A photography exhibition at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, “romarisingV4,” challenges the stereotype of Roma as gypsies. The exhibition, by Washington-based photographer Chad Evans Wyatt, features 40 black and white portraits of successful Roma from the Visegrád Four (V4) countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) that counter the stereotypical images of the Roma.
Roma are originally an ethnic people from northern India and living now on all continents, but mostly in Europe. They have frequently been broad-brushed as crude, poor, uneducated transients. But Wyatt’s exhibition proves how untrue that careless stereotype has thoughtlessly tainted their ethnicity.
“My involvement in ‘romarising’ comes directly from my childhood in New York,” Wyatt says, “where my musician parents were involved in the building of what was to become the Civil Rights Era.” In retrospect, he realizes now as a photographer, had he been old enough then, he might have documented the nuts and bolts of the back story of that great movement.
More than 10 years ago he found himself in Prague to create a photography series that was to be an overview of Czech artists, post-Velvet Revolution. “During this time,” Wyatt recalls, “I came upon some articles in the Czech press regarding the Roma. [It was] incredible screed, attributing small brain-size to them, genetic deformity, unbridled mendacity and irresponsibility… the same things that had been said about my people 100 years ago and prior.”
After reading those articles, Wyatt found himself in a state of disbelief. Among the Czech artists he was photographing were several Romani. He asked them how true the reports were and if there were no Romani lawyers, doctors, etc. Were they all on public welfare as the articles had asserted?
Their answer, he said, was predictable. Like other peoples, the Roma populations include “all of these and more, paying taxes, pursuing ordinary human aspiration, contributing to society, not living as some collective parasites off the state.” In short, he points out, the “Gypsy pickpocket” had become a stereotype, not the norm.
In his work, he has photographed Roma who are graphics designers, teachers, physicians, religious leaders, former parliament members, military officers, attorneys, insurance underwriters, successful business professionals, museum directors, college students, accountants, social workers, PR consultants, media personalities, police officers, judges and many others.
Today, approximately 12 million Roma live in Europe, in a larger population of more than 300 million people. “I often remark,” Wyatt says, “if were one to remove all 12 million by some magic wand, would that change anything in the troubled economies of the continent, would the roads suddenly become repaired? Of course not. Yet the Roma are the focus of political demonizing, instead of the recipients of enlightened policy.”
Wyatt says he hopes his portraits from “romarising,” now representing Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Canada, will “help those who would incorporate this maligned minority into society, make use of the manifest skills my sitters display in abundance.”
Finding people at first was challenging, Wyatt recalls. Several ignored personal peril coming to him. “The first subject was probably the most fortuitous start to any of my projects,” he said. That was Mgr. Karel Holomek who was universally considered the leading proponent of Romani emancipation in the Czech Republic. Holomek, along with prominent Charles University linguist, Dr. Milena Hübschmannová, helped open doors for him with regularity, he added.
“Once the project got underway, word began to precede me,” Wyatt recalls. “Many came to expect my request for a sitting. [It] didn’t hurt that my father was a jazzman, and that I am bi-racial. There is no question that my access to this hermetic community was far easier than for some photographers. But it did remain for me to prove worthy of trust.”
The exhibition currently on display at the Embassy of the Czech Republic will have a significant international exposure. Next March it travels to the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, Czech Republic. From there it goes to Slovakia, Poland and Germany.
A version of the current exhibition first showed in Brussels and the European Parliament in March 2014. The exhibition remains on view here in Washington, D.C. at the embassy of the Czech Republic through December 14, 2015, by appointment only. Please call (202) 274-9105 to arrange a visit.
The exhibition has been organized as part of the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the Visegrád Four (V4). The V4 reflects the efforts of the countries of the Central European region to work together in a number of fields of common interest; its ultimate interest being the democratic development in all parts of Europe.