Etched in time: a Roma historian creates the first photo archive of Ukrainian Roma

Ромський історик створює перший фотоархів українських ромів

Family archives, preserved over the years and passed down through the generations, are not just pleasant memories but a source of national historical and cultural memory. Etched in time photography – is the most valuable archival material. Sergii Asmar a Roma researcher and illustrator, whose parents once stood side by side with Crimean Tatars in the migrants queues, knows from experience how important it is to understand the history of family tree and nation. Now he is in Georgia and from there he is implementing a project that has taken more than a year of painstaking work to create a virtual Roma photo archive.

This photo archive is closely connected with two people that have no geographical place on the world map but have managed to preserve their identity to this day. For most of its ethnic origin, he is Roma from the Crimean Peninsula. Sergiy’s family comes from Crimean Romani, Slavic and Assyrian origins on his mother’s side. In the 20s of the last century, Sergiy’s maternal ancestors migrated to Ukrainian lands, and his future Assyrian ancestors moved there as well, fleeing the war. It is symbolic that the Assyrians are the people who were once deprived of their native land, and now they are scattered throughout the world. With origin, the researcher associates the lack of any attachment to a certain country, but a strong sense of national consciousness, which he cherishes in himself and tries to preserve in the future.

To say that you are a Roma

Sergii spent part of his life in Georgia, because after deportation from Crimea his family had no right to return to the peninsula. The fate of his family is complex and interesting, but historical education is not related to it. He has been into science since childhood, and then he began to study his origins in detail while was in school.

“Family history did not influence the choice of specialization. I think that many Roma faced the necessity and sometimes the desire to hide their ethnicity because of social or political processes. After the deportation, my family was severely oppressed in various countries – Russia, Georgia, and elsewhere. As a teenager, I had some difficulties with the recognition and acceptance of my origin. I began to explore it already at a more mature age. Recognizing my ethnicity and starting to talk about it openly, I was able to do it during my studying.”

Sergii and his sister were the first in their family to graduate from high school and go to university. This helped him to accept himself and allowed him to say with pride that he is a Roma.

Photo archive in Ukraine

Today most of Sergiy’s work is related to graphic design. He creates illustrations, especially for the news platform DJANES, however, his soul is drawn to history. The young man realizes his research potential through various projects and scientific research. For the last 3,5 years he has been working on the history of photography in the Caucasus and Transcaucasia. Not so long ago he published his first great work, which geographically belongs to Georgia and was published in Georgian. He has plans on implementing another project with the support of ARCA to create a photo archive of Ukrainian Roma.

Today, I try to combine the study of visual art and history. I dreamed of making my project come true not as an artist, but as a historian and researcher. That’s the reason I applied for the grant specifically with the Roma photo archive. To date, no country, with the exception of Germany and Poland, which have created appropriate museums, gives due attention to photo documents belonging to the history of the Roma community. Our people have been nomadic for a thousand years, but we do not have a great material history. Things and some national attributes are already being lost in the span of time. In fact, material culture consists of the language that researchers are currently studying. Also, pictures play a great role of illustrating our history since the 18th century. Today during the events, when the war destroys everything, we observe a large exodus of Roma from Ukraine and we need to preserve the heritage in all its possible forms.”

The subject of the study is specifically dedicated to Ukrainian Roma, because the Sergiy’s roots are from Crimea. His family has become the beginning of his work. Based on historical data, Ukraine played a significant role in the process of Roma settlement in the world, in its territory different groups took on a huge linguistic ballast and then gradually settled by other countries. The researcher says that having studied the life of Roma in Ukrainian lands, he learned about the absence of severe oppression of nomads. This has led to a certain amount of “hold ups” in the same place for decades. The work on collecting photos began during the pandemic, and now these are the main collections of archives, which include about 500 scanned photos, and about 200 more to be requested from the archives.

