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Spell 2: Spell for the future-interview with Mihaela Drăgan

14th April 2021

This interview is part of the performingborders 2021 commission Spells for a border town (retrocedare) by Diana Damian Martin.

Audio in Romanian, transcript in English below.

Interview with Mihaela Drăgan (Romanian)

Spell for the future- interview with Mihaela Drăgan
Translation by Iulia Mărăcine

Diana Damian Martin: So, Mihaela, I’m very glad we are in conversation. Last time, I was telling you a bit about how our newsletter focuses on this idea of retrocession and of Spells for a border town- marginal spells. And I wanted to ask you about how you articulate Roma futurism and Roma feminism, or Romani feminism – that is perhaps a specific type of feminism. Could you tell us a bit about these two ideas and how they are interconnected for you in your work?

Mihaela Drăgan: They are interconnected, since they are two practices which I am beginning to develop in my work, I mean this is how Roma futurism came about, as a practice that I developed because I was feeling limited by the idea to do art only about the past and the present that is not on our side. And since I was searching for this little gateway, the future seemed to be a domain worthy to be explored further in Roma art an culture. I define Roma futurism as a cultural aesthetic where Roma culture and history intersect with technology and witchcraft, that blends magical realism, science-fiction, Roma subjectivity, that creates alternative histories in order to answer the question: how would Roma communities have developed were it not for such an oppressive history, like the slavery or the Holocaust? And the heroines of Roma futurism are these cyber-witches, techno-witches of the future, who have the power to create and invent technology through the power of magic; because, in the end, I believe that magic is something that, first and foremost, belongs to marginal cultures, because, in the end, our only weapon against oppression that we have left is that of calling upon supernatural forces – when the enemy is much stronger than you and you have no concrete weapons, then you call upon supernatural and magical powers. 

This is why I believe witchcraft, contrary to the entire European rationalism, belongs to the culture of the indigenous, the Romani, the Africans and so on. So, to me, Roma futurism represents this gateway that worked for me – I hope other Roma artists will take it up and it will work on creating arts about us in the future, projecting ourselves into the future and toying creatively with this idea of the future and of a futuristic world and technology. And because, out of how many images we project onto ourselves, we Roma see ourselves as scientists, inventors of technology, alchemists and I believe we do have a tradition in this direction, because we were always the ones who invented the crafts, the ones who made people’s lives easier through our inventions and that helped people, starting with ironwork all the way to all these clans of blacksmiths, spoon crafters and so on. And I believe technology would have been another craft that Roma people could have invented, had we had access and were we not to have been left in precarity. And then, reclaiming technology is an important element in the whole economy of Roma futurism, because the world looks different, in the sense in which we believe that technology will be more and more incorporated in our lives and, then, we need to reclaim technology and gain access to it and yes, we should bring it on our side. Because technology also discrimates us, since it is created by white men according to the standards and principles they themselves set. And then, technology must be used as a fighting tool against this system and we cyber-witches should hack it, plant viruses on their patriarchal, racist system, so that our future looks good and this ultratechnological future must belong to us, as well. 

Diana: I believe that, in one of the introductions to the Roma futurism manifesto, you talk a bit about reclaiming the figure of the Roma witch – which I liked a lot – and you do it in relation to technology, techno-witch (which we will later hear, as well), but in general from other projects you are working on, as well. Specifically, I was thinking about your recent exhibition, the theatre shows you produce and your work with Giuvlipen, and I was thinking whether you could tell us a bit about what does this figure of Roma witch mean in your work and how you developed, say, the witch, from a political and feminist standpoint; what is this process of reclaiming?

