Artistic and Theoretical Strategies Challenging Racism

Suzana Millevska

During the last several years in my academic research projects and in my curatorial practice, I addressed artistic research and production dealing with one extremely urgent issue: the racialised relations in our contemporary society along with their historical and epistemological genealogy.[1] There were several urgent reasons that led me to this newly developed focus in my work (that I pursued in parallel to my other previously developed interests in postcolonial critique of hegemonic regimes of representation, gender, and feminist art practices and participatory art in the Balkans and Eastern Europe). However there was one major misconception concerning race and racism that was the main trigger because it was shared by many of my colleagues in the Balkans.[2] Here I am mainly referring to the stereotypical assumption that came about on several occasions when racism was mentioned in artistic and academic contexts: that racism is something that does not concern “us,” people from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and because Europe is predominantly “white” we are far from racism, that is “this” phenomenon necessarily related to “races” in the most simplistic biological way of understanding races- as a division among people between black, white, or yellow races.[3]

Needless to state here, such a division based on biology and genetics is informed by the obsolete ideology inherited from the colonial past and nobody seriously would subscribe to it in scientific circles today. The return of the repressed notion of racial difference sounds even weirder today after even the Genome project repudiated it as unviable and moreover, scientifically unprovable.[4] Elsewhere Paul Gilroy points to perhaps the most important issue with any racism: that in racist discourse the society conceptualises the subject (or group of subjects) that is perceived as the other, the different, both as a problem and as a victim.[5] As a problem because it disturbs the established order of sameness; as a victim because the compassion that accompanies the victimisation is a kind of redemption. “Racialized resistance” and solidarity, on the contrary, require an action towards getting away from the perpetuating cycle of problem and victim and is more difficult to realise.

Nevertheless the fact is that very little is done in the academic and theoretical fields of research on racist mechanisms and cultural phenomena related to race and racialisation in the “white” spaces of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where many ethnic minorities are treated as the “other” race, and not always based only on their different skin tone.[6] The question what is race if not biology lurks behind any attempt to discard the essentialist views on race. Some theorists are not ready to abandon the importance of the issue of visible difference entailed in the skin colour.[7] The problem of understanding racism in countries where racist outbursts became everyday practice is not only an issue of visual distinction.[8] This is actually only an excuse for the undertaken collective actions against the different, for some aims with different backgrounds, mainly economic and territorial interests rather than mystified hatred.[9]

In this particular text I want to focus on several art projects and artistic and/or research strategies undertaken by artists who recognised the urgency to react against the racialisation of Europe and act in solidarity with the communities that are undermined, marginalised and even whipped out from their long-term lived territories (think of Roma all over Europe, Albanians from Serbia, even Serbs from Croatia). The unknown facts about the Roma Holocaust, the wars in Yugoslavia, the secretive sterilisation of Roma and Sinti in Slovakia and the Czech Republic or the Hungary National Guard are just a few of the examples that have been tackled in some of these projects in a vigorous and activist way. Artists in these projects offer very specific artistic and research methods combining art, activism and public media, thus attracting the attention of the general audience that is provoked to think seriously about racism in the more neutral and relaxed environment of the art context rather than while watching the politicised and gruesome news on TV. Moreover, artists often manage to achieve much more than journalists with documentary information, particularly when, equipped with their artistic curiosity and fragile sensitive approach they enter the highest realms of political hierarchy to fight the societal causes that they turn into an artistic project, or the other way around. Perhaps to achieve serious social changes through art is not the main function of art and it is too much to expect, but our civil responsibilities often sound more urgent and provoke more attention when shared with artists.