First of all, as a historian, I started working in Ukrainian archives and ordered photocopies there. Currently, I have a lot of work on finding materials, and despite the war, employees go to meetings, help with scanning photos, and I also work with the archives of Lithuania and Poland. It was possible to get a lot of materials from archive in the occupied territories of Ukraine, in particular Crimea. Most of the photos are physical copies that were given to me by the families themselves. Throughout the quarantine, I visited Roma families, took their photos and scanned them on my own scanner. I managed to get in touch with Roma from different ethnic groups, so I was succeeded in getting some unique photos.”

Sergii explains that the uniqueness of the photos lies in the fact that they are part of the family archive and vividly demonstrate: everyday life, photos from weddings, funerals and other purely family events. It is rather the state archives mostly contain material that was made by outsiders at public events or just on the streets.

It was a big problem to persuade people to give their pictures. Our people are quite superstitious and do not like to hand over any personal things to strangers. There is even such a saying “рома – роменса, ґаджє – ґджєнса” (Roma —with Roma, strangers —with strangers). Despite the fact that I am a Roma, I had to negotiate and ask for a lot, sometimes they just threw away the photo in front of me, just to not give it back.”

Sergii says that he found documents of various formats: personal files from work, letters about awards, postcards, which also provide information about the life of Roma and act as a kind of artifact today. Questions arise, for example, about the metric records of baptisms, marriages (weddings) of people, since there were no marriage registry. Such material is also being scanned and is planned to be published on a future website.

“In the 20s and 30s in Ukraine, there was a period when the Soviet authorities created Roma collective farms. A whole list of video materials from that time has been saved. Partly propagandistic, but interesting for studying the historical period of the life of the national group. These are mostly videos from Transcarpathia, Crimea, and Luhansk region. I’m planning on ordering the copies and then publishing them on the site.”

The researcher is not yet thinking about expanding the project geographically; currently only Ukraine is included in the plans. However, he does not completely abandon the idea of studying Roma from other countries. He admits that funding will be required, and there is still a ton of work to be done.

Family stories

Sergiy’s family is quite conservative, so that he is traditionally educated. Before him and their sister, no one had obtained a higher education, and the stereotypical behavior of today was still a basis of their lives. As an illustrator, he dedicated one of his projects to his family. The artist embodied in each painting some kind of family history, not always happy one, but carried through the generations. During the last two years of quarantine, Sergiy’s grandmother lived next door to them. He encouraged her to write a diary with references and stories. He devoted most of his works to destiny, or rather to the destitute women of the family.

In traditional Roma communities, the role of women was quite sad, in particular in my family. The girls of the family have been through a million misfortunes and trials because of traditions. One picture from the series depicts two women with their hair tightly entwined in a thick braid. This is the story of two sisters whose lives coincided with a period when the family just began a semi-sedentary lifestyle. Back then, marriages were arranged according to the wishes of the parents, but my great-grandmother fell in love with another guy. Having conspired with her own sister, she ran away to this young man, but was caught and brought back home. Punishment awaited both girls.”

The family decided that it was necessary to punish both of them, so their hair was tied in a tight braid and shaved bald. This was considered a severe punishment, because Roma women’s hair was always treated in a special way, it often symbolized the girl’s honor and dignity. In some communities, this tradition is alive and women can still be “disgraced by their haircut” because of disobedience, although about a hundred years have passed since. Sergii is currently studying animation and planning to make a cartoon dedicated to the role of a woman. In his photo project, he also pays attention to this, tries to trace changes in everyday clothes or in the girl’s behavior.

For example, wedding photos brightly demonstrate changes in attitudes towards women. First, we see pictures of the bride with her eyes down, even sad in some places, then closer to the ’80s and ’90s, the girls celebrating and allowing themselves to show their emotions.”

Photo: paintings based on family stories
Photo: paintings based on family stories

Once Sergiy’s mother also wanted to develop and learn, but she was limited by the framework of traditions, so she held a grudge against the family for some time. He admits that she played a significant role in her and her sister’s development, because having not made the mistakes of the past, she gave the children more freedom for self development. The researcher is developing a variety of projects related to Roma now. You can find out about realization of one of them in the near future on the pages of the DJANES information platform.

Author: Ruslana Polyanska

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