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Europe – Lucy Orta investigates the lives and living conditions of Roma people

Architects, designers and artists unite to end the invisibility of Europe’s gypsy communities

In an essay on Italian outer-city ‘slum zones’, sociologist Fabrizio Floris argues that these districts, which provide a home to Italy’s gypsy population, are characterised ‘not [by] poverty, violence, unemployment or architectural decay. Their fundamental characteristic is their invisibility’.

Mapping the Invisible: EU-Roma Gypsies (Black Dog Publishing, 2010) is a new anthology edited by Lucy Orta, a visual artist and professor at the London College of Fashion. It aims to address the invisibility of Europe’s 10 million-strong gypsy or Roma population through a collection of case studies, essays and photography.

It comes three years after a particularly fruitful year in bringing gypsy culture to the European visual arts scene. In 2007 there were gypsy-related exhibitions in London (No Gorgos) and the Prague Biennale (Refusing Exclusion), culminating in the first Roma Pavilion (a series of tents draped in brightly coloured scarves), shown as part of the 52nd International Art Biennale in Venice. In this way, gypsy visual art has been used to confront preconceptions and prejudices.

Mapping the Invisible builds on these foundations, plumping for a printed anthology rather than an international art fair as its conduit.

Pitched somewhere between a glossy collection of social realist photos and a particularly beautiful journal of social anthropology, the book documents the work of EU-Roma: European Roma Mapping, an EU-funded project devised by Italian architect Alexander Valentino that aims to improve conditions for Roma people living across Italy, Romania, the UK, Turkey and Greece. It hopes to improve social integration through better quality, sustainable living conditions. A Roma housing project in Belgrade has already been built in accordance with the project’s proposed solutions.

As one of the only native English-speakers in the group, Orta had the task of editing and compiling the book as well as contributing work. Over a snatched coffee in the departure hall of St Pancras International Eurostar Terminal in London, she told me it was important that the book was accessible. ‘Awareness is an absolutely necessary first step towards an auspicious change in the Roma condition,’ she says.

The case studies and essays show that this condition is extremely varied, from the comparative comfort of life inside the Thistlebrook camp outside London’s Greenwich to the extreme poverty of Gazela in Serbia. But what also emerges as a strong common thread is the consistent disparity between what Project35 Architects (one of the practices involved in the two years of research that went into the EU-Roma project) call ‘conceptual expectations of a right to “freedom” in a democratic society and the actual manifestation of this in our daily lives’.

Orta cites the example of Roma living on the outskirts of Italian towns, who, although officially long-term citizens of the Italian state, are routinely subject to discrimination and intimidation. This tendency, she argues, is being encouraged by the Berlusconi government’s increasingly anti-Roma stance.

Is she hopeful for the Roma’s long-term prospects? ‘With the current economic situation, a lot of the funding which has helped this work [EU-Roma] will dry up,’ she says. And what about the book’s success in terms of its aim, to document Roma living conditions and highlight their existence to new audiences? ‘These are small steps, small rungs on a very long ladder.’

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