The Stranger Within: challenging stereotypes

The British Gypsy could be viewed as the stranger within, or as German Sociologist Georg Simmel described, a ‘Stranger in society from elsewhere’: a people who settled among other inhabitants, though were treated with suspicion and ignorance as they represented an exotic other that was difficult for many to understand.

To address such ignorance the Queer the Pier (QTP) curation team wanted to utilise Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ in the exhibition. As Community Curator leading research and content for queer Roma inclusion, I collaborated with internationally acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova, LGBTIQ+ Artists and workshop participants. Applying the theoretical framework of intersectionality; understanding that as both queer and part of the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller community, the participants created responses that challenge stereotypes and discrimination across these interconnected social categories.

I had the privilege to work on this project due to my own Romany heritage. My great-grandmother, Rhoda Wells (1897-1982) was a Romany Gypsy living in the New Forest, Hampshire. She met and eventually married my great-grandfather, Ralph Cuttriss Hinkins (1882-1952), when he and his father, my great, great-grandfather, Francis Robert ‘Frank’ Hinkins (1852-1934) befriended the Gypsy families. They spent many years periodically travelling with the Gypsies across the South of England. Many of the Hinkins clan were appalled by Frank and Ralph. It resulted in a distancing within family circles.

Frank was a photographer and illustrator. In 1915, father and son published, Romany Life: experienced and observed during many years of friendly intercourse with the Gypsies under the nom de plume Frank Cuttris. This book is still available in paperback, published by Echo Library.

The Keep holds three lantern slides attributed to Frank all circa 1915 of portraits of travelling people.

Decolonisation of objects in museums is imperative to inclusion. The LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsy and Traveller workshop collaboration sort to re-interpret the museum’s problematic Victorian ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’. The object perpetuated a stereotype of Roma culture through the stylisation of the machine’s human figure and the misspelling of ‘Gipsy’ with and ‘i’, not a ‘y’. Reaching out to a continually persecuted community, participants were welcome into a safe space within the museum to produce drawn and written responses to the machine. A theme emerged of colourful images reflecting the Romani flag, the Rainbow flag and the use of positive language. Romani – the Roma language has filtered through Cockney English and Polari (which was adopted into gay subculture to secretly communicate). Familiar words; clobber (clothes), minge (vagina) and chavi (child/friend, now used as derogative) originate from Romani, Cant or Argot languages.

Developing ideas from the workshop, Delaine Le Bas created beautiful contemporary fortune cards with positive messages (£1 in the slot, a card is yours). In her words, ‘Fortune Telling is an intimate form of communication between people, it requires close contact physically and mentally in its true form.’ She continues, ‘for me in particular coming from such a demonised community I refuse to respond in a negative way.’

Queer the Pier exhibition. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Fortune Telling Card by Delaine Le Bas. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

I edited the accompanying free takeaway Zine that addresses stereotypes. It includes the following; “Gypsiness” is a term to describe the phenomenon of dissociation where over time Gypsy identity becomes abstracted and separated from the people themselves. Through images and literature, the dominant culture dictates the representation of a marginal group, in this case Gypsies. Stereotypes of Gypsy women have been perpetuated by figures such as Vita Sackville-West, who invented Romany ancestry for herself on her Spanish side of her family to explain her ‘bohemian behaviour,’ (lesbian lovers).

Academic Dr Lucie Fremlova’s post doctorial collaboration with LGBTIQ+ Roma Artists has produced powerful images that break down and challenge the dominant representation of queer Roma people. Photographs that were created during a one-week workshop in Brighton have been printed in the Zine. An image of one of the Roma artists by the Palace Pier’s ‘Zoltar Fortune Telling Machine,’ accompanies the text for the Victorian machine. It is a powerful reminder that stereotypes are still interlaced with contemporary arcade amusements.

Queer the Pier exhibition. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ Royal Pavilion & Museums Collection. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

Delaine Le Bas pays tribute in the Zine to her Uncle Eddie who moved to Brighton in the mid 1960s with his partner Peter. She acknowledges that their lives had not been easy being Romani and gay, but Delaine states that Eddie and Peter taught her the importance of being yourself and that love should be unconditional.

City based organisation Friends, Families and Travellers a leading national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, provided support and contacts for this project. This led to contact with Roma poet Lois Brookes-Jones who beautifully weaved Romani and English words into a poem expressing lesbian desire especially for the Zine.

It is my sincere hope that this project engagement with LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsies and Travellers will foster less suspicion and ignorance to ‘strangers within.’ Museum staff were fantastically supportive in encouraging an ignored community through its doors.

A thought; is it not ironic that a people so rich in its own creative arts, music and culture is never fully appreciated within the institutions that claim to be custodians of our material culture? Perhaps we have an opportunity now to re-address that.

Outreach: Friends, Family and Travellers   Traveller Pride

1 Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers, Insiders, outsiders and others: Gypsies and identity (Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008)

Queer the Pier Online

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Lisa Hinkins, MA Student, Museum Gallery Explainer and artist.

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