This text explores art projects that address the possible entanglements and causal relations between the long suppressed, forgotten and carefully regulated truths from the past and the new protocols that are issued and proliferated time and again by different governments and institutions and ultimately cause the controversial present condition of Roma and other “racialised” minorities. I argue that these artistic projects remind us how urgent it is to recognise the reawakened conservatism, nationalism and racism that today obviously operate under the auspices of neoliberal capitalism, and to tackle it through vigorous actions. I want to argue that particularly important for understanding the recurrence of racism is the linkage between racism and well-known capitalist appropriation methods: protocols for security measures; regeneration for tourism and creative industries; strict policies against travellers, refugees and sans papiers, etc., that all lead to certain disappropriations. In the diplomatic context and in the judicial sense the term protocol refers to an agreed set of conventions including arbitrary rules, procedures, or ceremonies. They are related to the regulation of international relations and are usually issued as supplements or amendments to an existing law or treaty. Therefore protocol represents a recognized and generally accepted system or order of acts that should be applied for the better communication of the agreed rules.

Today the general state protocols seem to exclude Roma and other minorities and immigrant communities through a similar strategy: by constantly introducing new protocols specifically targeting certain communities. By doing so the neoliberal state produces a double bind action with which it first proclaims the targeted community as an exceptional population and then creates exceptional protocols that leave these people outside of normality and common rule, as a kind of sealing of all stereotypes and prejudices. In line with Hannah Arendt’s arguments in regard to the fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (forged around 1900), any protocol actually presupposes and projects a kind of danger that gives way to a justification of the newer and stricter regulations. The controversial expulsion of nearly 1000 Roma from France, who were sent to Romania and Bulgaria, was based on a personal memo from the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and followed the French government’s orders based on the newly introduced strict security bill LOPPSI2. This is only one of the most recent obvious examples to how protocols are put at work. Some of the artists that are discussed in the continuation of this text not only critiqued but also tried to divert these laws and protocols and attempted to use them in an opposite direction: against racism itself.

I will start with a project that still deals with racism against African people but is based on European ignorance or, more precisely, with the European embracing of the issue. Sasha Huber’s art project Rentyhorn was launched in 2008 on the peak Assizhorn. This Swiss-Haitian artist imagined her project as a follow up to the official campaign De-mounting Agassiz [Démonter Louis Agassiz]. Huber’s project called for an official renaming of the peak as Rentyhorn (Renty was a Congolese slave photographed by Agassiz) because it bears the name of Louis Agassiz. Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) was a famous Swiss glaciologist, palaeontologist and Harvard professor, who was known for fostering problematic concepts about racial difference among people.[10] Agassiz’s contribution to racism was by no means unique for his newly established context of a flourishing career in the USA. However he lent his name and scientific credibility to racism thus establishing its legitimation. Moreover today he is held responsible for the genre of scientific racism. I want to argue that, although indirectly, racism and the particular racist theory of Agassiz are still circulated and celebrated throughout the places and institutions named after him. There are still other mountains, towns, neighbourhoods and various institutions (mostly in the USA) that bear the name of Louis Agassiz.[11] This makes Sasha Huber’s project Rentyhorn that is entirely devoted to the question whether we should continue to put up with the long inherited racist “monuments” extremely relevant. Therefore, regardless of the obvious fact that projects such as Rentyhorn cannot lead to the complete eradication of racism, art activism and other similar performative art practices convincingly intervene within certain unquestioned visual and nominal spaces of racist discourse by inserting the suppressed knowledge about racism.

Sasha Huber, Rentyhorn (2008)

It was not before September 9, 2007, that the Swiss Federal Council (Government) officially acknowledged his “racist thinking” but declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit.[12] This moment marks a missed opportunity and moreover the ultimate failure of the Western democratic system to recognise a great potential: the potential that lied in the eventual execution of such a performative act by a simple renaming of Agassizhorn, which could signify the abolishment of the legacy of Agassiz’s open advocacy of racism, and thus would help to revert the hypocrisy regarding racism in Europe today. One could easily realise that by getting away with the half-way decision, the Swiss Government had failed to officially admit the fact that not only is the racist discourse still viable and widely present, but also, indirectly, it is even praised through celebrating the name of one of its most prominent proponents.

