The stories and images here describe a project undertaken by Canadian Roma in Toronto. A significant number of Hungarian Roma came to Canada in the second half of the 1990’s seeking refugee status. Most of these requests were turned down by the Canadian Immigration Refugee Board (IRB). However, some were able to stay legally or illegally. The project “LOKI GILI Song of sorrow Song of Hope” tells something about the life of some Toronto Roma, many of them Hungarian, in their own pictures. The photos were taken by Roma school children who were given cameras to take pictures representing their lives. The paintings were done by Roma women.
Song of Sorrow, Song of Hope
By Mary Keczan-Ebos
The artistic community in the city of Hamilton has been very supportive of Hungarians as a nationality. Not only did the Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibit Hungarian Splendor: Masterpieces from the National Gallery in Budapest, but two other galleries in the city have shown adjunct exhibits about the people of Hungary. The Workers Arts & Heritage Centre at 51 Stuart Street and YouMe Gallery on James Street North hosted an exhibit from Toronto called Loki Gili: Song of Sorrow, Song of Hope. The exhibition, from January 12 to 28, was a community art project about the Roma organized by Red Tree Arts Collective and the Roma Community Centre. A Gallery Talk on Saturday January 12 was lead by Lynn Hutchinson the Project Leader. Ron Lee, a Romani writer and scholar who teaches a course on the Romani people at the University of Toronto, gave a detailed and informative talk about the history of the Roma and the recent political events that occurred here in Canada.
The exhibition was of particular interest to us because it included work by three members of CHAC. Sandor Monos, Tibor Nylasi and I were asked to join the works that resulted from the collaboration between the arts collective and the Roma community.
Loki Gili comes from loki meaning “quiet, light, slow” and gili meaning “song” and refers to the wishful condition of the lives of the Roma people. For many outsiders the stereotype of a Hungarian generally is evoked in the image of a dark skinned mustachioed gypsy violin player with a beautiful colourfully dressed jewellry laden woman at his side reading palms. This is part of our mythology and the reality of our heritage. My favourite paintings in the Hungarian Splendour exhibition were the genre scenes that included the cygan or cigány (there are many other names for the Roma).
The information that promoted the exhibitions is included below and gives some background both of the project and the Roma people:
Who Are The Roma?
The nation that eventually became the Roma consisted of several clans of the Rajput Confederacy in Gujara, northwest India. In the 11th century, along with their supporting castes of artisans, entertainers and animal drovers, they left their birthplace to escape a devastating period of war after the collapse of the Confederacy. They made their way north through what is now Kashmir, and then followed the Silk Road to ancient Persia. After several generations there, the original groups merged into one people who called themselves Roma. From Persia they travelled through Southern Georgia, Armenia, the Byzantine Empire, Greece, and eventually to Europe. When the Roma arrived in Europe, they created a sensation. Nobody knew where they had come from; and because all dark-skinned peoples from the Middle East were loosely called “Egyptians”, the Roma were labelled as such. When they arrived in the British Isles in the late 15th century, the name was later changed to “Gyptian” and finally, “Gypsy”.
In Western Europe they were driven from towns and cities by the trade guilds, who resented their artisan skills and competition. They faced genocidal persecution in the newly emerging nation states, and because of this, broke into small nomadic groups. In Romania they were enslaved until emancipation in 1864. Over the centuries, the continued persecution and ethnocide forced the Romani groups to fragment even further, until their cohesion as one people with one language was destroyed. In the Holocaust (Porraiyimos, or “The Devouring”) of the Second World War, over one million Roma died in the Nazi death camps and in Nazi puppet regimes or German protectorates such as Bohemia and Moravia. Roma have been recognised as an authentic people with rights to language and culture by the United Nations since 1979, when the International Romani Union was granted NGO status.
Roma in Canada
Roma have been in Canada since the 1880s, with the arrival of the Vlach-Roma who left Romania after emancipation of Roma slaves in 1864. Although some of their descendants are assimilated into Canadian society, most retain their language and culture. In the early 20th century, English Roma (Romanichals) arrived. More recently, in 1997, Slovak Roma came from the Czech Republic to claim refugee status, followed by the Hungarian Romungere. As well, Roma have come from Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Serbia. There are approximately 6,000 Roma living today in Toronto, including the original Canadian Roma. Amongst the Romani population in Toronto today are teachers, workers, musicians, restaurateurs, businessmen and women, writers, historians, visual artists, and students from primary through university to post-graduate.
The description of the exhibition is as follows:
Loki Gili (loki meaning quiet, light, slow; gili meaning song) grew from a working partnership between the Red Tree arts collective and the Roma Community Centre. Their goal was to work on a community arts initiative that would celebrate Roma in Toronto.
Roma are often portrayed in art, music and photography – but by others. Loki Gili shows Roma as they see themselves, their families, their community, and their city. Community participants, working with Roma community animators and Red Tree artists, have developed this unique and dynamic vision of the rich Romani culture and its hopes for the future. Over a period of four months, this collaborative process produced a variety of pieces including a multimedia quilt; photographs; spoken word poetry by youth; and traditional music by Romani singers, including the haunting anthem, ‘Djelem Djelem’. Two brilliantly coloured murals by women who were painting for the first time - working with artists Amelia Jimenez, Samina Mansuri and Lynn Hutchinson - were on display, along with the quilt. The murals depict the traditional life of members of a Romani community, and their subsequent move to Toronto. Also on display were a selection of the photographs taken by Romani youth, aged 11 to 16, working with photographer John Pinel Donoghue.
Hover your mouse over this image to reveal the finished mural.
For more information on the Roma people please visit www.rcctoronto.org
The itinerary for the exhibition was/is as follows:
2005 - CultureLink, Toronto
2006 - Toronto City Hall
Queen Victoria Public School, Toronto
Hungarian Cultural Centre, Toronto
2007 - YouMe Gallery, Hamilton, On
Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre, Hamilton, ON
A Space Gallery, Toronto (in March)
The poster was from the Toronto City Hall Exhibition. The quilt was made by Gyongyi Hamori, Rita Korosi, Hajni Hamori, Maria Vincze, Elvira Kofalvi, Sue Fazekas with artist Amelia Jimenez. The photographs were taken by Romani children and are: the deportation of Scarlette (youth photographer) and her family; Bela’s grandmother; Bela’s brother or cousin; woman and child at Roma picnic.
Sandor, Tibor and I along with Andrea, Anna and Istvan were part of the original small group that envisioned the Canadian Hungarian Artists Collective so it was a treat to show again together. Tibor showed three pieces titled Pop Singer (Paris); School-yard Girls and Shoulder Shimmee Walk (a two part piece). Sandor’s work was a mixed media bronze on granite relief, titled “Winter Scene.” My contribution was a four part mixed media series titled the Kawigamog Suite. One of the parts was titled “Füves Kert” and told my mother’s story about gypsies in her village in Hungary.
It seemed appropriate to me that this exhibition of marginalized people was not shown in the major public gallery along with the major works of the nineteenth century but rather as peripheral exhibitions. Seeing all the exhibitions together shows the complexity of our culture and our heritage.
From the Canadian Hungarian Artists' Collective Newsletter
Volume 4, No. 1, 2007.