Recently, on a warm autumn evening in Washington, DC, my partner and I pulled up in front of the National Gallery of Art to attend a dinner celebration of the exhibition Sargent and Spain. As we got out of the car, I glanced up at the large banner reproducing John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Roma Dancer” above the Gallery’s entrance. With her confident smile and welcoming pose, she looked like a host inviting guests into her home.
Several of the paintings in the exhibition, which explores Sargent’s seven trips to Spain and the works of art he created as a result of those trips, depict Spanish Roma subjects and their lives, previously and erroneously called “Gypsies.” One meaning of “Gypsy” is “a person who engages in harmful or illegal activities” and derivatives like “gypped” or “gypsy cab” refer to stealing and cheating.
As a Roma scholar at Columbia University, I participated in an advisory group convened to frame new narratives around these paintings. I also wrote wall labels for the exhibition in which I shared my responses to “Spanish Roma Woman” and the above-mentioned “Spanish Roma Dancer,” the exhibition’s signature image.
Two years earlier, when curator Sarah Cash invited me to join the advisory group, I hadn’t known what to expect. Roma in mainstream art and culture are often ignored or exoticized to the point where they are reduced to harmful and distorted stereotypes as beguiling performers, wanderers, or thieves. In most cases, there is a disconnect between the museum world and Roma representation. Would this time be different?
I was about to find out. Together, the group comprising Roma and non-Roma advocates and scholars, art historians, and museum representatives learned about the history and culture of the Spanish Roma people through discussing texts and looking carefully at Sargent’s paintings. During those open discussions we debated: Was it really necessary to excise the derogatory term “Gypsy” from the paintings’ long-time titles, or was historical tradition more important? Would the viewers even understand the term “Roma”?
I strongly advocated the use of “Roma” despite the discomfort and confusion it might cause in the art world. For those who had never faced stigma and exclusion, such changes might seem superficial, but for those of us without a voice of our own, it had profound implications. Perhaps the mere act of re-titling would break long-held misconceptions and engender a fresh curiosity about who we really are. “I hear you,” one of the Gallery’s representatives messaged me at the end of one of my more emotional arguments. Those three words reverberated in my mind for weeks and months to come.
When the paintings were reintroduced to us with their new titles, the effect was startling. Looking at “Spanish Gypsy Woman” the first time around made me feel insignificant and isolated. The same painting, renamed “Spanish Roma Woman,” made me feel seen. It gave me a new sense of agency and enthusiasm for the exhibition as the opening approached.
Traveling from New York City to DC to celebrate this major milestone was an emotional endeavor that took me back to an enchanted summer 16 years ago, when I visited the Gallery for the first time.
I was an enthusiastic student from Romania on my first trip abroad, ready to have the time of my life. When my original New York-bound flight was canceled, I opted, on a whim, to fly to DC instead. That’s how I found myself, fresh off the plane, wandering the spacious hallways of the National Gallery of Art, in awe of its grandeur and beauty.
At that time, I had completely erased my ethnic identity from my consciousness. The fact that I did not see a single mention of Roma people, their art, or their history helped me keep it suppressed. Growing up in Southern Romania, being Roma was a ticket to exclusion. Being looked down upon was too much for my young self to cope with, so I pretended not to be Roma.
My long-guarded secret would surface in full force at the end of that extraordinary summer. When a friend misplaced his money, I was terrified that I would be blamed. I wasn’t, but the incident forced me to confront my suppressed Roma self and all the internalized stigma that came with it.
That incident turned my life upside down and shaped my current career path, in which I have been reclaiming my ethnic identity, framing it in new terms, and questioning how we as Roma can redefine our place in the world. Sixteen years later, a major American cultural institution has also taken on the challenge of acknowledging and incorporating Roma narratives.
Little did I know when I visited the museum for the first time that I would return someday to attend a dinner celebration, step inside and find my words in the same galleries I have admired in years past. The other guests would greet us warmly, and I could openly share who I was and my role in the exhibition without worrying that they would not have any frame of reference. Knowledge about the Roma people was easily accessible on the walls around us.
The National Gallery’s novel approach has elevated the paintings depicting Roma from exotic curiosities to powerful educational tools. The Sargent and Spain exhibition balances the beauty of the art while also shedding light on the history, culture, and aspirations of a people that have been in the shadows for too long. It was as if the Gallery were telling the Roma people collectively, “I hear you.”
The following day, I visited the National Gallery of Art again with my young son. The exhibition, open to the public until January 2, has been well attended; the visitors are taking their time to admire the paintings and closely examine the wall labels. Seeing this progress in Roma representation in the arts was nothing short of extraordinary. In the years to come, I hope more Roma children will be able to walk into a museum, see their culture represented, and say, “I, too, belong.”