Mihaela: Yes, traditionally speaking, many Roma women are witches and this is a very well-known thing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, that many Roma women practice this craft. And, obviously, in the collective mindset, these women are very stigmatized and seen as these crooks who disbelieve science and who trick people into stealing their money. No. The role of the witch is that of a spiritual guide, that of a truly spiritual guide if we compare her to, say, the priest, which we have and which the church doesn’t include marginal people at all; whereas the Roma witches with whom I work, they practice magic for LGBT people, for Romani people they think about healing, they get involved in political situations, they perform political rituals for, let’s say, during the European elections, they performed a very powerful ritual to keep out the fascists and representatives of the right-wing from the European Parliament. So they do very hard work, hard community work and, still, because of racism, they are heavily stigmatized and this is why I wanted to reclaim the Roma witch; all the more as it seems to me that this umbrella figure of the outcasted witch groups together, like, different marginal people, and I have lots of feminist friends which identify simply as ‘witches’, because to identify witch has become a feminist political act in recent years. I know lots of trans people, trans women, or gay people, who identify as witches. And yes, I believe that this umbrella term groups under it several people from the outskirts of society. And, for me, the witch is this powerful woman who, historically, is the one who opposed capitalism in a way, the one who, as Silvia Federici says in her book, Caliban and the Witch, how capitalism was born out of the exploitation of witch burnings and of these women, and how women grouping together and the solidarity between them were a problem for the Inquisition. And I was born in a rural environment, with my grandmother, my aunt, with the women around me who were reading in coffee, reading in seeds, reading in cards; and that was really a feminist gathering from my point of view, because, precisely them when facing a problem which couldn’t be solved, were trying to call upon some supernatural answers and then, in solidarity with one another, were doing card readings, were doing – my aunt used to read very well in seeds –, in coffee… And all these get-togethers were clearly womanly ones, this sort of meeting space for women and for orchestrating matters, and I find it interesting that the Roma witches with whom I work also bring technology in their work a lot, I mean they do live rituals, streaming, for their customers; same as for their customers from abroad, they perform everything via Internet. And then, it seems to me that this idea of techno-witches isn’t as far as we think, you know? I mean it really does exist, like, these modern Roma witches who updated their practices to the needs of today are techno-witches and it’s really cool how they bring together the poetry of magic and technological elements, gadgets – for instance, I find it interesting how the phone or the phone’s camera can, through them, who communicate, become a magic wand, you know, and all these traditional magic tools are updated and replaced with… yeah, with actual technology, with technological tools.

Diana: Yes, maybe this too is an act of retrocession, I mean, taking something and changing it; while you were telling me all this I was thinking, there’s also the idea of taking care and how witchcraft is also this sort of space for taking care of a kind of comments, speaking of Federici, which can be very important. From this point of view- and maybe I again come back to Roma Futurism here- you talk of healing and of what it means to examine a history and connect it to a possible future; does this history seem totally local one to you, I mean a history in Romania, the history of slavery? Or is it more of a global history of the Roma community with which you would want to dialogue with?

Mihaela: I believe there are differences. It is true that Roma people are discriminated against everywhere in Europe; at the same time, yes, it’s a different kind of legacy, for example in Romania, where we had slavery in the Danubian Principalities, no? It would be interesting to do research on this phenomenon with regards to Transylvania, you know, since the Roma people there were not enslaved. Yes, I believe there is a difference. There’s a difference, first and foremost, between the West and the East in the way in which one perceives the Balkan or Eastern European Roma as opposed to Western Roma people, who are more open, they have lighter skin colour, who received some sort of social benefits in their countries – for example, if they come from Finland or Sweden, where you get some social benefits and their life was somehow less harsh than that in Romania, where living conditions are far poorer. Yes, I believe there are some differences and it is good for us Roma people to learn our respective privileges and lack thereof, because, usually, there’s also this thing I noticed, you know, if you are in a room with other Roma people and, I don’t know, everyone is doing the same thing and the lighter skinned will get more of the attention, they’re perceived as more trustworthy by default. Yes, there is also a difference in the way in which we are treated.

Diana: Both in your work with Giuvlipen, about which I was planning to ask you, and with other projects – I know you played in Radu Jude’s film, Aferim, you worked on projects about Roma sex workers and about the evacuation of Roma communities from Romania. How do you think the idea of a different future strengthened or developed through activism and theatre, and how do theatre and performance connect for you in all the work you do?

