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Telling stories

Art exhibit sheds light on untold Romani history

By Elijah Halpern
On September 8, 2009

I have to be completely honest. Growing up, art was never my forte. But I can truly say that the latest series of paintings to grace the University Library Art Gallery moved me.

Yes that sounds cliché and a little too cute for a college newspaper, but Ceija Stojka's paintings really made me appreciate art in a brand new way.

This wonderful series of paintings by Austrian/Romani Stojka portray her life as a traveling Romani woman before and after World War II.

"Live-Dance-Paint" is a very appropriate name for the exhibit because first and foremost, Stojka's paintings are a celebration of life. She has endured the Holocaust and yet her work is vibrant with the human spirit in its most vulnerable form.

It's hard for anyone to completely open up about their life story, and share it with the world. Lucky for us, Stojka is an extremely talented self-taught artist who is willing to dig deep into the depths of her soul and share.

As someone who finds it difficult to appreciate art, "Live-Dance-Paint" gave me chance to discover what kind of art I actually enjoy.

"Live-Dance-Paint" is an art exhibit where the artist really has a story to tell. I was absorbed by this art exhibit as I read the powerful and thought-provoking stories behind most of the paintings.

Each painting tells its own remarkable tale. Many paintings remind the viewer that though the Romani people are often overlooked victims of the Holocaust, their stories are no less tragic or important.

The most powerful painting was called "The Beautiful People of Auschwitz" which depicts naked women in the concentration camp. Some of them are covering their eyes and some are covering their genitals. Stojka says in her description that no matter what fuss is made about beauty, these women are truly beautiful.

The exhibit was all made possible by the diligent efforts of German professor Michaela Grobbel, who has been fascinated with Stojka since reading her 1988 book "Wir leben im Verborgenen. Erinnerungen einer Rom-Zigeunerin" ("We Live in Seclusion. The Memories of a Romani").

Up until that point Romani women lived in secrecy to the world, reluctant to share any details about their culture or language. It was quite unique for a Stojka to come out and say "I'm here, and I'm a Roma woman and this is my story."

In 2006 Grobbel traveled to Vienna for a seminar on minorities where she met Ceija Stojka for the first time. Grobbel was invited back to Stojka's apartment and there she saw tons of beautiful paintings and described the event as "an amazing experience."

Three years, much fundraising and two additional trips to Vienna later, Grobbel was finally able to bring Stojka's work to the United States for the first time ever.

When her paintings were being picked up, Stojka was crying and said it was an incredible dream come true.

Grobbel noted that a number of students, even some she didn't know, have come forward to her thanking her for bringing this exhibit to SSU and have opened up about their own Romani heritage.

Stojka would love to hear feedback from students so visitors are encouraged to write in the comments book. Grobbel will translate everything into German for Stojka to read.

"Live-Dance-Paint" runs through Fri., Oct. 30.

A gallery reception on Thurs., Sept. 10 from 4 - 6 p.m. will feature live Romani music by Sani and Benji Rifati, Gradina and Friends.

Gallery tours are offered on Thurs., Sept.. 17 at noon and on Thurs., Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. by Grobbel.

A Romani dance workshop hosted by Sani Rifati will be held on Tues., Oct. 27 in the Cooperage.

There will also be a series of Romani films screened, beginning with "Ceija Stojka" (1999) on Thurs., Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. in Schulz 2015. All other films will be screened in the Cooperage.

For a complete listing of the film schedule or more information about the exhibit or upcoming events, visit Grobbel can be reached at (707) 664-2367.

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