Daniel Pešta

Blog  ›  I am a Gypsy, and you?

The purpose for painting the cycle of 27 portraits of Romany children emerged during the preparation for shooting the videoart “I WAS BORN IN YOUR BED” which addresses a Roma issue. All the children in the portraits are part of the Association of Roma Citizens of Lysá nad Labem in the Central Bohemia District of the Czech Republic. This grouping could well form a notional Roma class in a school in which “problem” Roma children are kept separate from “non-problem pupils “. Such tendencies are not any kind of utopia in today’s Czech Republic, but the harsh reality. There is no better way to deepen xenophobia further among the social majority than to demonstrate the feeling of inferiority yet more ostentatiously to one of the minorities at an early age.

The template for each portrait is a row of photographs. Through these paintings I endeavoured to catch an expression of personality rather than any perfect similarity of appearance. While photographing I succeeded in striking up an amicable dialogue with most of the children. I did not have to talk anyone into being photographed. Some acted naturally in front of the camera, others were somewhat embarrassed and several of them refused to be photographed. Nevertheless, gradually the atmosphere became relaxed to the point where eventually even the most withdrawn children approached me. The last three watched me very attentively from afar and only after I had finished photographing did they hesitantly come up to me to ask for a portrait. In their eyes was not just shyness but worry. Their faces showed no illusions, they looked prematurely adult.

In the end I dedicated a large-format framed photograph to each child so that they could all take a souvenir home. In a way this was the highlight of the entire project for me and were I to be truly humble I would have finished my work there and then. However, a truly internal conflict awaited me in the painting itself.

The portrayal of the Romany children’s faces was surprisingly complicated. On more than one occasion I had to stop work, mainly because I had affectedly sought the inner complexity of the subject. I had painted a face depicting tragedy, injustice or controversy, like an author who wishes to sweep attention primarily onto himself. During the course of this process I had first of all to suppress my own ego. Only then did I come to the realisation that I needed to paint the Roma children with the same love and humility as if they were my own, because you always depict your own child graciously. I also decided to adopt an unpretentious format, so that the viewer would be obliged to approach the portraits as closely as possible and enter into an intimate dialogue with the eyes of the children. Perhaps so closely as to be able to catch a glimpse of the thousand-year-old story of Roma generations with the proud message: “I am a Gypsy, and you?”

Daniel Pešta

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