Regardless of the double-faced justice of European Democracy and the Swiss Government’s decision, artist Sasha Huber (currently based in Helsinki) succeeded in drawing again the general public’s attention to the same issue: to the particular campaign De-mounting Agassiz [Démonter Louis Agassiz] that was initiated by Hans Fässler. Through her art project she emphasised the urgency of discussing racism in Europe and moreover, of looking for ways of standing against it.She followed the already existing initiative to change the name of the well-known peak with a proposal to call it “Rentyhorn,” after the name of the Congolese slave, a proposal that she distributed to many institutions and relevant individuals (such as Kofi Annan).

Sasha Huber, Rentyhorn (2008)

This particular name proposition was triggered by the fact that a photograph (daguerreotype) of Renty was commissioned by Agassiz in order to serve as a proof of his belief that there was an unbridgeable difference between Afro-Americans and people with white skin. Renty’s photograph belongs to the long tradition of photographic representation of the “inferior Other” and therefore deserves the central role in Huber’s project. The photograph taken on a plantation in South Carolina in the 1850s was used by Agassiz as an image that was supposed to illustrate his theory that blacks were inferior to whites, but, meanwhile, it became a monument to the manipulative power of the scientific implantation of various meanings to images. The simple frontal portrait photograph stood for everything that appalled Agassiz, particularly the radical difference that, for him, derived from the simple genetic parallelism of different origins and thus lent itself to a scientific justification of slavery.

Sasha Huber’s Haitian background is not a non-related coincidence, though. Her project is profoundly motivated by the troubled past of the Haitian slavery resistance movements and its goals. “The goal of this liberation, out of slavery, cannot be subjugation of the master in turn, which would be merely to repeat the master’s ‘existential impasse,’ (Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind) but, rather, elimination of the institution of slavery altogether.”[13] Sasha Huber’s video performance Rentyhorn and the exhibition in Helsinki (that among the other archival elements included the video record of the performance executed on Agassizhorn) call for a very small effort to take this urgent step in making a clear cut break with racist discourse and to overcome “Agassiz’s gap.” Her project transforms the whole debate in the art circles and thus allows us to address the issue from within the future, supposedly from a time without Agassiz’s “peaks.”[14] However by not making the decision to change the peak’s name, the Swiss Federal Council only proves that humans have yet to climb the mountain of democracy, mutual understanding and tolerance to the different.

The Roma Holocaust, forced nomadism and racism during and after the wars in former Yugoslavia are just a few of the issues addressed by contemporary artists from the Balkan and CEE region. These urgent social, economical and political issues put side by side with the effects of contemporary state protocols such as displacements and evictions, property looting, unequal human rights, discrimination in education, etc., speak volumes. For example, Romani culture is diverse and full with contradictions on its own, so it is difficult to define it under one umbrella definition and this is often used as an excuse for different policies, decisions and protocols designed for Roma by not-Roma that obviously wrongly assume that Roma are not capable of producing societal and political formations, structures and discourses. Therefore in this context I find it important to focus on different protocols of communication and representation of Roma issues by focusing on the artistic discourses and productions of Roma artists.

Artist and filmmaker Milutin Jovanović in his semi-documentary Migration (2011, 18′) focuses his attention on the lives of the displaced inhabitants from a former Roma settlement. The Gazela settlement that existed under Belgrade’s Gazela Bridge was destroyed on 31 August 2009. Given the order of the Belgrade Mayor, 114 of the families living there for several years were forced to move to six sites on the outskirts of Belgrade to live in metal containers, while the other 64 families were transported to parts of southern Serbia. In the video the audience is invited to follow the story line as it evolves through the eyes of Jovanović’s friend Gagi, one of the residents of the new Roma settlement where some of the evicted Roma families were forced to move after the Gazela settlement’s destruction. Gagi borrows a camera and starts shooting his own documentary about his neighbours’ disappointments in the labyrinth of narrow streets and tinny container-homes in search for eye-witnesses’ testimonials. Thus the means of representation are owned and taken over -they are “mastered” and used in order to overcome the existing regimes of representation. However, Gagi’s potential witnesses have already been silenced by the warning protocol: they are threatened not to speak publicly about their daily survival in incredible inhuman conditions.

