b. 1933, Kraubath an der Mur, Austria; d. 2013, Vienna, Austria
22 works on paper and cardboard, 1996–2011
Courtesy of Hojda Stojka, Vienna and Galerie Kai Dikhas, Berlin
There is something remarkable about the paintings referencing the Porrajmos (the Romani term for the persecution and extermination of the Roma people during the Nazi regime) that Ceija Stojka started to produce almost fifty years after living through that traumatic experience. Critics never fail to point out the power and vitality, and even a certain joyfulness in being alive – or rather, staying alive – in her portrayals of the horror experienced, remembered and recounted in her drawings and texts. Some Roma scholars use the term ‘biophilia’ to refer to this cultural trait of attachment to life no matter what. For our purposes here, we would like to emphasise the political nature of Stojka’s testimonies, which rely less on memory – on witnessing, we could say – than on the desire to bring to light the experience of the persecution and extermination of the Roma, which has often been silenced.
This political aspect gives her testimony a certain uniqueness in comparison with other ‘witnesses’. It is not just about personal memory, but about building a collective memory of what happened. As such, classifying her work as primitivist or amateur is meaningless, given that the evident expressive talent of her drawing is accompanied by the constructivist desire to create memory. The political power of this sum of expressionism and constructivism is beyond question. Her work as a collector of musical memory, of the songs of the Porrajmos, is interesting in this sense, because her paintings and drawings are also somewhat compilatory in nature: the combination, for example, of the fury and colour of the barbed-wire fences at Bergen-Belsen and the ‘carpet seller’ wisdom that those who knew her well always remarked upon. Indeed, in her drawings there is an extraordinary circulation of narrative, of story – more Scheherazade than Primo Levi – which is the main tool used by the Roma to face the weight of history.
Ceija Stojka was a musician, poet and painter from a Lovara Roma community that had been living in Austria since the start of the modern age. In 1933 her family was forced to settle and abandon its nomadic lifestyle, and this large family suffered the Nazi genocide after the National Socialist annexation of Austria. During the Porrajmos Stojka was interred in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated by the British Army when she was just twelve years old.