Mihaela: Yes, well, I think that actually the main subject here is art and performance, I do not identify as an activist; I just believe and fight for the idea of responsibility in art, because art really has the power to shape preconceived notions and biases and to inform attitudes. Art has more power than we think and therefore I want to use it responsibly. I think we need to overcome the aesthetic dimension, which is obviously a very important one for any cultural product we have, however, the aesthetic dimension just by itself makes it so that the product becomes constraining, so I keep saying this: my art also has an explicit left-wing political dimension and this is why I had all sorts of shows and performances where I tried to speak about other marginal people, as you were saying, from Roma sex workers to evacuated Roma people – the most marginal of the Roma community. And I believe it is very, very important that they don’t feel that we forgot about them, we who are part of a more elite Roma movement and so on. It is important, it was important for me to create art about the present, about the unjust present, about all these inequalities which are happening in the present. It was important for me to speak about topics such as Roma slavery or the Roma Holocaust in my theatre shows. However, as I was saying, at one point I felt pressured by this expectation coming also from the community first and foremost, since we are the sole theatre company here in Romania, the sole Roma theatre company which speaks about let’s always do art about victimhood, about the injustices done to us. And therefore I tried to create art about the future for this reason also, an alternative future, in which the cycle of oppression against us comes to an end, and how a utopian world like this would look for us, how we would incorporate technology and would lead the world through the power of technology; how I found it very funny to develop a curse against fascists, for instance, or in the film I made and showed in February at the Goethe Institute here in Bucharest, The Future Is A Safe Place Hidden in My Braids, to imagine healing rituals of the Roma community, a healing of transgenerational trauma, of the trauma of racism, the trauma of misogyny and to find the words that would somehow help us summon all the energy of this boon upon us. Because I have a lot of faith in the power of words, in the end, that’s why I am an actress and, for me, words always have an important role; I know I also have this skill when I want to. When I was little and I wanted to hurt someone, I knew precisely the words I should use. And then, yes, I believe we need to project this sort of images about us in the future, about us healing ourselves from trauma and being in this future. I believe this is a relationship, it is a very subversive idea against fascists, the idea of Roma people being in the future and having more power than now. Yes, and I like exploring through this idea of the future, imagining Roma people as wizards, as the techno-witches from the future and the Roma community – how would it look like without all this discrimination and oppression? What could we be? – because, I believe our identity is not defined only by historical victimisation, only by slavery, by the Holocaust. I believe we are more than that and somehow I think it is time to discover what we could mean for this world, beyond the victim identity we inherited. And, then, this is another reason why I am eager to find out where we can go, because, as I was saying earlier, we actually always contributed to the development of this world and our work was always important for this world. So who knows where we can go.

Diana: Yes, and maybe the future is always to be found in the present as well, in a way. And then we come back to this idea of thinking into the future things which are also now possible, in a way.

Mihaela: Totally, right. The future isn’t just something out of reach, something there, far away, centuries away from us. The future is, put simply, the place where we put all our imagination, creativity and ideas to at the same time criticise the present, to develop critical thinking about the way in which structures of power work in our present. Therefore, it is especially in the present that our imagining the future must have an effect.

Diana: Yes, and I was thinking, in all the projects we talked about, in a way the aesthetics of Roma futurism makes all sorts of times coexist, of the image of the witch, of the future of the techno-witch and that, somehow, resists this idea of ‘Eastern European Roma people are like this’, especially through the way in which they are represented in the West – an image which, in my view, always seems to have this outdated vibe and it’s like there is an aesthetic of marginalisation that always gets transposed. Now, as a last question, I wanted to ask you about your own plans, what are the projects you are working on now and how do you see the development of Roma futurism and, actually, the feminism you develop with Giuvlipen also? And, as far as I know, correct me if I’m wrong, Giuvlipen does not get state funding, no? – although it is the only Roma company in Romania. Do you find this a sustainable way of working? I mean, do you think you found a sustainable way, or do we have to keep asking for more?

Mihaela: No, obviously. We fight for the establishing of a public theatre here, in Romania, precisely because we cannot support ourselves just through independent grants for which we apply and, anyway, this is very hard work that takes loads of time and energy as an artist, to sit and hunt for grants and apply to them. Yeah, so we do not get any public resources, but we are fighting for this. And, speaking of the specifically Roma feminism you mentioned, yes, we tried to invent the word ‘feminism’ in Romani, with “giuvlipen” – the name of our theatre company –, precisely because we wanted to specify ourselves a bit, to differentiate ourselves from other movements, other local ideas or white feminists. And it seems to me that indeed, there must be a specific term for Roma feminism. And that is how Giuvlipen came about for us, through this name. Now, you see, we might get all sorts of suggestions coming from other Roma women and we are totally OK with this. Yes. And about the projects I work on now. Yes, the pandemic opened some other gateways for me, a bit, in the sense that I saw the impossibility of performing on stage once the pandemic hit and then I adapted to new media, video art, and made a video installation that I just mentioned; we just had the exhibition. It is a film I want to show in several places and keep projecting. So that is what I do now. Meanwhile, I started a series of video monologues I wrote and of which I am the artistic coordinator, about the resistance stories of many girls doing feminist activism in Central Asia and Eastern Europe – it also includes three stories of some Roma girls from Romania (we premiered one of them just last evening, the second episode in the series premiered last evening and it’s called Betty, cat fur, and it is the story of a very young girl from Romania, studying theatre). Yes, so, basically, this is a long-term project I am working on and I struggle to honour the stories of these women and this was a very good exercise for me, to keep on working in video art and learning more about this and transposing into this other artistic medium all the ideas which, usually, I was transposing into theatre. So I am learning stuff and enjoying it and I think I want to linger more in this field from now on as well as in the area of Roma futurism and to develop much more many futuristic Roma narratives. Yes, so, apart from this series I am working on, I occasionally write an article. I also have this other series with a colleague of mine, Zita, about Roma art and identity, called I am the leading actress and, once every two weeks, we debate Roma topics, we watch all that is happening and, yeah, this work also takes quite some time, filming this. And that’s about it. We are waiting for summer and maybe we can start touring Roma villages again, in the communities where, usually, art does not reach – because we used to have this tradition before the pandemic, to perform in communities, to bring theatre to Roma communities, the least privileged who do not have access to theatre. And we would be glad to keep doing this over next summer. And yeah, I also work on a music album with the other colleague of mine from Giuvlipen, Nicoleta Ghiță. And yeah, I have quite a lot of work to do and it freaks me out, but it’s okay.