Marika Schmiedt, What Remains…, 2000-2009, (2011)

The installation What Remains…, 2000-2009 (2011, DVD-Loop, 20-30 min.) by Marika Schmiedt, includes a video and copies of documents that the artist collected in the course of her committed research on the unknown facts regarding the Roma Holocaust protocols and particularly the destiny of her relatives killed in concentration camps to whom she devoted another work (Eine lästige Gesellschaft [An undesirable society]). Although all these documents (memorials, Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Ravensbrück), lists of prisoners, transport lists, measuring cards, prisoner photos (Bundesarchiv, Berlin), registration files, police records, birth certificates/death certificates (Federal Police Directorate Graz, community Kirchstetten Nope, various parishes) are preserved and kept in the archives, they are difficult to be accessed and retrieved. Thus the artist with her research-based work is making visible the existing evidences by putting the pile of these documents in front of our eyes in their frappant materiality: few thousand single copies of transport lists, prisoner lists, obituaries, inmate-staff cards, detention certificates, cash cards, or documents related to medical experiments were offered to the audience to take home and thus to keep the memory of these otherwise blacked-out events.

Marika Schmiedt, What Remains…, 2000-2009, (2011)

The main issue that Schmiedt explores in this and her previous work Vermächtnis (2010-2011) dedicated to the artist Ceija Stojka (a Roma woman painter, musician, and writer from Austria who survived three different concentration camps), is very similar to a question asked by philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “What is the juridical structure that allowed such events to take place?”[15] While fighting historical amnesia, the documents and oral testimonials that the artist collected for many years warn us both against racism’s eternal return and against the aporia of the “proxy witness”: the survivor’s testimony as “a potentiality that becomes actual through an impotentiality of speech […] an impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking.”[16]

Crazy Water Wheel by Alfred Ullrich (two-channel video installation, 18′ 38″) consists of two videos. The first one is showing only a loop of the turning wheel of a watermill. The wheel brings to mind the Romani flag that also has a wheel. This video comments, therefore, on the old stereotype of Roma people as exotic creatures full of wanderlust, genetically incapable of leading sedimentary lives in a house without wheels. The filmed watermill lies in vicinity of the Nazi extermination camp of Dachau so the wheel also refers to the eternal recurrence of racism. The repetition is not perfect and sends ambivalent message because the artist allows subtle details to transform the scene, thus perhaps pointing out to the slow change in the Roma situation.

Alfred Ullrich, Crazy Water Wheel (2009-2011)

Side by side with the watermill wheel there is a documentary showing an informal private performance by the artist commenting on the traffic signs Landfahrerplatz kein Gewerbe (warning that itinerants are not allowed to trade or peddle in the area). Such signs are still in use in Bavaria. The artist is recorded as he questions and crosses out the inscription on the street sign with holding three signs one after another: a question mark, a cross and a sign suggesting a new term –Rastplatz [resting spot] instead of the old one. His simple action highlights how seemingly neutral regulations in fact enforce the segregation of Roma travellers from others so discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is preserved through language and visual public memory, and even through simple traffic protocols. By crossing out the sign the artist actually proposes a “renaming” with similar intentions as Sasha Huber: to discontinue the racist signs, names and terms that have been around for such a long time that we have internalized them and learned to live with them without ever asking why they became so comfortably embedded in our visual cultures.

Alfred Ullrich, Dachau, Landfahrerplatz kein Gewerbe (2011)

Another older work by Ullrich consisting of photographs, documents his original performance Pearls before Swine which took place on 13 May 2000 in the Czech Republic, in front of the former Roma concentration camp Lety that was run solely by Czechs during WWII. Since the 1970s, the site has housed a swine farm. The artist threw pearls from a necklace belonging to his sister onto the ground through the farm’s locked gate and in front of the memorial stone in homage to his relatives and other Roma who were interned in various concentration camps.[17] The artist’s action and the title of the work point to the absurd and disturbing attempt by the Czech government to overwrite the history and existence of the Lety site, and to erase any public memory related to the concentration camp and the horrors that took place there by simply covering it up with a different kind of “dirt,” thus desecrating the memory of Roma who suffered there.[18]

