. In terms of the settlements and their architectural structure, which, in one sense, are the focus of study in this project, it is worth stressing that Jorgos Tzirtzilakis believes one of the reasons behind the rejection of nomadic camps lies in Modernism and particularly the idea that they do not correspond to the model of abstract thought; what stems from tradition or non-Western cultures is seen as inferior or exotic. The distinction between higher and lower culture becomes an axiom. It is a short step to marginalisation and on to racism. It is no chance that Modernism appeared during the epoch of great totalitarian regimes – the extermination of Roma people in the Nazi concentration camps is a sadly known fact.
Things seem to have changed a little at least today. The attitude that prompted L.A.N. to conduct case studies on the Italian camps and the artist Maria Papadimitriou's project with students of the Faculty of Architecture in Thessaloniki (Greece) reveals an interest, although it still has a Western interpretation of the "Roma issue" to reckon with. It opens up a vision that is inclusive as it uses the Roma culture as a model from which to understand some of our own phenomena.
Speaking of artists, Gabi Scardi says that art can bring subjects closer and epitomise them and corresponds to the attitude of artists "attracted by the potentials of a future that is as yet unpredictable". I would like to add: only the best. In the all-female T.A.M.A. project, she, Lucy Orta and Maria Papadimitriou have produced a Roma study which was presented at the 2009 Biennale de Lyon. She put herself on the line.
In the search for artistic links to this people, we cannot overlook Pinot Gallizio. This artist was one of those who approached the Roma and defended their right to exist via actions both artistic and political (he has also been a city councillor in Alba). This is like saying that the issue remains extremely political - in the best sense of the word.
The book, published in 2010 by Black Dog Publishing, is dedicated to the memory of Professor Claudio Marta, Anthropologist.