Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Elmegyek, elmegyek

Gypsy Girl with Violin
(after Gyula Asztalos)
14" x 11", oil on canvas, 2013
The small catholic village in the southeast of the Netherlands wasn’t precisely a cultural hub when I grew up there during the 1960s and 70s. The town hadn’t changed much in the previous decades of the 20th century, or the century before. Most everybody who lived in town worked in that town as well, and they didn’t travel much either. Most historical stories that went around had to do with the second world war and the only towns people I knew of who had traveled were the few men who had fought in Indonesia during that war. My dad was a carpenter but our nickname was “smith” because of the occupation of my great grandfather, grandfather, and two uncles. The town baker came by every other day to sell bread, and the milkman to sell milk. Eggs we got from the other grandfather who had a chicken coop. But there were no musicians, no artists, no galleries, and dancing happened only on special occasions such as weddings. I went to a small kindergarten school in town and there I displayed a knack for drawing. Everybody was excited about it but as soon as grade school came around (a small boy’s school led by Franciscans), drawing wasn’t part of the curriculum any more. Art, or anything cultural, was not deemed appropriate for young boys to engage in. My family’s living room graced one painting on the wall. It was a depiction of a raggedy looking gypsy boy holding a guitar with a tear in his eye. That the boy was a gypsy you couldn’t tell but I just knew. Some other families also had a similar painting on their wall. My cultural experience then, in my formative years, was formed around those gypsy paintings, and the notion that gypsies made music. They were the proverbial “other”, they were exuberant, they liked glitter and gold, played music and they danced wildly to it. We learned to live by the opposite, that sobriety and restraint were virtues, while self-indulgence and exuberance were vices. In the late 70s things were starting to change rapidly in town, but I believe that I still was one of the first local boys who pursued a college degree and moved to the big city. There I learned that that those gypsy paintings, synonymous with art in general for me, weren’t art at all, but rather kitsch. More importantly I learned that the gypsies were people just like you and me. The above painting is copied from an image of a painting similar in character as I could have encountered in my home town in the 60s. The song it illustrates is Elmegyek, elmegyek, sung and performed by a group of Hungarian Rom people from Transylvania.

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