While working on the project Call the Witness my main aim was to put under pressure the hegemonic regimes of representation as well as internalized strategies of self-representation that are imposed upon individuals through biopolitical structures dominant in our contemporary world. Certain questions such as the following needed to be asked: Who has control over the means of representation and who has the power to reproduce and distribute certain dominant cultural and moral principles? Or to give a more concrete example, who has the freedom to erect a platform where Roma artists and Roma in general can utter their urgent statements of self-determination and act as agents empowering the Roma minority?[19]

The internalization of the regimes of representation, identification, self-essentialization and racism create a threatening cycle, from which one most urgently needs to seek a way out. Some aspects were necessarily incited by the urgency to address recent cases of individual and collective displacements, evictions, and deportations of Roma citizens from their homes in many European countries. In light of the current neoliberal capitalist advance and its thirst for cheap or even free land, these political manoeuvres should come as no surprise.[20] It is also important to point to the severe breaching of human rights that is occurring, and ultimately to search for new methods for recognizing and fighting against contemporary racism that are re-contextualized through an evocation of certain racist contexts from the past.

The expelled, the displaced, the ghettoized, the imprisoned, the war refugee, or any free but marginalized Roma are the speaking subjects in the previously explored projects: the Roma artist’s subjectivity is the witness, and he or she speaks for the ones who cannot speak.[21] One pressing question to be asked is how Europe is to negotiate the newly formed Roma subjectivities when social and political functions are always already “marked by the split between the referent and symbolic,” to quote philosopher Julia Kristeva, when speaking subjects are divided between the past overburdened by annihilation and obliteration and the yet-uncertain future.

Agamben’s “right to be sacrificed” is not what this amounts to today: it is rather the right to live on equal ground with the majority regardless of one’s ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or cultural background.[22] Even if one may not be capable of transcending racism (as political geographer Arun Saldanha has argued[23]), or of unravelling all inherited contours and inflexions of representation, one should take on board the responsibility to utter one’s own testimonies against injustice and discrimination; to decipher and unsettle new instances of racism, in all its disguises and to denounce them loudly; and to use any possibility to call for radical action that affirms solidarity in difference, cohabitation and compossibility.[24]

The postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy suggests:

[…] in order to do effective work against racism, one had to in effect renounce certain ontological assumptions about the nature of race as a category, which cheapened the idea of political solidarity, in my view, because it said that solidarity somehow was an automatic thing, that it would take care of itself. But I believe that solidarity -as you, I think, believe- doesn’t take care of itself, that we have to do things to produce that solidarity.[25]

Unfortunately the contemporary art scene is still not ready to accept contemporary artists coming from different backgrounds and prefers to hear about all those issues from familiar voices of already accepted artists who are more fluent in speaking the language of the majority on the art scene. So I finish the text with one question: how many names of Roma artists do you know?


[1] 2008-2010: The Renaming Machine, series of exhibitions, conferences and seminars, Ljubljana, Skopje, Prishtina, Zagreb, Vienna; 2010: Call the Witness (curator), BAK, Utrecht; Roma Pavilion (author of the title and initial idea, researcher and collaborator), 54th Venice Biennale; Roma Protocol (curator), Vienna Parliament.

[2] I am referring to several discussions in which I’ve heard similar statements; for example, to one discussion during the conference of City of Women Festival that took place in Ljubljana in 2004. The panellists Nirmal Purwal and Ajalika Sagar (Otolith Group) were attacked from the audience for talking too long about racism.

[3] However, Paul Gilroy points out to another danger: identification based on “sameness.” In a conversation with Tommie Shelby, Gilroy interpreted the notion of racial identity: “I’ve always tried to unpack the notion of identity significantly. So when you say racial identity, I immediately triangulate it: there’s the question of sameness; there’s the question of solidarity (which we’ve already dealt with); and there’s the issue of subjectivity. So, identity can be unpacked into at least three quite discrete problems, which are usually lumped together when we speak of identity.” “Cosmopolitanism, Blackness, and Utopia,” a conversation with Paul Gilroy by Tommie Shelby, Transition – An International Review, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, 18 July 2009.

