The Roma Gypsies

A portfolio by Andrew Miksys, Slate’s artist of the month.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a wholesale rejection of the symbols of communism. The first to go was the wooden ideological language of the Party. The dustbin of history received a fresh supply of phrases and words, such as “the five-year plan,” “the golden future of humanity,” “party discipline,” “healthy social origin.” The names of newspapers, streets, and buildings were also relegated to this capacious bin. I saw a high-school friend of mine in Romania in the process of purging her doctoral thesis of socialist buzzwords and quotations from Communist ideologues; she had been caught by the collapse of the regime a few days before delivering her work and she worked furiously at picking the suddenly obsolete clichés out of her text like anchovies off a pizza. In the end, she gave up the whole thesis because, as it turned out, there wasn’t much there after the politically correct armature had been removed. While it was relatively easy for most people born and raised in the socialist epoch to discard bits of language, it wasn’t so easy to get rid of the physical remains of the dead empire.

These remains surround Andrew Miksys’ subjects with silent stubbornness. A boy in the Superman shirt is throwing a rock at a wall that may be vintage cement, dating to a time when “Cement” was capitalized, as one of the sacred materials of Stalinism. On the other hand, the wall could surround the looming church, which predates communism. The other boy is holding a grate that could have come from an old workers’ apartment building or some demolished structure of unknown origin. The piles of bricks announce future construction. The children are playing in a transitional world, one that is still full of the stolid objects of the past, and one that is arriving in the form of new buildings. The materials of the past and those of the future are seemingly identical: The only thing that differentiates them is the attitude of the child wrapped in his Superman flag, throwing a defiant rock at the wall. The other child, holding the grate, isn’t so sure. Maybe he’s waiting to see what effect the first rock throw will have before he hurls something at the wall.

The capitalist West in the guise of T-shirts and blue jeans has barely touched Andrew’s Roma subjects. There is an irony here not immediately evident to even the most astute readers of recent history: namely, that the Roma were among the first Soviet citizens who were able to smuggle Western goods during socialism, but that for all the exposure they had to these things both before and after the Soviet collapse, they remain some of the most traditionally minded people in the ex-Communist countries. Miksys allows objects to narrate history, and encourages the viewer to note the humor and ironies. He does not prettify or idealize his subjects, even though (or perhaps because) he loves them. Every photographer needs to gain his subjects’ trust and Miksys is a master of it. The teenage boy with his macho cigarette holding his seductive girlfriend has an air of mock aggression that seems to say, “I know what I’m holding here and you can’t (or can) have her.” The girl herself floats above both men in perfect awareness of her sexual powers.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, post-communism may have thrown a baby or two out with the bathwater. One of those things—immensely compromised by authority and censorship—was the so-called doctrine of “socialist-realism.” The technically skillful artists of “socialist-realism” were mandated by ideology to present their subjects in the clear light of good and evil, according to Stalin’s (changing) notion of it. In so doing, they sometimes achieved a heroic sublimity that transcended their mandate. It will be a long time before any art historian will have the stomach to view the multitude of objects produced under the auspices of this doctrine, but once past the valleys of Marxes, the rivers of Lenin faces, the mountains of Stalins, he or she may find something interesting: monumental clarity. Artists usually find what is useful about past art, and, if they are great, they use it. “Socialist-realist” art hasn’t yet revealed its new uses to anyone, with some exceptions. Christo is one of them: He puts monumentality and public effect to good use. Andrew Miksys, too, has found in the clarity and monumental banality of Soviet art something to meditate on. That’s another mark of greatness, in my book: a lack of fear. The people who pose for Andrew in these photographs expect something idealized and heroic from him. Whether or not they know it, their ideas of art were formed by “socialist-realism.” In seemingly granting them their wish, Miksys does something of a triple somersault: He quotes their ideas back to them without offending them while he makes the multiple ironies accessible to everyone, including his subjects.

—Andrei Codrescu

To purchase a copy of Andrew Miksys’ book of photographs about the Lithuanian Roma, click here.