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Review: "Black Butterflies: Roma Gypsy Art & Identity"

Part of the City of York's Holocaust Memorial Week, Black Butterflies gives remarkable insight into the often neglected culture of Travellers. Alice Kewellhampton reviews.

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Venue: The New School House Gallery, York
Runs: 19th January - 2nd March 2013

A new exhibition at the New School House Gallery (tucked away on Peasholme Green, five minutes' walk from the town centre) takes its name from images carved into the walls of Nazi death camps during the Second World War. The incarcerated artists were Roma, Sintis, and Gypsies, of the same ancestry as those creators featured in this exhibition. The power of the emblematic image resonates through the artwork on show: in Damian Le Bas' crowds of wide, thickly-lined eyes, Delaine Le Bas' embroidered flowers, and Daniel Baker's mirror-printed birds. The iconography of European Traveller communities may be familiar to those of us who watched Channel 4's recent series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which promenaded the excesses of young brides-to-be for the entertainment of the viewing public. Horses, brightly-coloured embroidered fabrics, and gilded surfaces all make appearances here too, but the artists free these images and materials from mockery and simplification by those outside the community, claiming them as expressions of a rich cultural legacy.

Damian Le Bas draws over maps of Europe, reconfiguring country and city borders with overlaid pen drawings of stylised faces, often interspersed with horses and cars - symbols of movement and modes of transport for this historically nomadic group. Around half of England and Ireland's Traveller communities still lead nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles, according to materials provided by the exhibition organisers; displays in the corridor outside from both local and international campaign and support groups provide helpful information and myth-debunking for the interested visitor. Delaine Le Bas' textile pieces in eye-popping colours use traditional crafts and materials to re-craft images of Roma identity. Damian James Le Bas, a poet, artist, academic, and newspaper editor, provides the most enigmatic and well-realised artwork: a haunting video piece depicting barren winter landscapes, overlaid with spoken Romanes poetry and the sounds of the wind.

Crowded curating detracts from Damian Le Bas' affecting Violetta & Cristina, an installation piece responding to the deaths of two Roma girls in Italy in July 2008. The sisters drowned off a beach in Naples, before their bodies were recovered and left lying beneath beach towels for three hours whilst recreational activities continued around them. The incident became emblematic of the terrible, divisive prejudice of the Italian public and politicians against the Roma. Le Bas' piece consists of two colourful beach towels lying flat at the feet of two brightly-striped deck chairs, accompanied by a pertinent Observer article. Le Bas is responding to the most disturbing and infamous image of the tragedy - a photograph of a young couple enjoying a picnic feet away from the girls' bodies.

The great achievement of the exhibition, organised as part of the council's Holocaust Memorial programme, is in creating a space to discuss issues surrounding a group that is often marginalised or abused, both in the mainstream media (even in ostensibly liberal environments such as Channel 4), public opinion, and in social policy. However, the debate is sometimes allowed to drown out the art: it is difficult to discern parts of the artworks from piles of Amnesty International leaflets or The Traveller Times (a newspaper written for a by the Traveller community). The profusion and proximity of artworks, particularly around the gallery entrance, often distracted from attending to the individual pieces. The confines of this gallery space are arguably too small to hold the enormous issues surrounding Roma Gypsy art and identity, although the project must be celebrated for cracking the door open onto the wider debate, and revealing prejudices and injustices perpetrated on our doorstep.

Black Butterflies is most certainly worth a visit, at the least to dissemble myths and prejudices about the Traveller communities. Spending time separating out the threads of different artists' intentions from the crowd will pay dividends for the committed gallery visitor, giving an insight into the art world of a rich but often (through ignorance or intention) neglected and marginalised culture.

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