Local Name Unknown…Gypsies? is an exhibition by Delaine Le Bas, inspired by her Romani heritage and family history in the New Forest. Photographs of familial bliss and horses are placed in stark contrast with an image of a child in front of a compound. An essay provided when you walk in compares these compounds with “reservations and concentration camps”. After reading this, I expected entering the shanty house to be a harrowing experience. This was not the case – instead there were booklets about global warming, some handsome photos of Uncle Georgie, and lanterns inspired by a pair from the Pitt Rivers Museum. The lanterns are made with found materials, as is most of Le Bas’s artwork, and the use of paint-splattered wood and bubble wrap to frame the photographs are a nice touch. This reflects comments that the Romani live in harmony with the land – recycling found materials in useful, creative and inspiring ways.
As the writing states and the exhibition highlights, the Romani do have a history – and I’d like to learn more about it.
The room I enjoyed most was adorned with mixed media reproductions of Kruger, Klee, photographs of Bowie and James Cook’s “illustrations of natives”. On the wall there is a question: WHAT MATTERS TO YOU? Here we are encouraged to put our own mark on the exhibition via the medium of cross stitching on black velvet. This personal interaction is where the exhibition excels, turning us from observers into creators. The lines between political and non-political art become blurred when our art adorns a gallery. This is art that has been created in response to a personal (and, therefore, perhaps political) question. If that sounds a bit heavy, there is some art on the wall that incorporates a photograph of a One Direction member, so don’t be put off – there’s space for anything. The interactive aspects of exhibitions are often the most fun, and this was no exception – I now have a piece of “art” (cough) hanging on the wall of a gallery, so my ego was sufficiently stroked too.
The exhibition was very varied but quite scarce, and I did expect more in terms of quantity. However, it’s advertised as an “evolving installation” – so in its first days it is just an embryo of what is to come . It also suffers from a lack of information. The essay at the entrance is useful, but leaves visitors to digest 3 dense pages at once – after this, the information on the walls is scarce. Not Romani myself, I’d have loved more insight, and the intimate art Le Bas creates could have done with more description about her family, her friends, and community. The side-note about Uncle Goliath was heart-wrenching, and I wanted more.
One of the most beautiful pieces, a series of postcard-sized images Le Bas created in 2006, is useful in summing up my frustrations. One postcard reads: “we are not just subject matter. We have a history. We’re still here”. The art presented to us is beautiful, and the occasional description fascinating. The fact that “outsider art” has found its way to an almost two-month long stint in the Phoenix is wonderful. But, as the writing states and the exhibition highlights, the Romani do have a history – and I’d like to learn more about it.