A paint brush to remember Roma history
Gabriela, 17, is a Roma girl from Bucharest. An activist and painter, she uses her brush as a tool to advocate for the rights of Roma people.
Gabriela, 17, sits on the patio of her grandparent’s house, located on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. It’s a warm and sunny day. With a brush in her hand, she retouches the lines of an artwork she started the evening before. She frequently dips the brush in a pot of blue paint and brushes it gently across the canvas that rests on a big table in front of her.
“There is a saying in Romanian: Te îneci ca ţiganu' la mal (You drown at the shore like the [Roma]),” she says.
“Roma people were slaves for thousands of years. There is a myth that says that slave owners would tie long ropes to their ankles and tell them that if they could reach the seashore, they would be set free. Whenever one of them would get close enough, the owners would pull on the rope,” she tells.
“This is the myth I had in mind when I painted this: a man is surfacing from a tear, and despite being free, he is still surrounded by water. Despite freedom, Roma people still struggle today.”
Using her talent to serve her community
Gabriela has been painting since she was a child: her mother gave her and her sister their first art lessons. Now, inspired by her activism to support the inclusion and protection of Roma communities, she uses her brush to serve her cause, using her talent to advocate for the rights of her people.
“Everything started when a group of young people from Youth4Youth – a youth-led organization – came to my school to recruit volunteers for their initiatives on sexual and reproductive health education,” says Gabriela. “I liked their approach because they were young people teaching young people. I also felt very interested in the topic, so I decided to join them. Through Youth4Youth, I took some courses and started to teach teenagers about values, consent, and contraceptives, among other things.”
“Volunteering helped me improve myself,” she continues. “Before, I was so shy, but learning to speak in front of others made me more confident about my abilities. I also used to overthink a lot; now I take more initiative and feel more proactive.”
“After a while, I started to get involved to support my own community. Aside from the lack of reproductive health education, we also face bullying and discrimination. We are often poorer and have higher school dropout rates. I took what I learned in Youth4Youth and put it at the service of this cause.”
“Being involved for Roma people empowered me to do more. For example, a couple of years ago I was part of the Children’s Board supported by UNICEF. I also gave a speech in front of the Minister of Youth and Sports, where I discussed some of the issues faced by Roma people and how we could solve them. It’s amazing that I could do all this at my age, but not much has changed so far.”
“One issue I hold dearly is the education among Roma girls,” says Gabriela. “Because of negative stereotypes, we are often persuaded that we shouldn’t get a university degree. We see others graduating, pursuing a career, moving forward with their lives; but we stay back. The sunset in the painting represents the thought that many Roma women have, that even though they would like to go back to school, they think it’s too late. But we don’t realize that it’s not too late: after sunset, there is dawn, and a new day starts.”
“This is something I am also going through right now. I would like to study art, but I cannot afford to build a portfolio to apply to university programmes. I am in the last year of high school, and I work every afternoon until late, so I don’t have enough time.”
Educating and remembering
“Educating others about the history of Roma people is incredibly important. I think that a lot of discrimination comes from lack of understanding of our history or generalizations and stereotypes. Sometimes, I hear someone use a racial slur and I would tell them that I am also Roma and explain that these words can be very painful. They are often surprised at first, maybe because I don’t fit in those stereotypes they have in mind,” she continues.
“But learning about Roma history is not only something important for Romanians. We too are often unaware of much of it. This is what the painting above represents. The dark blue background is the dark side of our history, slavery.”
“The women dancing in traditional clothing represent us, our strength, spirit, resilience, and hope. But their faces – their identity – is disappearing. We are forgetting our history, traditions, and language… we just don’t talk about it.”