[4] “Minorities, Race, and Genomics”, Human Genome Project Information, 15 July 2009,

[5] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Houston A. Baker (Foreword) (Chicago, IL: Chicago University, 1991), pp. 11-12.

[6] I specifically refer to events that we have seen in the recent years: cases of violence towards Roma and their expulsions, dislocations and deportations in France, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia etc.

[7] See Arun Saldanha, “Reontologising race: the machinic geography of phenotype,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space vol. 24, no. 1 (2006): pp. 9-24.

[8] ”Slovak nationalist wants separate state for Roma minority,” 20 September 2011,

[9] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1962), pp. 503-4. I want to argue that the relation between imperialism and racism already tackled by Hannah Arendt could be understood even better through the well-known concept “accumulation by dispossession” in David Harvey “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” eds. Leo Pantich and Colin Leys, Socialist Register 2004: The New Imperial Challenge (London: Merlin Press, 2003).

[10] Kayle Cassidy, “A Mountain, By Any Other Name, Would Reak Less of Racism,” Wendmag, posted 5 October 2008, accessed 14 January 2009,

[11] According to Wikipedia these are only few places that still bear Agassiz’ name: Agassiz, a small community located in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, USA; Mount Agassiz, 13,899 feet high peak in California; Agassiz Township in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, USA; Agassiz Peak, San Francisco Peaks, the second highest mountain of the U.S. state of Arizona at 12,356 feet; Lake Agassiz, USA; Mount Agassiz in California’s Palisades; Mount Agassiz, Utah, in the Uinta Mountains; Agassiz Peak in Arizona; Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Creek in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. In addition, several animal species were so named, including Apistogramma agassizi [Agassiz’s dwarf cichlid], Isocapnia agassizi [Ahassiz snowfly], and Gopherus agassizii [desert tortoise].

[12]”Louis Agassiz vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben,” Die Bundesversammlung – Das Schweizer Parlament, 14 September 2007, accessed 10 January 2009,

[13] Georg Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry vol. 26, no: 4, (Summer 2000): p. 849.

[14] What Sasha Huber actually recorded was her flight with a helicopter over the Agassizhorn at the end of August 2008 when she successfully landed on the peak and put a plate on it in memory of the slave Renty.

[15] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 166.

[16] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), p. 146.

[17] Alan Levy, “The World Has to Know,” Prague Post, 17-23 May 2000.

[18] See Huub van Baar, “The Way Out of Amnesia? Europeanisation and the Recognition of the Roma’s Past and Present,” Third Text, vol. 22, no. 3, (May 2008): pp. 373-385.

[19] Perhaps some clarification of the term “Roma” and its uses is called for here. It was accepted in 1971 during the first truly transnational Roma congress, which took place in Orpington (near London), in order to circumvent the derogatory connotation of the labels “Gypsy” or “Tzigani.” Today it serves as an umbrella term for many different names that various Roma communities use for self-designation, but is not accepted by some of them.

[20] Because most Roma do not possess legal property documents (even after having lived for decades on the same piece of land), their land is instead appropriated “legally” and becomes available for development and gentrification, “urban regeneration” in the neoliberal parlance. Racist outbursts and riots usually facilitate this process, which resonates with philosopher Hannah Arendt’s statement from The Origin of Totalitarianism that racist ideology helped to legitimize the imperialist conquests of foreign territories and the acts of domination that accompanied them.

[21] Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 146.

[22] Suzana Milevska, “The Eternal Recurrence of Racism – Some reflections on the return of racism in European culture,” springerin vol. XV, no. 4 (Autumn 2009): pp. 25̱-29.

[23] Saldanha, p. 24.

[24] The concept “compossibility” was coined by Gilles Deleuze. See: Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 373.

[25] Giilroy, “Cosmopolitanism, Blackness, and Utopia.”