Diana: Thank you, Mihaela.

This commission is a part of the performingborders 2021 programme. The full commission by Diana Damian Martin can be seen here: Spells for a border town (retrocedare).

Mihaela Drăgan is a multidisciplinary artist with an education in theatre who lives in Bucharest and works in several other countries. In 2014, she founds Giuvlipen Theatre Company,  for which she is an actress and playwright, together with other Roma actresses. She also works in Berlin as an actress for Maxim Gorki Theatre, Heimathafen Neukölln, Theater Aufbau Kreuzberg. She is also a trainer at Theatre of the Oppressed, working with Roma women in Romania and has also worked with refugee girls in Germany.

She was one of the six finalists for The 2017 Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award from New York, an award which acknowledges the exceptional work of 20 theatre women around the world. In 2020 she is nominated again and she is the recipient of the Special Award of the League. In 2018,  Drăgan was a resident artist in Hong Kong at Para Site Contemporary Art Centre where she was developing Roma Futurism – that lies at the intersection of Roma culture with technology and witchcraft. Her performance “Roma Futurism” has been showcased in art spaces as the Museum of Contemporary Art from Belgrade; at FutuRoma – collateral exhibition at Venice Biennale; at Critical Romani Studies conference at Central European University in Budapest and Romanian Cultural Institute in London. In the same year is acknowledged by PEN World Voices International Play Festival 2018 in New York as one of the ten most respected dramatists of the world.In 2019 is one of the playwrights selected for the acclaimed Royal Court Theatre International Summer Residency in London where she wrote a science fictional play about a future utopian society of Roma witches who control technology and fight neo-fascist politics in Europe. In 2021 she exhibits her first video installation ”Future is a safe place hidden in my braids” divided into 3 short films that depicts futuristic rituals for healing transgenerational trauma of Roma people and are projecting a safe future for the community.

Iulia Mărăcine is a performance artist and co-founder of the multidisciplinary collective, Ludic. Within the collective, she co-created, organised and performed in participative performances, audiovisual installations, somatic workshops, in spaces such as Batterstea Arts Center (Londra), 13Festivalen (Gothenburg), ARTHUB (București), KyivDanceResidency (Kiev), CLOUD@Danslab (Den Haag), Centrul National al Dansului din București, Seoul Dance Center (Korea), SKOGEN (Swe). In her research, Iulia explores various possibilities to alter and rethink of the self and its relation with the environment. She puts a strong emphasis on corporality, processuality and non-hierarhic collaboration between artists. At the present, she is undergoing an MA at CESI (The Centre of Excellence in the Study of Image), where she researches the possibilities of translating notions from animal and plant studies into the pre-linguistic realm of choreographic practices.

Diana Damian Martin is an artist and researcher, working at the intersection between writing, politics and performance. Her work concerns alternative critical epistemologies and feminist modes of exchange, interventionist and political performance and the ecological and representational poetics of migration, with a distinct focus on Eastern Europe.Recent collaborations include performing borders, The Albany, Dansehallerne, The Wellcome Collection and Tate Modern. She co-hosts The Department of Feminist Conversations and Something Other, and co-runs the Serbo-Romanian critical cooperative Critical Interruptions, artistic research committee Generative Constraints and is a core member of Migrants in Culture. Her recent publications include (states of)wake: Dedicating Performance and Critical Interruptions Vol 1: Steakhouse LIVE. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Performance Arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and once appeared in an issue of Private Eye, where her work was described as obscure, impenetrable and unclear. Twitter: @DianaADamian

Featured image credits: Diana Damian Martin

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